With a well established and deserved reputation as a dangerous place for cycling, Manatee County remains a long way from becoming a bicycle-friendly community. The Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization began pedaling in that direction by establishing a bicycle/pedestrian/trails advisory committee. Meeting for the first time this week, the 17-member panel will concentrate on making streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians.
Major arterials such as Cortez Boulevard and Manatee Avenue West rank as vehicular race tracks too narrow for all but the most death-defying bicyclists. Many older neighborhoods lack sidewalks, much less bike lanes on streets. Safe biking routes are difficult if not impossible to map.
The nonprofit Sarasota Manatee Bicycle Club, founded in 1974, stages recreational rides regularly, with routes detailed on its website. The 51-mile downtown Bradenton to Longboat Key and back ride holds this prudent, capitalized precaution for a small section of Manatee Avenue: STAY ON SIDEWALK.
While infrastructure challenges await the advisory committee, educational ones abound as well. Too many motorists remain ignorant of state laws protecting bicyclists, and too many bicyclists violate basic traffic laws.
The MPO’s mission statement is a tongue-twister: “to develop a future plan, through cooperation with our member governments and the general public, for a safe, efficient, financially feasible, environmentally sensitive, regional, integrated multi-modal transportation system that supports sustainable, livable communities and economic development.”
Bicycling and walking are key elements in that mission. Safe environments are critical to any success.
Policy changes are one route to creating those, through land use codes and zoning ordinances. For example, local governments could encourage and even require under certain circumstances the development of bicycle lanes and sidewalks in street construction for new projects and neighborhoods. Street resurfacing projects should include bike lanes, too, helping connect older neighborhoods.
Studies have shown that communities with transportation systems that champion cycling and walking also reduce traffic congestion and pollution, promote economic and personal health, and improve the overall quality of life.
The Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, under the funding umbrella of the U.S. Department of Transportation, offers a wealth of information on strategies for communities to establish safer biking environments.
The League of American Bicyclists issues annual Bicycle Friendly America rankings for states and communities. Florida has risen from No. 32 in 2009 to No. 7 in 2011. Gainesville, St. Petersburg, Orlando, Tallahassee and Boca Raton earn the highest marks. With the MPO’s new leadership on this issue, one day we hope to see Bradenton on this list.