The following piece was first published in Planet Jackson Hole as a guest opinion by Alliance Executive Director Craig Benjamin.
Vibrant communities focus on the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists.
I’ve escaped a hippo attack. I’ve spent the night lost in the Tetons in a blizzard. I once crashed after dropping into Once is Enough. But I’ve never, ever been as scared as I was watching my seven-year-old daughter Piper try to ride her bike from our house in west Jackson to Jackson Elementary School on the other side of town.
Like most kids, Piper loves riding her bike. On this particular day in late May she was determined to ride the two miles from our house to school. Previously we had driven to my office at the base of Snow King and ridden to school from there, but after much practice Piper convinced me she had the skills necessary to navigate the treacherous Maple Way-Scott Lane jog.
As we turned right on Maple Way off of Powderhorn Lane, I braced myself for this stretch. Piper did her best to stay as far right as she could without hitting the curb, while simultaneously trying not to wobble and get clipped by a car passing what felt like inches to her left. I found myself repeating, “Stay right kiddo, please stay right.” She maintained her composure and remained steady to Scott Lane, staying in the bike lane as it turned left, then stopping at the stop sign. She signaled and turned right onto Snow King Ave. I breathed a sigh of relief; she had done it!
Then, just before the stop sign at Virginian Lane, Piper swerved left to avoid a patch of gravel in the bike lane and crossed the painted line into traffic. My heart stopped as her life flashed in front of my eyes. Time stood still. Thankfully, the passing car was paying attention and veered left so as not to hit my little girl. I can’t imagine what would have happened had the driver been texting or fiddling with the radio.
After Virginian Lane, Piper hopped up onto the curb as I rode next to her in the bike lane—a measly stripe of paint separating me from traffic. I couldn’t stop thinking about that moment and how insane it is that we haven’t made it safe for our kids to ride their bikes across town.
Let’s be clear, we have an incredible pathways network in Jackson Hole. Over two decades ago our community decided to build a better future and started constructing a pathways network. Since then we have passed a pathways master plan, aligning our investments with our values, and built a world-class network of pathways across our valley. We can now safely ride on a pathway from west Jackson to the Village, from north of town to Jenny Lake, and soon all the way around South Park.
The best part is we use our pathways. A lot. We use our pathways for walking our dogs, getting to work, going for a morning run, rolling in our wheelchairs, cross country skiing, leisurely strolls with the kids and grandparents, and so much more.
Here’s the thing, despite decades of investment in our pathways network and the completion of nearly every capital project identified in our pathways master plan, we haven’t built the infrastructure necessary to make it safe for our kids to ride across town. But this is about more than our kids; it’s about dealing with traffic congestion through investments in public transportation, bicycling, and walking instead of building new roads or widening existing highways.
It’s about the type of infrastructure we should build to provide thousands of people with the freedom to hop on their bike to make short trips around town, instead of being forced into their car and making our summer traffic congestion that much worse.
Who are these thousands of people? Research from across America shows there are basically four types of people who ride a bike. Less than one percent of folks are fearless and will ride anywhere, anytime—like the guy in spandex on a road bike riding on the shoulder of a busy highway. Seven percent of us are confident enough to ride in traffic if we have to, but we don’t really enjoy it. Thirty-three percent of bikers will just never ride, no matter what—so let’s forget about them for the moment. This leaves a whopping 60 percent of folks who are interested in riding their bikes more, but are concerned because they don’t feel safe on our streets.
These 60 percent are people like Piper. People like my wife. People like Piper’s grandmother. People who are probably a lot like you, your friends, and members of your family. So what should we do to make our streets safe for these thousands of people to ride their bikes?
We should update the pathways master plan and focus it on building infrastructure that makes our streets safe for everyone to ride—from a seven-year-old girl to her 70-year-old grandmother. This means building protected bike lanes, which are like sidewalks for people on bikes because they use physical barriers to protect people from traffic. It means building neighborhood greenways: slow-speed neighborhood streets with minor improvements that make them safe and comfortable for people to walk and bike. It means sharing a few slivers of the one-third of the land in downtown Jackson that’s currently dedicated to parking cars to parking bikes. And it means shifting our focus from large capital projects that crisscross our valley toward smaller, low-cost, targeted projects that improve key neighborhood connections and fix missing links.
Communities big and small across America are taking this approach because it works. They’re also doing it because it supports their local economies, as research shows that low-cost investments in bicycling infrastructure result in a better bottom line for local businesses.
It’s time for Jackson Hole to shift our pathways network to a higher gear. It’s time to make our streets safe for our kids. By doing so, we’ll make our streets and our town better for everyone