Monday, January 11, 2010

Coeur d Alene: Safety Fail, No Saftey in Numbers for Bike/Peds

Over the weekend I was hit by a car, and it provides me with a good opportunity to talk about safety in numbers that cyclists and pedestrians create and how streetscapes and development patterns contribute to safety.

Let me setup what happened. I took the Greyhound from Missoula to Coeur d' Alene (CDA) Saturday morning to visit my folks. There is no physical transfer station in CDA, rather the bus drops you off at a gas station that sits at the corner of a large intersection (Ramesy and Appleway) where two four-lane arterials meet (total of 22 lanes at the intersection).

Anyway, the bus dropped me off at a different location than the Greyhound website gave for the (nonexistent) station. My father was coming to pick me up, but since he doesn't have a cell phone there was no way to get a hold of him, so I decided to walk north along the western side of Ramsey to find a good place to wave him down as he came to pick me up.

Two blocks later I was crossing the intersection below, which is an old picture as the intersection now has a four-way light, within the cross walk while a car was waiting for an opening to turn right-on-red. I walked out in front of his car, attempting to make eye contact because I could sense he was ready to hit the gas to make an opening, but he was looking the other direction. Needless to say he hit the gas and ran right into me. Luckily he immediately stopped and I wasn't hurt other than a small bruise on my leg.

This incident got me thinking how ridiculous the incident was. Living in Missoula, I have walked hundreds, perhaps even a thousand miles around town over the course of seven years. In that time I have never been hit by a car... I don't even remember having a close call. But here I am, back in the town I grew up in, and five minutes after stepping off the bus I am hit be a car.

The whole time I lived in CDA, I never once got around by walking or biking, rather the only real way to get around is by car. Seven years of walking in Missoula = no problem, five minutes of walking in CDA = getting hit by a car. Missoula and CDA are also fairly close in terms of population size.

Why is this? Because of not only the streetscape that dominates in CDA (suburban arterials with speeds above 35 mph) but also the development pattern that essentially forced those types of roadways to be built.

You can see these patterns at play in the photo of CDA below. I have highlighted all the four lane arterials (red corresponding to suburban arterial design and yellow representing four lane roads with an urban character). CDA is a maze of suburban subdivisions that are only connected to the wider community through the use of a lot of arterials. Only a small portion of CDA (which also includes the towns of Dalton Gardens, Hayden, and Hayden Lake) actually has a street network laid out in a grid. This pattern results in a very spread out population with very low densities (Dalton Gardens is zoned at 1 house/acre).

Because people have to drive everywhere and there are almost no pedestrians or cyclists, the motorists don't look out for these types of people. Those whom do walk or bike are mostly a working-poor underclass -except for the roadies - that most suburbanites don't spend any time thinking of between trips to Starbucks, work, and dropping the kids off at soccer practice.

Now contrast this with Missoula (a photo with the same types of streets highlighted can be seen below). The bulk of Missoula is based on a grid system and subdivisions with a suburban character only exist at the fringes of the town. Not only that, but the most of the four lane roads that Missoula does have exist within areas that are urban in character (higher densities, tree lined streets, sidewalks, smaller lot setbacks, and slower speeds). The four lane suburban arterials are located again mostly at the edges of Missoula and so cyclists and pedestrians can largely avoid these roads by choosing quieter streets.

Also consider the the geographic distance these two photos show. The photo of Missoula covers most of the town and most of the town's population. The photo is 3.5 miles x 3.5 miles while the photo of CDA shows an area 7.5 miles x 7.5 miles that leaves out a considerable amount of development to the north. Missoula's compact nature encourages alternative transportation simply through its shorter distances.

The higher densities, shorter distances, and more welcoming streetscape encourages people to walk and bike. In much of the central part of Missoula you can't go more than a couple of blocks without seeing another pedestrian or cyclist. Just the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists using Missoula streets makes motorists more aware of them and creates a situation where motorists must constantly be on the lookout. This creates a Safety in Numbers phenomenon whereby the more cyclists and pedestrians out on the roads, the less absolute fatalities and crash cars have with cyclists and pedestrians.

Describing what had happened, even my very conservative father understood the relationship between development patterns, streets, and mode of travel. In his opinion, and I have to agree with him, CDA is a town that will never see a lot of people walking, biking, or using transit simply because the towns infrastructure makes those options economically difficult and even dangerous.


Coeur d'Alene Ped/Bike Committee said...

It's unfortunate that you were hit by a car, but even in the most bicycle friendly cities, like Davis or Portland, accidents can happen. And although we are not anywhere near those two cities in terms of bike friendliness, we are much further along than you give us credit for. A lot has happened in terms of bicycle and pedestrian improvements in this city in the seven years that you have lived elsewhere. We now have nearly 40 miles of class 1 trails and 16 miles of bike lanes. We have large numbers of cyclists and pedestrians on our trails in all weather....even winter. Our bike lane network is expanding, but we still have some problem areas, but hopefully not for long. We were voted a bicycle friendly community 2 years ago and have thousands of cyclists and pedestrians on our roads and trails. We just adopted a complete street policy and we are nearing the end of an extensive trails and bikeways master plan (the county is doing one as well). The ped/bike aspect of this community has changed immensely in the past several years. We are a more spread out community, but many, many people commute anyway. I work for the City as the Community Trails Coordinator and I spend everyday studying ways to improve this city's bicycle infrastructure and organizing and encouraging non-motorized transportation. Our updated trails map and proposed trails map are available on our website at We still have a long way to go, but this article paints us as a bike hating community, when in reality we are not. I respectfully disagree with the premise that we will never be bike friendly. If you would like to discuss our trails and bikeways or have any suggestions feel free to contact me at

Paul Johnson said...

I'd avoid CDA if only for the overwhelmingly creepiness of it. Getting off the freeway to get on US2 heading for Canada, the first sign after leaving the freeway said "STOP NIGGERS," folks were picketing the WalMart with signs carrying bible verses deliberately taken out of context to sound racist, and then there was The Compound. I have no idea what the speed limit was on that arterial, but between those two things, I figured it was no place to be a 20-year-old white boy with Oregon plates. Did you know a Kia Sportage can go 0-80 in 20 seconds flat?

CarFree Stupidity said...

Thanks for your input CDA Bike/Ped Committee, and for making this conversation interesting.

I stand by my assessment of how development, land use patterns, street design, and the arterial system in CDA contribute to a situation that discourages people from riding bikes or walking. After taking a look at the resources you cited, I agree that CDA has seen many improvements, and that your office is doing a great job to improve things in CDA, but over that same time I'm sure that traffic counts have increased more than bike/ped counts and I feel pretty safe in assuming that even if bicycle trips were increased three times over, bike trips would still be below 1% of all trips. While I haven't lived in CDA full time since 2002, I have spent three/four summers there working, so I feel comfortable with what I have written. Also, in my experience on the roadways of CDA, most cyclists that I have encountered were recreational cyclists, which have very different needs than people riding bikes for transportation

Off street paths (class 1) can do a lot to promote alternative transportation, especially in an environment such as CDA. But they can't go everywhere and are limited in their ability to connect people with were they want to go on a daily basis. When it comes to large four lane arterials with high speeds, most people walking or biking will avoid these areas. There are many studies out there (and streetsblog is a great source to find these, or even the book Pedalling Revolution) that show that people do not feel comfortable walking or cycling along such roadways. The problem in CDA is that so much of the commercial activity that attracts people to make trips are along the Gov't Way, Highway 95, Ramsey corridor which creates a large barrier for walkers and cyclists.
A street such as Ramsey would have to be completely redisgned to allow people to feel safe and effectively promote biking and walking along that road.

The biggest thing CDA could do to make biking and walking safer and to get more people using active transportation would be to reduce speed (along arterials) and traffic counts, of course I imagine that wont happen any time soon. I'm sure downtown CDA has seen a massive change in how people get around with all the redevelopment that has happened, but even so, CDA's low density, spread out subdivisions, and arterial transportation system will keep active transportation a very small part of total trips.

Jeremy said...

Glad you weren't injured.

As I noted in streetsblog, right turn on red is a terrible policy disaster. It's a small part of a culture that attempts to make driving as easy as possible, and so what about pedestrians.

Paul Johnson said...

I'm not sure "right turn on red" is the policy disaster so much as how easy it is to get a driver's license, compared to how difficult it is to get it revoked or suspended.

JFW said...

"Coeur d'Alene Ped/Bike Committee said...
It's unfortunate that you were hit by a car, but even in the most bicycle friendly cities, like Davis or Portland, accidents can happen....". >>>
But when places are developed for car dominance, as Lewis describes CdA, there are no "accidents"; they are crashes and collisions, absolutely attributed to our delusional collective devotion to fossil fuels and consumerism. Let's keep pounding your heads against the wall to get those few crumbs of bikeways, trails and sidewalks; what it's really going to take is a re-alignment of our values and much more modest (material) expectations of what the american way of life really should be.

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