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Backpedaling: Burlington Residents Challenge Plans for More Bike Lanes

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LUKE EASTMAN
  • Luke Eastman

Burlington landlord Jill Diemer was cleaning up her Old North End property in June when she picked up a scrap of paper. It was a discarded flyer that had been distributed to neighborhood homes highlighting coming changes: 10 parking spots on one-way North Union Street, where she rents out three buildings, would be eliminated to make way for a bike lane.

It was the first Diemer had heard of the plan — and she wasn't happy. She notified other landlords and was one of many who railed against the lane during a crowded Public Works Commission meeting July 19.

"I'm not against a livable, bikeable, walkable city," Diemer told the commission. "I feel it's too much asking for 10 spaces to be taken away on North Union." Diemer, who has rented to college students and young professionals for almost 20 years, objected to the process. "Property owners and landlords and tenants were left out."

Laurie Smith, another landlord at the hearing, called the bike lane "very detrimental" and worried that it would "create unnecessary hardship for the residents."

Everyone opposed to the project said they supported making Burlington a bike-friendly city — just not there.

The bike lane has been two years in the making. It's part of what's been dubbed the Old North End greenway, sometimes referred to as "the Wiggle" because it was designed to provide a zigzagging east-west biking route along quiet, residential streets between Battery Park and the University of Vermont campus. It also marked an initial step in the city's planBTV Walk Bike master plan, a long-term vision for Burlington's 95 miles of streets and 130 miles of sidewalks that would, in a decade, more than triple the number of bike lanes in the Queen City.

Overwhelmingly, Burlingtonians say they support the two-wheel travel lanes. The number of residents commuting by bike quadrupled between 2000 and 2013, according to statistics from a city survey included in the 233-page master plan. Even so, in 2015, two-thirds of 540 respondents said that they don't bicycle in Burlington because they don't feel safe.

But when the rubber hits the road, it gets a bit bumpy, as a recent bike lane pilot program on North Avenue showed. Opponents of the 0.8-mile lane bemoaned the longer drive times they experienced with fewer car travel lanes. Proponents, meanwhile, hailed statistics that showed car crashes had decreased while the temporary lanes were in place.

The Burlington City Council voted 10-2 on July 10 to keep those lanes in place — a decision that frustrated some residents.

"The Wiggle" controversy showed that bike-lane backlash isn't confined to any one neighborhood. People filled the room at the Department of Public Works' Pine Street offices as Old North End property owners and three city councilors urged the commission on July 19 to hold off on a vote. They expressed concerns about the loss of parking spaces, criticized what they called a confusing approval process for bike lanes and quibbled over who can claim preeminent rights to the road.

Despite it all, the commission decided 4-3 to move forward with the vote, and then approved the project by a 6-1 tally. In a compromise, the DPW vowed to create at least eight parking spaces within four blocks of North Union. The 1.2-mile bike lane will be in place by the end of September.

One project down, dozens more to go. The city's long-term list includes 45 initiatives, ranging from multiyear street improvements to better signs. According to the DPW, this year's agenda includes a bike greenway on Lakeview Terrace, stretches of bike lanes on Pearl and Pine streets, and improvements to Riverside Avenue. There are also less-extensive projects for biking and walking safety: traffic-calming tools such as speed bumps, curb extensions and road markings.

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Big projects down the road include biking improvements along Battery, Pine and Main streets, North and South Winooski avenues, and Shelburne Road.

The master plan marks a "paradigm shift" in the way that the city addresses transportation, said Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2), a vocal bike-lane advocate who regularly arrives at council meetings with his bike helmet in hand. Tracy was "incredibly pleased" by the final project plans.

When the city council approved the master plan in April, it effectively ceded control of such projects to the DPW. Now, the department can create bike lanes without council authorization, though it needs approval from the Public Works Commission when there's a loss of parking or another significant change.

That process is typical for infrastructure projects, but it worries some council members. Council President Jane Knodell (P-Central District) voted for the master plan, but "the devil is in the details," she said.

As of 2015, 12 percent of Burlington streets — about 11.9 miles — had a bike lane. The master plan would nearly quadruple those numbers — to 45 percent and 43 miles — by 2026. To reach the goal, officials estimate that funding must increase from $1.5 million annually for bike and walk infrastructure to more than $2.5 million a year.

"One of our goals with planBTV Walk Bike is action," said DPW senior planner Nicole Losch, who was charged with enacting the changes. For the department, she said, that means "trying to implement quickly with low-cost materials."

Not everyone is ready for such drastic change.

The emphasis on biking seems "counterintuitive," said Burlington resident Cory Cowles. He's in favor of walking and biking generally but said the logistics are tricky. Vermont's winters make it impossible to commute year-round by bike — "except for the most die-hard person," Cowles said.

Chapin Spencer, Burlington's DPW director, acknowledged that cycling concerns eat up a lot of his time, though on-street biking improvements make up less than 1 percent of the capital budget.

He's done his best to be transparent, he said: DPW staff did distribute flyers in the North Union neighborhood — twice — and solicited feedback online. The DPW is also hiring a public information officer to provide better public outreach, Spencer added.

"It's been hard on us, and on the community, to have some of those conversations," he said.

Is the dissent just NIMBYism? No, say those who will have lanes installed along their properties. Bike lanes, generally speaking, are "a great idea," said North Union landlord Jon Pizzagalli. But the first question potential tenants ask when he shows apartments is where they can park, he said.

The city will lose about 500 downtown parking spaces when the Burlington Town Center garage is razed later this year. The redevelopment will include 960 parking spaces once it's completed in 2020.

A lack of downtown parking leads North Union tenants to look for spots farther afield. "It's kind of a domino effect on people," said North Union landlord Laura Waters, who called herself an "avid bicyclist" but one concerned about the influx of bike lanes.

Despite her vote for the master plan, Knodell, too, urged the Public Works Commission to slow down. She told the commission that she would ask for a reassessment of properties affected by parking changes.

"I walked away feeling like they hadn't really listened to the people that were directly affected," Knodell, whose district includes the North Union residents, said after the meeting. "What is the big rush here?"

For many biking and walking enthusiasts, though, it's full speed ahead.

Jason Van Driesche, director of the cycling advocacy group Local Motion, is ready to undo "80 years of car-centric planning." The organization — which has 1,200 members who have donated in the last year — promotes projects, educates cyclists and makes its voice heard at public meetings.

Van Driesche wants "a better balance" but dismisses any suggestions of a car-bike battle for the streets. "It makes me cringe when people say we need to get people out of their cars," he said. "That's presumptuous."

DPW Director Spencer is familiar to cycling advocates. He founded Local Motion in 1999 and served as executive director until Mayor Miro Weinberger named him to the DPW post in 2013.

Councilor Dave Hartnett (D-North District) worries that Spencer's past bike advocacy leads him to favor cyclists' positions in his current role and called it "a huge conflict of interest."

Spencer "believes in the [Local Motion] agenda," Hartnett said. "I'm really close to asking Chapin to resign."

Spencer noted that Local Motion is one of multiple organizations that the department works with. He's no longer affiliated with the group.

Weinberger defended his DPW director. "He has my full support," Weinberger wrote in a statement. "Questioning Chapin's past relationship with Local Motion distracts us from an important and legitimate debate of the transportation policies that I and the large majority of the council are supporting."

A walk-bike implementation committee, an advisory group convened by Local Motion and the DPW, is helping to enact the master plan. Its members, bike buffs all, met in city hall last Thursday to talk cycling.

One member had his own solution for the battle for city streets: Get rid of all parking, suggested RJ Lalumiere — only half joking. But that's a no-go, he said with a rueful smile; the opposition "would raise holy heck over that."

Hartnett would count himself as a member of the opposition. He was outspoken against the North Avenue bike lanes and was one of two councilors to vote no on the master plan. "We made the argument that the city councilors don't really know what's in this plan," he said.

Knodell, for her part, wants more council oversight. On August 7, she'll present two resolutions. The first asks that any removal of parking spaces within a mile of Burlington Town Center be put on hold while the mall —and its new parking garage — is redeveloped.

The second resolution requests that the Public Works Commission share with the council their process for upcoming projects: "Who gets notified, how will you analyze the impact on parking, potentially adverse impacts," Knodell said.

At the commission meeting, Van Driesche noted that the stakes are getting higher. If observers thought the North Union project was contentious, just wait: Other projects will require greater parking sacrifices, he said.

"There's simply no way around it," Van Driesche told the commission. "This is actually a pretty easy decision compared to what's coming down the road."

Update, August 3, 2017: This story has been corrected to reflect the Public Works Commission's vote tally on the North Union Street project.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Backpedaling: Queen City Residents Challenge Plans for More Bike Lanes"

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