An Open Letter to Bozeman City Commission
Re: Making Bozeman a Better Place to Bike and Walk
6 January 2019
Madame Mayor, Mr. Deputy Mayor, and Commissioners:
Bozeman’s Strategic Plan rightly calls for increased participation in active transportation. Active transportation makes our community healthier by improving physical health and air quality and improves the livability of our city by fostering a sense of place and safety and by reducing traffic congestion.
Having a goal is a great start, but if the city truly desires a future in which more Bozeman residents choose to walk or bike, this worthwhile goal must be met with tangible actions.
In this letter, I identify three simple steps that the City of Bozeman can take in 2019 to increase future participation in active transportation. These are:
- Enforce Existing Code to Keep Sidewalks Clear for Walking
- Fix Bozeman’s Bad Bike Laws
- Create a Bozeman Bicycle Plan
The way to increase participation in walking and biking is simple: if you make walking and biking safe and useful, more people will walk and bike.
Keeping Bozeman’s sidewalks clear is an obvious place to start. Clear, open sidewalks invite walking. Sidewalks caked with snow and ice or overgrown by bushes discourage all but the sure-footed and limber.
Bozeman ordinance Chapter 34 Article 6 requires that landowners clear new snow from their sidewalks within twenty-four hours of snowfall. Unfortunately, enforcement of this ordinance (like many of Bozeman’s ordinances) is complaint-driven. Most people who I’m acquainted with here in Bozeman would sooner shovel their neighbor’s walk than report a neighbor to code compliance. A system that relies on “turning each other in” makes code enforcement fodder for petty squabbles between neighbors, not a tool for achieving code compliance. We need, instead, a proactive, impartial, and fair system that helps neighbors comply with city code and ensures that our sidewalks are clear and walkable even when a house sits vacant or an occupant chooses not to shovel.
The snow removal ordinance allows the city to hire private contractors for snow removal and to recover not only the cost of clearing the sidewalks but also administrative costs (and if necessary to collect unpaid snow removal bills through property taxes). It’s a good ordinance; Bozeman’s would-be winter walkers deserve to see it enforced. I suggest that the City Manager make this a priority for the city’s next Public Works director. The city should also consider its own role in clearing sidewalks; e.g. the City of Syracuse recently committed itself to actively clearing 20 miles of priority sidewalks in the winter months.
Sidewalks matter in the summer months, as well. A sidewalk becomes difficult to pass if overgrown with trees and bushes. Here, too, city code (Chapter 16, Article 4) requires property owners to keep their sidewalks clear, but a survey of just a few blocks surrounding City Hall reveals that this ordinance also lacks consistent enforcement and compliance. I’d suggest unifying the nuisance vegetation ordinance with the snow removal ordinance to remove the legal penalties (currently, it’s a misdemeanor to have overgrown bushes) and empower the city to use the same contracting and cost recovery mechanisms as our snow removal ordinance.
Second, Bozeman’s existing bike laws make biking less safe and should be rewritten. Currently, Bozeman Municipal Code Chapter 36 Article 10 forbids any adult from riding a bike on a city sidewalk under any circumstances. This seems like a “solution in search of a problem.” Most cyclists naturally prefer the street, but less confident cyclists may prefer the safety and slower speed of the sidewalk. Even for confident cyclists, most cycling trips begin or end on a sidewalk.
To any who would suggest that there’s a legitimate safety justification for this law, I say: balderdash. More deaths occur annually by people pulling vending machines onto themselves than by cyclists colliding with pedestrians. Meanwhile, two bicyclists are killed every day in America by cars on the street. The difference between being struck by a bicycle at 10 mph versus a car at 25 mph is analogous to the difference between falling from counter-height versus falling from a fourth story window.
The only saving grace for this otherwise unconscionable ordinance is that few people choose compliance over their own safety—but therein lies the point: Bozeman cyclists shouldn’t have to choose between complying with city code or maximizing their safety. Dare I say it, our city’s code should promote the safety and welfare of bicyclists and pedestrians.
If in search of a neat legislative solution: just update the existing code to describe “e-bikes” (electronically assisted bicycles) instead of bicycles. This frees cyclists of this unnecessary and dangerous ordinance, and may create a good ordinance in the process.
Prior to 2009, the MSU-Bozeman campus held a similar ban, prohibiting students from riding their bikes on the main pedestrian mall. In 2009 ASMSU President Shane Colvin led an initiative to eliminate the ban. In the decade since, MSU has seen a significant increase in bicycle use with no apparent downside.
If the city wanted to go a step further and create laws favorable to cyclists, it could consider lobbying the State Legislature to allow cities to adopt “Idaho bike laws,” allowing cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs (many cyclists do this already: codifying this practice into law would improve safety by normalizing expectations).
Finally, the city absolutely must begin to get its bike infrastructure right. The city’s current bicycle infrastructure plan follows its “Complete Streets” policy where cyclists and pedestrians get a slice of every upgraded arterial or collector street. This policy amounts to building bike lanes on the sides of busy roads. Unfortunately, if the goal is to increase participation in bicycling, bike lanes generally don’t work.
The formula for increasing biking in Bozeman is simple: build a useful, low-stress network of year-around bicycle facilities. Bozeman’s current approach could be characterized as building a disjointed collection of winter snow storage facilities that double in summer as high-stress cycling facilities. Low-stress facilities include: mixed-use paths, separated bike lanes, and bicycle boulevards. Our current policy of installing bicycle facilities on arterials and collectors is precisely upside down: low-stress facilities are created by separating bicyclists from traffic—not by funneling cyclists onto the very streets designed to carry maximum traffic.
Toward this end, Bozeman truly needs a bicycle plan. Bozeman’s spending on asphalt for bike lanes is disproportionate to our spending on planning good bike infrastructure. Our current return on investment is quite small. To get good value of its money, Bozeman needs a plan that will lead to a future in which the city provides a useful network of low-stress facilities—preferably starting in 2019.
A facility is “low-stress” if it passes the “12-year-old test.” If an average parent would feel comfortable using a bike facility with their 12-year-old son or daughter, it passes. If not, it fails. The Gallagator passes (when snow-free). The new shared used paths on South 11th Avenue pass. The new bike lanes on Rouse fail dramatically (in fact, these new bike lanes generally fail the “30-year-old intrepid rider” test).
Building this sort of thoughtful infrastructure requires a level of planning and detail that far exceeds what’s written into our Transportation Master Plan (TMP). For example, no existing city document describes how to create a “bicycle boulevard,” or shows intersection treatments with bicycle boxes (currently, most of our bike lanes simply disappear at busy intersections, where they’re needed most!). The network that’s shown in the TMP is a visionary future network, which is a helpful North Star, but lacks the required details about intersection treatments, design specifications, prioritization, and legislation necessary to fulfill its vision.
If Bozeman desired to obtain a “Bicycle Friendly Community” gold designation (which would be a good milestone goal toward the broader goal of fostering active transportation), having a bicycle plan is a necessary precondition. If it does nothing else in 2019, Bozeman should fund and hire professional assistance to create a bicycle plan.
Tackling these three “low hanging fruit” in 2019 would be a great step toward showing that the city is serious about promoting active transportation. At the end of the day, the types of transportation infrastructure we build and maintain determines our mobility choices. We’ve built great sidewalks: now, let’s maintain them. We’ve made some unhelpful laws, but these are easily amended. We have yet to build a network of useful, low-stress cycling facilities, but there’s no time like the present to start. Let’s make progress in 2019 by figuring out how to keep our sidewalks clear, ensuring that our laws support safe bicycling, and beginning to plan and build a useful network of cycling facilities that will appeal to users of all ages and abilities.
Thank you for your consideration,
542 N Black Avenue
Bozeman, MT 59715
CC: Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee, Bozeman Area Bicycle Advisory Board, GVLT, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, WTI, Downtown Bozeman Partnership