Monday, September 26, 2016

Getting Better in Salem

And you thought I had packed it in! Well, no, not really. Just taking an extended break from posting here. With autumn, my attention has turned back to thinking about cycling and especially utility cycling in Salem. For anyone still reading, I’d like to share some about two major (for this town) improvements/concessions to bicycles as a valuable and valued part of the transport scene.

1. The Buffered Bike Lanes Downtown

No solution to the problem of mixing cars with bicycles seems perfect, but the new, wide, buffered lanes on Church and High Streets have been a significant improvement for this cyclist. The "bite" out of the road so far seems not to have cramped the traffic flow too much, and the relationship between cyclists and parked cars has improved. 

It is generally much easier to see a car back out of a diagonal space in time to stop or take evasive action than it is when cars are parallel-parked along the curb. There are a number of stretches along these streets with diagonal parking, and the bike lane-parking interface in those portions is much better. This alone is a big deal. 

The little bit of space provided by the buffering strips actually makes for a great deal more security from through traffic, as well. I was a bit skeptical about this until I tried it; but, it really does work. When I am in my car, I can see plainly that the buffering creates an added measure of seriousness about the bike lane as a real part of the road-scape. The buffered space on the right helps to lessen the likelihood of being "doored" by parallel-parked cars (a major concern).

My only question is what the “proper” (or perhaps I should say “best”) procedure to follow would be when trying to turn left from Church Street on to, say, Court Street. Right now, I’m actually timing it so that I exploit a gap in the traffic and move from the bike lane on the right to the far left lane in preparation for the turn…otherwise, I would have to wait through a stoplight cycle in order to cross Church Street from the corner of Court and Church. Not the end of the world, but rather inefficient. Someone may want to tell me where to go…if that isn’t too great a temptation. [Be nice, now.]

It was interesting to travel along High Street from State on down towards Ferry in the new lane. The old arrangement—if one were going straight through the intersection at High and Ferry—meant getting into the center lane of traffic (not something most folks would want to do) and then swerving towards the right, letting cars pass you once out of the intersection. Now we must first check to see if anyone is going to turn into us from the auto lane (that is one new feature to be careful of) and then, magically, the cyclist finds her or himself on the right of a lane of parallel-parked cars. I first met this arrangement in Portland years ago and thought it utterly bizarre. But, I must admit, as a cyclist I rather like it. This feels quite “buffered!” It still requires some caution (being “doored” by someone getting out of a car is small but real possibility), but it is much improved from the old situation.

When the SAIF building work is completed, it will allow a nice transition from High Street over to Church and then across Mission and up into the west side of Bush Park (one hopes). So, gradually, an effective north-south connection between downtown and the Bush Park/McKinley neighborhoods is being built for utility cyclists (as opposed to high-risk folks taking the major streets). This is something for which to be thankful.

The matter of how these lanes will eventually be made truly effective by a safe crossing of Commercial/Liberty on Union Street is still a big question for me. Breakfast on Bikes may have covered this, and perhaps I’ll look at older posts there, but until this particular (and likely expensive) link in the chain is completed we will have mostly a potential cycling breakthrough in cross-town/south Salem bike routes. But…let’s not get too negative. These lanes are a good next step.

2. The Bush Park-Winter Street Bike Interchange at Mission

This is one of those things I thought about so many times over the years…and suddenly, it happened! Well—it probably wasn’t so sudden to the people involved in planning or building it, but it was for me. This solves one of the more obvious kinks in the cycle route on the east side of Bush Park and points south. Now, it will be much easier to move from Winter Street to the park’s interior. The quality of the job is very nice and it is all so logical. Quite a change from a few years ago, when bikes couldn’t even actuate the stoplight, let alone get up into the park without some pretty fancy turning skills or nearly running over people in the crosswalk!

I would suggest two things for future improvements in the Bush Park connection to Winter Street and Church Street, however. The first would be a wider path from the parking lot at Winter up into the park itself. This path is quite narrow and puts cyclists and pedestrians in some conflict…as well as cyclists going in opposite directions. As this becomes a better cycle route, that latter issue will likely heat up. This may require some way to slow bikers down as they get ready to emerge into the parking lot, as motorists in the parking lot will probably be more interested in finding a parking place than looking for cyclists shooting across to their new access point on Winter.

At Church Street, I am continuing to ask the Powers that Be to consider restoring some form of the old carriageway up from Mission Street into the main portion of the park. The walk from Mission Street to Bush House was never meant for bikes—though it gets a fair amount of use by them. I note that sprinklers went in the lawn where the carriageway sits under the turf, and wonder if that squelches the potential for this much-needed improvement forever? I hope not. Church Street is a natural—and safe—place to cross Mission. It is currently a bit of a pinch-point in the bike route, but perhaps some thought could be given to a not-too-expensive way to relieve this problem.

* * *

It is clear to me that Salem isn’t likely to become a great commuter cycling center anytime soon. We aren’t going to be “Netherlands West.” But, these two developments are helpful and positive steps for those of us who want to use our bikes not as toys or sporting equipment but practical machines for transport. I want to register my own thanks for the efforts and expenditure involved. Gradually, some of the key routes I take through town are getting safer and better. Thanks!