It’s an all-too-familiar sight for drivers in Mobile: a bicyclist riding at the edge of the road or, at times, in the center turn lane of a major thoroughfare. Traffic backs up without room for cars to skirt cautiously around the cyclist, and everyone’s nerves get a nice jangle until the moment passes. The cyclist remains braced for the continued onslaught of close-driving cars while automobile drivers may bemoan bikers blocking the road.
But for the most part, cyclists remain slaves to the existing infrastructure – or lack thereof.
“Mobile is, for a city this size, an ideal place to be biking. The distance from, say, beyond Schillinger and Cottage Hill to downtown is a reasonable distance to do. It’s not a reasonable ride though, and it could be,” biking enthusiast Scott Carter, a professor of mathematics at the University of South Alabama said.
Carter and many other bikers in the city often bike in an unsafe or unfriendly environment in an effort to enjoy what is otherwise a peaceful, healthy pastime. Though many claims have been made that bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure throughout the city will be improved upon and expanded, the question remains: when?
A not-so-fun fact to begin with: according to a recent study from Smart Growth America, an organization aimed at making “America’s neighborhoods great together,” Mobile leads the state in pedestrian deaths, with pedestrians making up an astounding 18.1 percent of traffic fatalities between 2003 and 2012.
Mobile isn’t the only city to blame, though. A highway safety plan prepared for the U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that nine Alabama cyclists were killed in 2012 alone, the most cycling deaths since 2007. In addition, the Alabama Department of Transportation reports that cycling injuries in traffic collisions steadily increased between 2009 and 2012, with more than 200 injuries statewide in both 2011 and 2012.
What about Mobile endangers pedestrians and cyclists? What could possibly account for these numbers? The lack of bike paths and lanes throughout the city certainly does, with a whopping one designated bike lane in the entire city.
The Mobile Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) compiled the Mobile County Bicentennial Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan in October 2011. One of the maps included in the study shows that there exists less than a mile’s worth of designated, marked bike lane within the Mobile city limits: the 0.8-mile the stretch of Hillcrest Road between Airport Boulevard and Old Shell Road.
In addition, the study revealed that a review of county maps indicates that more than 50 percent of Mobile County roads have no sidewalks, also noting that “sidewalk connectivity [is] virtually nonexistent outside of the older sections of Mobile.” Not that sidewalks do much good for cyclists anyway, considering the Code of Alabama prohibits any vehicle from accessing the sidewalk – bicycles included.
The dangers of biking on Alabama’s streets has been discussed before. In 2011, Lagniappe writer Shannon Donaldson wrote that Alabama ranked 47th in the nation in a report by the League of American Bicyclists (LAB). In 2014, Alabama landed at the bottom, ranking 50th in the nation in areas of general bike friendliness. Out of 100 possible points regarding legislation, policies, infrastructure, education and planning, Alabama received 17.4 points, with no score higher than two (out of 10) in any category, receiving an F on LAB’s bike friendliness “report card.”
There are several groups in Mobile wanting to change the cycling landscape and improve Alabama’s dismal scores. BicycleMobile.org founder Ben Brenner originally started the website with a handful of partners to help consolidate information about local biking, such as charity and group rides. Part of the site’s mission now includes spreading information about bike safety and how the city can improve the safety of its infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians.
“If you look at the roads that have been repaved, roads that have been widened, how intersections have been put together, it’s been 100 percent about traffic flow and how do we get people in cars going as fast as they can to their destination. What we’ve seen in other cities is that this is a horrible trend and causes these pedestrian deaths, it causes bicycle deaths, it causes people to be afraid to get out and walk,” Brenner said.
Attempts have been made to account for pedestrians and cyclists. In 2011, the city passed a Complete Streets policy, a growing national campaign that encourages – but does not mandate – officials to take pedestrians and cyclists into account when planning and designing city streets.
“Our Complete Streets policy … has no teeth. You only have to consider it. It’s not required like in other cities,” Delta Bike Project founder Jeff DeQuattro said. “It’s not very safe to ride on the roads [in Mobile], it’s that simple.”
So loose is the Complete Streets policy that the aforementioned LAB “report card” did not even acknowledge the policy. Out of 10 “top signs for success” on which LAB evaluates each state, Alabama has but five, not including the weak Complete Streets protocol.
Tom Piper, senior transportation planner within the MPO, explains that the need has been noted and steps are underway to improve the situation. Every five years, the MPO conducts a long-range transportation plan to study what issues need addressing. The Bicentennial Master Plan mentioned before came from the most recent plan meeting in 2011. After writing that plan, the committee realized that the focus needed to shift, and shift quickly.
“We realized that there was a prolific, growing interest in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in the area. There’s not a lot here right now, but there are certainly a lot of people wanting to see it develop,” Piper said.
Piper explained the MPO’s current plan to commission a study focused solely on the “walkability/bikability” of downtown Mobile. Come October, MPO will hire a consulting agency to carry out the study over an estimated six months to a year. “We do recognize this [limited bikability] to be a critical need that needs to be addressed, so we’re trying to put something together, but it’s very preliminary at this point,” Piper said.
Should this estimate hold true, the results of the study may not be back until almost 2016, not allowing any plans or changes to be made until even later. However, without having hired a consulting firm to conduct the study, the time estimates may not be exact. So, what’s a Mobilian cyclist to do for the next two years, minimum?
To start, Brenner suggests signing a petition to include biking and pedestrian infrastructure on the proposed I-10 Mobile River Bridge, which would allow cyclists to cross the bay. Sponsored by the Mobile Bicycle Pedestrian Advocacy Committee, the petition currently has nearly 3,000 signatures with an ultimate goal of 10,000. (There is a link to the petition on BicycleMobile.org).
Brenner explains that after the results of an environmental impact study (EIS) have been released, a 45-day public comment period opens up, during which time the petition will be presented.
“Once that public comment period is up, the bridge is kind of on its own. There’s really very little chance of changing anything in the plans of the bridge. We have a short period of time, and that EIS has been delayed and delayed. We’re expecting it any day,” Brenner said.
Cost also plays a huge role in deciding which city projects become full-baked realities and which ones stay indefinitely simmering on the back burner. The UNC Highway Safety Research Center published a study in October 2013 entitled “Costs for Pedestrian and Bicyclist Infrastructure Improvement.” The report compiles information from hundreds of cities and states around the country to provide “meaningful estimates of infrastructure costs.” According to the study, paved bike lane could cost an average of $133,170 per mile while a paved multi-use path set apart from the roadway could average $481,401 per mile.
In the meantime, Piper encourages Mobilians to be patient and respect cyclists on the road while the city works to improve infrastructure for everyone.
“A lot of people don’t realize this, that a cyclist has just as much right to be on the road as a car, and there’s a lack of awareness of what it would be for the community to have these facilities. It makes it more livable, safer when you have these facilities,” he said.
With improved infrastructure, many – including Brenner, DeQuattro, and Carter – believe that biking will pick up even more popularity around the city. “Livable cities are cities where you can walk if you choose, or bike if you choose. It’s a fun and it’s a worthwhile activity,” Carter said.