By Linda Weiford, WSU News
WSU progress, potential encouraging
WSU faculty member Tom Salsbury.
Mia Birk, bike superstar. WSU is "ahead of the
game," she says.
PULLMAN, Wash. - Can Pullman become home to a prized bicycle network like Portland, Ore.? Bike superstar Mia Birk thinks so.
Washington State University brought Birk to campus this week to evaluate the area's bicycling potential. Never mind the hilly terrain and cold winters, she said. There are bike friendly places that deal with greater challenges. Anchorage, Alaska, is among them.
"You're off to a good start and there are no fatal flaws, was Birk's assessment after pedaling around campus and Pullman with several WSU staff and faculty members. "Not only that, it's beautiful here, there's a can-do attitude and you have a captive audience.
Bike infrastructure consultant
Birk is renowned for transforming Portland into one of the most bike friendly cities in the country when she worked as the city's bike program coordinator during the 1990s. Nearly eight percent of the city's commuters bike to work 10 times the national average, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey.
Today, Birk is co-founder of Alta Planning and Design, which is hired by cities nationwide to improve their biking infrastructure. She is also author of a memoir, "Joyride: Pedaling toward a Healthier Planet. (Cadence Press, 2010)
After visiting roughly 60 cities in the past year including many with universities - Birk brought her smarts and speed to the Palouse as part of WSU's bicycle forum and sustainability fair. With her trademark energy and optimism and always saying "you when referring to WSU - she explained during an interview why this area is ideal for a more sophisticated bikeway network.
Bike sharing program impressive
"First and foremost, you have lots of students who bike. You have professors who bike, and your administration clearly supports a bike friendly campus, she said, referring to WSU's highly successful Green Bike program that allows students, faculty and staff to rent BIXI or Trek mountain bikes for free with a quick swipe of a Cougar card.
"I've been to a lot of universities, and yours is the most comprehensive bike-sharing system I've seen, she said.
Plus, unlike some campuses Birk has visited, the Pullman area already has a foundation of trails and paths, she said. Most impressive are the Chipman Palouse trail, connecting Pullman to Moscow, and the Pullman Loop Trail system.
Unplowed trails, disappearing paths
But we still have work to do, Birk said. For starters, WSU should consider finding ways to plow the more popular trails during winter: "It's one thing to put in trails and paths. It's another to keep them functional.
Additionally, in Pullman and on campus, Birk observed areas where designated bike paths on streets shared with cars suddenly vanish - a potentially dangerous scenario, she said.
One of WSU's more notable cycling professors, Tom Salsbury, agrees. He pedals to campus from his home in Moscow about three times a week with a Web cam mounted to his helmet. Go to his blog "Paradise Creek Commuter, and you'll find entries of his commutes, complete with video accompanied by music ranging from Eric Clapton to the "Rocky theme song.
Commuting on the eight mile Chipman trail is the easy part, said Salsbury, an associate professor in the College of Education. And talk about a field of dreams. The oceanlike swells of the hills, the farms, the spotted appaloosas and wildlife critters all make the journey beautiful, he said.
"Sometimes a coyote will appear in my headlights.
Vision, persistence encouraged
But after it snows, no plowing is done and the trail can get treacherously slippery, he said: "I'm not sure what I'll do when that happens this winter.
Also, while Pullman offers designated bike lanes on streets, in some areas the lanes abruptly end, said Salsbury, just as Birk pointed out.
"I'll be riding up the street and suddenly the bike lane disappears and cars are barreling behind me. Basically, there's no buffer between me and two tons of metal, he said.
Yes, it will take work to make Pullman more bike friendly, said Birk.
"Remember, though, that Portland's bikeways didn't happen overnight. It took vision. It took persistence, she said. "You're ahead of the game.