Despite Bumps, Winooski Traffic Lane Pilot Rolls Forward | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Despite Bumps, Winooski Traffic Lane Pilot Rolls Forward

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Weaver Street in Winooski - DON EGGERT
  • Don Eggert
  • Weaver Street in Winooski

Leonard Gregory sat on his front stoop on Winooski's hilly Weaver Street last Friday and eyeballed the fresh white paint marking a bike lane the city had officially rolled out just that morning. The change had already generated controversy.

"Myself, I think it's a good idea," Gregory said evenly. He doesn't bike but believes it makes sense to designate a portion of the street for cyclists, especially children who often ride to school. "It's a big improvement," he said.

The eight-foot-wide trial bike lane is a mile long. It's taking over the parking lane on the west side of Weaver, which normally has spots on both sides. The pilot project will last just 10 days, until June 10. But even that was too long for critics who worried that the "pop-up" lane would reduce street parking at St. Francis Xavier Church and make the street more difficult for cars to navigate.

The original plan showed "no understanding" of where elderly and handicapped parishioners park for church, said Robin McCormick, a parishioner who helped organize a meeting with city officials after the plan emerged. The project seemed to have been drafted without any input from parishioners, including seniors who attend mass daily, she said, and "that didn't feel good.''

In response to critics, Winooski officials excluded the block that runs along St. Francis Xavier from the path and said parishioners could park the length of the street for church events.

Were city officials surprised by the controversy?

"No, we weren't, just because any time that we are eliminating parking we know that there's going to be some opposition,'' said Jon Rauscher, director of Winooski's Public Works Commission. And the whole point of the experiment is to get feedback before doing anything permanent, he added.

The kerfuffle, which has played out at public meetings and in heated posts on Front Porch Forum over the last two weeks, is the latest skirmish in the turf war between cycling advocates pushing for safer routes and motorists who don't want to relinquish parking spaces and driving lanes. The controversy echoes the heated one that played out for months over Burlington's North Avenue, where a bike lane edged out a vehicular lane — first temporarily, and then permanently — despite the howls of some drivers.

Some Winooski motorists griped about the new lane on the city's Facebook page, saying it hogged space needed for cars. Vented one: "Come on Winooski, let's get rid of this project."

The bike lane experiment grew out of a study for a proposed $23 million redevelopment of Winooski's upper Main Street, which is often choked with traffic. That plan does not call for a protected bike lane, so as an alternative planners decided to explore new cycling options on Weaver, a quieter street parallel to Main.

Many cyclists already use Weaver as opposed to Main. "There's less traffic, and you don't have to sit next to dump trucks and stuff," said Bill Lockwood, an avid cyclist who splits his time between Burlington and Winooski.

Before the trial began, city employees gathered information on traffic volume and speed on Weaver. They are taking new measures during the pilot to track how many cyclists use the new lane and to see if cars slow down.

These data will be used for further study of whether to make the bike lane permanent, to be conducted with assistance from the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission. The Burlington-based cycling advocacy organization Local Motion has been involved as a design consultant and has offered traffic cones and other equipment. Grants are being tapped for study and design, and the pilot's cost to the city is only about $300 for the road paint, Rauscher said. It's temporary and will wash away.

Once the study is complete, the city will solicit public comment and decide whether to make the lane permanent, Rauscher said. There is no time line.

On the street Tuesday, a few days into the experiment, residents offered mixed views. Charles Dowling noted that even before the lane was painted, a passing car had knocked the side-view mirror off his parked car. He supports bike lanes in general but said Weaver may be too narrow.

Reba Darling worried about losing parking, especially since people who want to avoid downtown meters favor the free parking on Weaver, making those spots scarce. Still, Darling supports the concept of bike lanes and suggested that resident-only parking might be wise if the pilot becomes permanent.  

The lane already had won a thumbs-up from some cyclists. Jake Hohmann pedaled up Weaver last Friday, although not in the designated bike lane, partly because parked cars obstructed it in places. (The city is not ticketing people for parking there during the pilot.)

The self-employed engineer, a recent transplant to Burlington from Boulder, Colo., rides four times a week. The Burlington area doesn't seem to have as many bike lanes or cyclists as Boulder, noted Hohmann. "I like that they are trying to promote bike lanes and biking," he said. "It's good for the environment and for people's health."

Liz Wolf, who lives at the intersection of Weaver and Stevens streets, rides regularly to her job four miles away at Burlington's Rock Point School, even in the winter. "When I saw the lines go up, I actually couldn't even believe it," she said. "I was so thrilled."

But Lockwood offered several criticisms. Among them: The dotted line down the center of the lane, dividing bike traffic, is unnecessary, he said. He was glad the city had not installed bollards, flexible plastic posts, as a physical barrier from cars. Lockwood doesn't like that approach, which is being used in a trial on a stretch of North Union Street in Burlington. Snowplows and street sweepers have trouble clearing the lane, he said, and it gets cluttered with snow, leaves, trash and broken glass that punctures bike tires.

"I don't like protected lanes," Lockwood said. "They are protected from being clean.''

The Weaver Street project is Winooski's only bike infrastructure experiment in the foreseeable future, according to Rauscher.

"It's a trial," reminded Wolf. "It's like a first draft."

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