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Bike advocates see potential in Wilkes-Barre

The Citizens' Voice: Bike advocates see potential in Wilkes-Barre

BY KENT JACKSON (STAFF WRITER)

Published: November 21, 2011

WILKES-BARRE - Bicyclists get 145 miles to the gallon, Alex Doty calculated after converting the calories they eat to fuel.

Burning calories gives people a reason to pedal, Doty said while explaining how Wilkes-Barre and other communities in Northeastern Pennsylvania can adapt ideas that made Philadelphia No. 1 for bicycling among America's largest cities.

When Doty, the executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, spoke to about 70 people at Genetti's Hotel on Tuesday he charted America's problem with extra calories. He showed U.S. maps on which states were colored to correspond with their obesity rates in different years. By the last year, the state with the best rate, Colorado, was the color that the worst states had been in the first year.

"Suburban sprawl is making us fat," Doty said.

Philadelphians are pedaling away those calories.

In the past decade, the percentage of bicycle commuters in Philadelphia increased from 0.86 to 2.16, tops among America's 10 largest cities. Bicycle commuting is even higher within sections such as South Philadelphia, where the percentage of cyclists nears that of smaller cities such as Santa Barbara, Calif.

"Cheesesteaks and rage beat sunshine and beaches," Doty said.

People who commute or do errands on bicycles save time by getting a workout without visiting a gym, said Doty, adding that more than 3 percent of car trips are made by people going somewhere to exercise.

In Philadelphia, with narrow streets and stop-and-go traffic, bicycles can keep pace with cars for most trips, Doty said. They are easier to park than cars, too.

Wilkes-Barre, he said, has "great bones" on which to build a community of bicyclists. About 23 percent of households in Wilkes-Barre don't own cars, and 9 percent of people commute by walking.

Since June, 220 people have borrowed bicycles provided for free to anyone 18 and older by the Wilkes-Barre Bike Share. The three-speed bikes with comfortable seats and handlebar baskets are available at Genetti's. Riders leave their driver's license at the front desk and check out a bike to ride wherever they want to for the rest of the day.

Also, city buses are equipped with bike racks, and a network of bicycle and hiking trails is being developed in and around Wilkes-Barre. Some trails already are open, including a path along the Susquehanna River in Wilkes-Barre, the Black Diamond Trail in Mountain Top and the Greater Hazleton rail-trail.

To make bicycling easier in Wilkes-Barre, Doty told the local cycling boosters to "know what you want" and find partners to get results.

Already, people in Wilkes-Barre have taken that advice.

In August, a coalition that enlisted support from police, a bike shop, safety analysts, the Chamber of Commerce and the YMCA asked Wilkes-Barre City Council to update the city's bicycle ordinance. So far, the council hasn't acted on the ordinance, which dovetails with state law by recognizing that bicyclists have a right to ride on the road but responsibilities to obey traffic laws and respect pedestrians by refraining from riding on sidewalks.

Since last year, Al Martino on his website bikeWB.org has collected signatures on a petition to install bicycle lanes in center city. He believes the lanes can make traffic safer for cars and cyclists, tie in Wilkes University and King's College and help businesses.

Bicycle lanes help people of all ages overcome timidity about riding bicycles and encourage cyclists to move with traffic rather than making dangerous, illegal moves such as riding against traffic and zigzagging across streets.

Doty said bike lanes make roads safer for drivers and pedestrians, not just bicyclists.

On wide, under-used streets, bicycle lanes slow down motor vehicles, which reduces accidents without appreciably adding to travel times, Doty said.

As more people bicycle, safety improves because drivers get attuned to watching for cyclists.

Bicycle lanes often can be funded and built as part of road construction or projects that provide children with safe paths to school.

When Rich Adams of Around Town Bikes store said a project for River Street already has been designed without bicycle lanes, Doty commiserated.

Advocates have to approach highway engineers before plans and drawings get too far along, Doty said. He suggested that communities develop bicycle and pedestrian plans so they are ready before road projects are proposed.

But be patient, Doty told the audience.

Getting bicycle lanes on Philadelphia's Walnut Street Bridge took six years.

The Schuylkill River Trail that draws 1.2 million bicyclists annually began in 1980 - and it still isn't finished.