Velointerlude: Can You Bike There? A Visit to Suburban OKC

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out that all in the world would return to their own cities, up out of Washington and into the City of Oklahoma City. And so it was, being a bikegeek on a visit, that Your Humble Authorre couldn’t give it a rest for the sake of the poor long-suffering family (hey, they kinda encouraged it in the first place, y’know?), but instead subjected them to his desires to look at bike paths and rant about sharrows.

Maybe it was finishing up Death and Life during final approach into Will Rogers. Maybe it’s the fact that I can’t go much of anywhere whenever I visit without some degree of planning out who gets which cars for how long, which gets old. Maybe its the disconcerting feeling of seeing so much open space from parking lots, large setbacks from streets (but without sidewalks), and vacant lots in stable neighborhoods—things I’d rarely see in College Park or DC.

Lil' fuzznugget's gonna be great clickbait!

Lil’ fuzznugget’s gonna be great clickbait!

Or maybe it’s that I decided to visit Loren and Daisy the Adorable Corgipuppy.

Driving back from Ingrid’s (I swear, I wasn’t focused on the sackfull of delicious, delicious cookies, I meant to miss that turn that lead to the highway onramp, I prefer urban exploring anyway), I found something I hadn’t seen since leaving BWI: a real, honest-to-God bike lane. A nice one, even.

IMG_2161Now, I’ll grant you that it’s only about a block long, tucked away on an obscure and isolated part of NW 39th right by the I-44 service road, on an overwide street where nobody would miss the extra road width. It’s not a particularly lively part of town, nor one known for being filled with…well, not just cyclists, but people in general…but still! It may be a pair of aesthetic bike lanes, but this is Oklahoma City we’re talking about. Natural gas capitol of the world, had to fight to keep people from drilling a few feet away from the city’s water supply, isn’t hard to find people who are genuinely scared by a drop in gas prices, can’t even openly admit that we all know what the connection is between those earthquakes we started having a few years ago and all that shiny new construction that went in about the same time. We’re not just dependent on cars for our transportation, but for the money that finances everything from our schools to the basketball team.

That snow scene’s the kind of thing I should be criticizing as political tokenism, but you know what? Sometimes a sign that someone, somewhere—either at ODOT or city hall—thinks they might want to make an effort is a sign for hope under the circumstances…and it’s better than some of the things the Maryland State Highway Administration tries to pass over on us. The SHA doesn’t even get the excuse of being kinda new to this whole “biking for transit” thing. Somewhere, there is an Okie engineer who knows what a good bike lane is, and is looking for an excuse to put ’em in.

Ma’am, if you’re reading this (you never know…), thank you. You have a fan.

IMG_1821Now, the city’s long had a network of recreational trails. I grew up riding my (now old) Trek mountain bike around Lake Hefner with the triathletes or through the Bluff Creek singletrack. Nowadays, you can ride from my house to the south end of Lake Overholser, where one of the football coaches taught me how to drive, pretty much on off-street paved multi-use trails. Soon, they’ll hook up those trails with the Oklahoma River paths, letting you make it from there to downtown.

IMG_2164The problem is, though, those paths don’t pass by much. I mean, that’s not much of an issue for a purely recreational or fitness oriented path, but from a transit perspective, that’s deadly. The trail network I just described goes around two city reservoirs and passes by several subdivisions and an airport—for most users, that’s empty space with nothing in particular in it. The picture on the right shows what may be the second most commercially active stretch of that path, next to the group of restaurants on the other side of the lake: passing by the boat club docks, over towards the lake police headquarters and golf course clubhouse, not quite a half mile from a six-lane highway with heavy strip mall development on both sides. You’d be forgiven for thinking it looks a bit dead.

Now fracking free! No, seriously. Someone wanted to drill here.

Now fracking free! No, seriously. That was a concern.

And, truth be told, that’s almost an unfair impression. I took these photos during the day on a slightly chilly Monday, albeit a calm one by Hefner standards (yes, a wind that can merely fully extend that flag by the clubhouse is “calm”). Those trails would look much different on an unusually temperate August evening, when you’d see all the triathletes, roadies, and kids on their mountain bikes out riding (to say nothing of the pedestrians, rollerbladers, skateboarders, and dogs). But that’s the thing with recreational trails: they only get used when it’s more pleasant to use them than, say, catch a movie; transit-oriented trails get used whenever people need to get from one place to another, no matter what—and there are more days when people need to get around than nice days in central Oklahoma. The trails are their own attraction, rather than a means used to get to something that interests you; however, recreational trails are only interesting at certain times of certain days, unless they can take advantage of transit use and attractions along the way.

IMG_2167Now, I don’t want to give the impression of mindless suburb-bashing, a sport that seems to be all too popular among urban development and bike transit folks. Writing off whole cities (or all but four square miles of them) as hopeless victims of the car culture and irredeemably flawed is no way to get things done—especially when you proceed to stage two of that little game, slagging off on the people who live there as backwards, provincial, close-minded, reactionary, fundamentalist, and dumb.

What I would say that we’ve made a right mess of things, that the social, ethical, and economic issues that lead to sprawl probably need(ed) to be (have been) fixed, and that recreation-centered amenities, while appreciated (and possibly a good backbone for further development), are not the best way forward. For starters, they cater primarily to those who have the time, means, and fitness for that kind of recreation, rather than those who just need to get somewhere. They help perpetuate class and status stratifications, if, perhaps, less perniciously than other sorts of (quasi)transit infrastructure does. I would like to see more density, or at least less wasted space devoted to 110º/16º windchill parking wastelands. Forget one less car, I’m looking for one less miserable parking space! I’d have liked to have been able to have biked (or even walked) to any of the three schools I attended growing up, rather than having to take dangerous routes along main city streets a mile longer than they needed to be. I’d like to not be forced to rely on a car just to go get a couple last-minute groceries; all this obligatory sitting, being unable to integrate walking and riding into my average, everyday way of doing things, is kinda driving me nuts. I would like to see this network of trails we’ve spent all this effort building used more, rather than simply shoehorned into isolated (and sometimes unsafe) border zones. It’s like we’ve put in a road in between a place where people don’t live and a place they wouldn’t want to go, with nowhere anyone would want to stop along the way.

Don’t ask me why I don’t think that makes sense; I don’t set OKC’s transit and recreation policies.

Next time: moving beyond the suburbs into Urbanization and its Discontents.

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One thought on “Velointerlude: Can You Bike There? A Visit to Suburban OKC

  1. Interesting. You need to know the following:
    On Tuesday, January 13th the OKC city council will begin consideration of adding two new traffic ordinances aimed at cyclists.

    Sections (d) and (e) below are the additions:

    d) No person operating a bicycle shall pass other vehicles between lanes of traffic traveling in the same direction.

    e) A person operating a bicycle shall at all times exercise due care by leaving a safe distance of not less than three feet between the bicycle and a motor vehicle which is in operation at the time.

    Unfortunately, the wording of the second ordinance is quite vague and could be misunderstood by traffic enforcement to have a negative effect for cyclists. These ordinances could also have a chilling effect for OKC to be considered a Bicycle Friendly Community by the L.A.B.

    Oklahoma Bicycle Society posted this opinion of the proposed ordinance (e) from League of American Bicyclists Legal Specialist Ken McLeod :

    1. It undermines the state and local three foot passing laws that put the responsibility for maintaining a safe distance on the driver of a motor vehicle. The closest similar law at a state level is Maryland’s 3 foot passing law, which has multiple exceptions to its requirement. A criticism of Maryland’s law is available here. Maine is a great example of a state that has strengthened the responsibility placed upon motorists in their 3 foot passing law.
    a. While there is not great data on the effectiveness of 3 foot passing laws making bicyclists safer. A major study by Rutgers found that there were many positive aspects to 3 foot passing laws, but that “misinterpretation is the strongest barrier.” One aspect of 3 foot passing laws that tends to work well is how civil liability is decided, as explained in this blog post by a Chicago-based lawyer.
    b. One of the only studies about the prevalence of 3 foot passing comes from a study in Baltimore. Here is a link with some discussion of that study and criticisms of the study.
    2. Even if written to only deal with bicyclists passing motor vehicles, this ordinance could create problems for individual bicyclists and the city when implementing bicycle infrastructure.
    a. For individual bicyclists, it is not clear how this might affect their sharing the lane with a car and what actions they should take if a car is travelling at a similar rate of speed in the same lane. It could also apply to dooring collisions and other collisions with parked vehicles depending upon how “in operation at the time” is interpreted.
    b. For the city, this ordinance may make it more difficult to stripe bicycle lanes or other bicycle infrastructure, such as sharrows, that might be seen as promoting bicyclists leaving less than three feet from motor vehicles “in operation.”

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