Ambitious bike lane network key part of Waco’s long-term transit plan

From the Getting There series
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MAP: Proposed Waco bike lanes and routes

DeShauna Hollie and Eric Martin are proud members of Waco’s 0.3 percent.

They are bicycle commuters, living in a city that until recently has given little thought to their needs. They’re also the kind of people local transportation planners are hoping to see more of.

Martin lives near downtown and uses the new mile-long bike lanes on Fourth and Fifth streets to get to his job teaching history and philosophy at Baylor University. He can get from his apartment at Cameron Heights to his office door in less than 10 minutes, less time than taking a car, he says. And the bike lanes make a big difference in the experience, he said.

“I usually feel very safe. My commute is one of the very best parts of my day,” he said. “It’s the perfect transition between work and home.”

Hollie, 33, doesn’t own a car and gets around town instead on her bike and public transit. Her two-wheeled commute from her home near West Elementary School to her job as an infant-toddler teacher at Talitha Koum Institute, 1311 Clay Ave., takes about 10 minutes.

“Cars are expensive,” she said. “I don’t think I could afford to have a car, but it’s for environmental reasons also. I’ve never owned a car and never wanted to own a car. I’m a firm believer in alternative transportation.”

Hollie and Martin are among a cadre of cyclists who have been attending meetings on Connections 2040, the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 25-year transportation plan. And, so far, they like what they see.

The plan calls for a multi-city system of bicycle lanes and routes that would cost $22.5 million during the next 25 years. Some $8.8 million would be spent in the coming decade.

The plan, which includes highways, public transit, sidewalks and possibly intercity passenger rail, is up for public comment through the end of February. The map of the bike network was developed with input from cycling advocates including the Heart of Texas Safe Roads Coalition.

The bicycle infrastructure would account for only 2.2 percent of the $1 billion plan, but it’s by far the most ambitious bicycle program Waco has ever considered.

Funds evaporating

The bike proposal comes at a time when state funding is drying up and major road projects are being scaled back. Most of the money for the system would have to come from local sources. But MPO director Chris Evilia said bike lanes are a relatively cheap alternative to building roads, and they are a start to creating a less car-dependent community.

“If we’re successful at getting this network in, it goes a long way toward making our community a lot more connected, especially for those for whom an automobile is probably beyond their means,” he said.

The map for 10-year improvements shows continuous bike lanes along key streets in Waco, such as North 25th, 17th and 18th streets, Bosque Boulevard, Elm Avenue, Herring Avenue, MacArthur Drive, Lake Air Drive and part of New Road. Lanes would be installed on Franklin and Washington avenues and Fourth and Fifth streets as part of a project to convert them to two-way streets.

In the long range, lanes could also be added to busy roads such as Valley Mills Drive, Hewitt Drive and Imperial Drive.

The map also shows “bike routes,” or corridors with signage for bicycles, leading out to China Spring, the South Bosque area, Hewitt, Woodway, Robinson, Bellmead and Lacy Lakeview.

In the past few years, the city of Waco has built bike lanes along the downtown section of Fourth and Fifth Streets and a few blocks of Washington Avenue, as well as Orchard Lane east of McLane Stadium. The city also has installed them on Panther Way as part of a widening project and along Park Lake Drive as part of a road improvement.

City officials estimate that bike lanes cost between $9 and $12 per foot to build. The 0.8-mile Orchard Lane project cost about $9.62 per foot, while the Fourth and Fifth street lanes cost only about $5 per foot.

Felix Landry, a Waco city planner who helped draw up the plan, said the lanes are much cheaper to install when they’re part of a road resurfacing project that’s already planned. He said it would probably take a bond election to be able to build a continuous network all at once.

“Most likely, we’ll have to do it piecemeal, pay-as-you-go,” he said.

City Manager Dale Fisseler said he supports developing a bike network, and including it in a bond election in a few years isn’t out of the question.

Landry said he would like to see the downtown bike lane network extend toward Cameron Park on Fourth Street, as well as across the river in East Waco and along Washington and Franklin avenues. He would also like to increase access to McLennan Community College with lanes along North 18th and 19th and an extension of the river trail past Brazos Park East to the Riverbend Park. Those projects are identified in the plan.

Landry said surveys in other cities indicate that 10 to 12 percent of residents would be willing to commute by bicycle if they had bicycle infrastructure such as lanes.

Landry said if that if Waco could achieve a bike commuting rate of 8 to 10 percent, it would make a “significant impact” on reducing the need for new roads.

That’s a big if, Landry acknowledges.

Census figures show that only 0.3 percent of Waco residents commute to work by bicycle, compared to 1 percent nationwide. Some small cities have much higher rates, such as Davis, Calif., with 18.6 percent. The highest rate among larger cities is Portland, Ore., at 6.8 percent, and the highest in Texas is Austin, with 1.5 percent.

Felix said he doesn’t know of a city comparable to Waco to use as a model.

“There’s no city like Waco economically and demographically that has a system of bike lanes like this,” he said.

Fort Worth’s plan

Fort Worth passed a bicycle plan in 2010 with a goal of increasing bike commuting from 0.2 to 0.6 percent. The city now has 31 miles of lanes and just passed a $1.26 million bond to build about 30 more miles of lanes, plus signs and bike racks.

Julia Ryan, senior planner for Fort Worth, said the goal of the bike initiative is to improve quality of life, not to reduce traffic and the need for roads.

“With the number of people living here and traveling here for jobs, I don’t think it makes a really big difference,” she said. “It’s a small percentage of trips. I do think in the downtown area, switching from vehicle trips to bike trips does have a savings in parking places, and in the evening and morning rush hours, it can make a difference.

“We won’t replace the car with bikes,” she said. “We just want to make sure we have a level playing field.”

Chris McGowan, urban development director for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, said bike infrastructure is an important element to redeveloping downtowns as a place to live, shop and work. He said many people in their 20s and 30s — the so-called “millennial generation” — want an urban lifestyle that doesn’t depend on driving everywhere.

“The thing about millennials is that they have lower incidences of drivers licenses,” he said. “They’re also delaying families and marriage and choosing close-in neighborhoods. . . . It’s truly reshaping cities all over the country.”

Eric Martin fits that pattern. He lives in Cameron Heights, a new cottage development on Bosque Boulevard that was designed for people who want a more urban lifestyle, and the bike lanes along Fourth and Fifth streets were an attraction for him.

Martin said that for him, cycling is part of a value system that includes living in the heart of town, staying healthy and avoiding wasted time in traffic.

“It’s a commitment of mine to live relatively close to work,” he said. “It’s just not fun to drive. For me, cycling is fun, and it’s also a great way to exercise.”

Martin, who has lived and cycled in various other places, including Colorado and London, said the heart of Waco is generally a pleasant and safe place to travel, especially with the new bike lanes.

But he said some parts of town feel dangerous for cyclists, especially Valley Mills Drive.

“For a lot of people who aren’t used to biking around automobiles or who need to get to places along Valley Mills, it would feel dangerous,” he said. “There are people biking right now, but I think there will be more when it feels like a safer thing to do.”

DeShauna Hollie agrees that the inner city of Waco is generally safe for cyclists, but she refuses to cross Valley Mills Drive. Her own 1.5-mile commute from North Waco to South Waco also has one tricky point, she said.

“I feel safe mostly, except at 15th and Waco Drive,” she said. “I’ve almost gotten hit by cars not signaling. There have been times when I’ve had to brake so hard I slipped off my bike.”

Hollie, 33, has lived in North Waco for most of her adult life and has never had a car, even when she was serving as guardian of four young nieces and nephews. She said she has even cycled to the H-E-B grocery store on North 19th Street, but without bike lanes, it’s a scary experience.

“So far, I’ve been able to make it work without a car, and if there were more dedicated bike lanes I would ride more places,” she said.

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