As with any form of transportation planning, the primary concern for a bicycle-based system in an urban setting should be safety. Last spring, in Boise, the Ada County Highway District, with jurisdiction over city roads, introduced a monthlong trial of the city’s safest urban cycling infrastructure to date in the form of separated and protected bike lanes. The trial run for protected bike lanes resulted in a hullabaloo and prompt removal of the lanes after just five weeks.
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Among the many well documented tensions surrounding the trial lanes, it was clear that as a community, our conception of urban cycling infrastructure was adrift from the aspirations and efforts now occurring in most every major American city. While other cities implement even greater protections and inducements for urban cyclists, Boise struggles with even the most basic lane protections. How did Boise get here?
To answer this question, one may visit the reference floor of the Boise Public Library and open up the 1976 Urban Bicycle Route System Master Plan for the Boise Metropolitan Area (essentially northern Ada County). To my knowledge, the 1976 plan is the earliest effort to design and implement an urban cycling infrastructure in and around the city.
Roughly 20 years after the revolution in the Netherlands to construct a safe, bicycle-based transportation system, Boise’s 1976 plan shared some of the Dutch desires, including the establishment of practical, two-way, off-street bicycle routes in addition to the recreationally purposed Greenbelt. Additionally, an emphasis on neighborhood connectivity was apparent.
These would have been the safest forms of bicycle infrastructure, bringing bicycle paths separated from street traffic into residential neighborhoods and proximal to commercial and institutional services. In the interactive map below you can explore the existing and proposed cycling infrastructure from 1976.
Urban sited, off-street cycling routes are a particularly unique aspect of the 1976 plan. Their presence along State Street and Franklin Road, now two commercial corridors dominated by automobile-based transportation modes, would have given us a gleaning of what safe urban cycling infrastructure could be.
Instead, we invested in on-street shared routes and traditional bicycle lanes, leaving few examples of the potential Dutch-style cycling lifestyle that comes with access to safe cycling routes, beyond the primarily recreational use of the Greenbelt (which is by name and function a park, not an investment in urban cycling infrastructure). The consequences of this policy decision are many: fatalities and severe injuries caused by crashes occurring in mixed modal traffic, environmental, public health and other social costs, as well as a bicycling commuter share hovering around a mere 4 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 Census.
As cycling for practical transportation purposes boomed in the Netherlands over the past 50 years, Boise has struggled to climb above the bare minimum. In the comparison images below (click maps to enlarge), imagine how urban cycling may have differed in the North End and West Boise had aspects of the 1976 plan been implemented. Instead of cornering cyclists onto the bike lanes of 15th Street in the North End or the long, high-speed, loud stretches of Ustick and Emerald in West Boise, there may have been spacious cycle tracks and additional neighborhood lanes and routes.
In the map below, use the swipe tool to compare and contrast the entire landscapes of the 1976 plan and the existing urban bicycle route system in 2015. As ACHD again wades into the bicycle planning conversation, perhaps it’s time we reconsider our conception of what a safe bicycle route system looks like and what purposes it may serve. Two-way, off-street bicycle routes were proposed 39 years ago. Many of the city’s broad transportation corridors still have space for protected bike lanes. Perhaps history could be our guide as the city and the highway district plan for our cycling future.
A version of this post originally appeared at Conservation Geography.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.