Commuting to work on a bike sounds good in theory — get some exercise, save gas money, enjoy the great outdoors — but for many people, the fear outweighs the benefits.
The main reason people don’t ride bikes in New Hampshire is that certain roads are beyond their comfort level, said Tim Blagden, executive director of Bike-Walk Alliance of New Hampshire. “Traffic stress” can limit where people are willing to ride.
“There might be a nice neighborhood street that leads to a big, wide scary street they don’t want to cross,” he said. “That might get people to take their car instead.”
Bike-Walk Alliance and the New Hampshire Department of Transportation are taking the first steps toward alleviating the scariness. They are “stress mapping” the streets in five pilot cities — Manchester, Concord, Nashua, Keene and Portsmouth — in order to determine how to most effectively make cities more bike-friendly.
The project uses algorithms to determine the level of traffic stress on city streets for average cyclists — people who wouldn’t describe themselves as cyclists but own a bike.
The calculation considers factors like speed limit, number of lanes, intersection configuration and whether there’s on-street parking (where parked car doors can fly open in their path).
It also considers census information that tracks where people live and where they might want to go. When all the data is crunched, each street gets a score, and it can be used to determine the most cost-effective and productive ways to eliminate specific problem spots and connect pockets of low-stress streets.
“The objective is, how do we build connections within these comfortable streets, and where would we get bang for the buck?” Blagden said. “We will be able to say, if we build a nice wide shoulder over here, we might double our cyclers, but if we do the same type of treatment in another part of town, we might get three times as much.”
Concord already has some bicycling infrastructure, and Portsmouth and Keene have passed Complete Streets ordinances, which aim to design streets for all users.
Last week in Concord, the New Hampshire Cycling Club donated $17,000 to the city to build bike lanes from the town line of Boscawen to the downtown area so the whole 5-mile route will have lanes in both directions. The project will create the state’s longest bike lane.
There are plans, too, to redesign the four-lane Loudon Road to have one motorist lane and a bike lane in each direction.
“It’s one of the more unsafe roads in the state and a major connection from downtown to the mall,” said Nicholas Coates, founder of the Central New Hampshire bicycling coalition and chair of the State of New Hampshire Bicycle Pedestrian Transportation Advisory Committee. “Every bicyclist I talked to and person I know in that neighborhood has welcomed it with open arms.”
Manchester doesn’t yet have plans to make the city more bikeable, but that’s something Bike Manchester, the city’s new advocacy group, is trying to change.
“Our ultimate goal is getting more people riding more often, but a challenge is people don’t feel safe,” said Will Stewart of Bike Manchester. “Frankly I’m a little jealous when I go to places like Concord and Keene. We are the state’s largest city, and we hope to see [infrastructure] here. It’s one of our long-term goals.”
To help out, Bike Manchester is doing some stress mapping of its own. It has divided the city into sections, and throughout the month of May volunteers are grading city streets on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being streets people can take their kids on and 4 being extremely high traffic roads, like South Willow Street.
It’s a qualitative, subjective approach and the group hopes to reach a consensus about the streets during its June meeting, then publish it for public use.
Bike Manchester’s findings will be a useful supplement to Bike-Walk New Hampshire’s quantitative approach, Blagden said.
“They are very eager to start to put a human touch on it,” he said. “This will give another check as to whether … the computer analysis makes sense or not.”
The stress mapping system, created by a Northeastern University professor and two colleagues, has been used to make a number of cities more bikeable across the country. New Hampshire is starting with five bigger cities because that’s where the method has been shown to work, Blagden said.
Bike-Walk Alliance was hoping to get its initial data to the state by May 10 and will continue to work over the summer to fill in any holes in the data.
As seen in the May 15, 2014 issue of the Hippo.