It is the utopian portrait of eco-friendly transportation in contemporary society – a hybrid bus gliding down the street, trailed by cycling commuters and smiling pedestrians striding their way to work.
In Spokane County, the image is becoming more of a reality each day.
While another Earth Day may be in the books, green themes are part of the year-round agenda in the office of the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, where employees like Eve Nelson talk about the importance of “looking at policies that support multi-modal transportation.” The approach includes everything from light rail to dedicated bus lines as well as an emphasis on routes that provide opportunities for cyclists and pedestrians.
“There’s a growing realization that roads are not just for vehicle transportation,” Nelson said.
SRTC completed a regional bike plan two years ago and wrapped up a similar document for pedestrian development last December. The bike plan features 18 future projects at a cost of close to $39 million, including a five-mile, 10-foot wide course that would be known as the Millwood/Spokane Valley Trail.
“This is about how to get to the grocery store without using your car,” Nelson said.
The city of Spokane Valley is at work on its own master bike plan that could be ready by next August. A community outreach campaign is scheduled to launch this June with a goal of gathering feedback from residents and shedding light on potential bike routes.
“We want to get out in the community and find out what’s important to people,” said Mike Bassinger of Spokane Valley’s Community Development Department.
Basinger, who cycles eight miles to and from City Hall each day, pointed to recent improvements Spokane Valley has made to improve conditions for bikers and walkers such as the roundabout on Mansfield and Pines that includes pedestrian facilities and the reconfiguration of Broadway that added bike lanes on both sides of the road.
Nelson applauded Spokane Valley for its enlightened approach to street standards since incorporation that has meant “more sidewalks and bike lanes.” The renovation of Appleway Road in 2008 included a new sidewalk on the north side of the street and a 10-foot wide bike and pedestrian path on the south that connects to Liberty Lake’s extensive trail system.
Millwood took a similar approach when it coordinated a major overhaul of Argonne Road last summer. Mayor Dan Mork said that while the project included extensive resurfacing of the north/south thoroughfare, the city made sure to “add improvements that would make the road safer for pedestrians.”
Basinger said part of the purpose of a bike plan is to improve safety conditions for cyclists throughout Spokane Valley by identifying biking corridors.
“Whether it’s bike signs or markers, it’s about saying, ‘This is where people ride their bikes – slow down and pay attention,’” he said.
As SRTC continues to study the benefits of upgraded pedestrian routes, Nelson said the research supports the investment.
“It’s been shown that people are 65 percent more likely to walk if there are sidewalks in their community,” she said. “It just makes sense that if your community is more walkable, you’re going to have more people walking.”
Nelson added that pedestrian accidents are reduced by 70 percent when there is an adequate sidewalk system in place.
While more local residents bypass their vehicles to walk or ride to work and other destinations, the Spokane Transit Authority is doing its part to provide clean transportation in the form of diesel-electric hybrid buses. The shift began in 2007 when a federal grant covered 80 percent of the cost for a trio of 40-foot hybrid coaches. The success of the new fleet – marked by a decrease in fuel costs and greenhouse gases – led to the dedication of local funds for half-a-dozen more in 2008. Today, STA features 21 of the environmentally efficient buses.
While temporary signs along Interstate 90 encourage motorists to “Travel Green in April,” by taking the bus, carpooling, cycling or walking, STA has seen a 45 percent increase in bus patronage since 2006.
Molly Myers, STA spokeswoman, said that while the rate leveled out last year – up less than 1 percent – people continue to take the bus.
“Even when gas prices went down, folks stayed with us,” Myers said.
“That’s the neat part.”