Improving the Palouse Bike Experience

 I recently received the honor of being one of several guest columnists from the community for our local newspaper. Our only restrictions are the deadline, word count, and politeness, though we are encouraged to focus on local issues. Since access to the actual paper is restricted to subscribers, I am re-posting my essay here. You’re welcome.

Since moving out to the Palouse two years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the contrasts between the “fraternal twin” cities of Pullman and Moscow. Though similar on the surface, both being small towns hosting major universities, difference large and small abound. I am sure that many factors over the years have played a role in this divergence, and that unfolding story fascinates me; especially from the seat of my bicycle.

I came here from Olympia and a four-year stint as a nearly full-time bike commuter, so I am used to looking at a city from that point of view. I have shared road and sidewalk with pedestrians and panhandlers; logging trucks and limos. I have studied maps for shortcuts and bike routes, ridden through driving rain and bitter cold, and built functional bikes from piles of parts. In short, I am something of a bike nut. Judging from the popularity of WSU’s “Green Bike” program and the delightful variety of bikes I see on my visits to Moscow, I am not the only one. Yet Moscow is well ahead of Pullman in its bike-friendliness, and there is but a tenuous connection between the two towns.

Pullman’s hilly contours and narrow streets do their fair share to discourage bike traffic, as do distracted drivers and Old Man Winter. But while geography plays a role in a city’s development, it is no guarantor of destiny. If places as diverse as Copenhagen, San Francisco, and New York City have adapted to bicycles, and vise versa, Pullman and Moscow are surely able to transform from merely bike-tolerant to truly bike-friendly. This would have benefits for both the land and the people of the Palouse, not to mention the rest of the wider world. First, though, a few kinks need to be ironed out. Over my next several Town Crier columns I will propose some solutions, based on these four main ideas:

1. Connect the hotspots. The essence of transportation is getting products and people where they want to go, not sticking them where they don’t want to be. I have noticed some significant gaps and interruptions in trying to bike around Pullman, and I will detail them in a future article.

2. Upgrade the network. The basic framework of a trail system is in place, but it is currently more suited to summer recreation than year-round transit. I have some ideas that could improve usability for commuters as well as joyriders.

3. Restore the shuttle. The lack of a public-transit link between Pullman and Moscow puts more cars on the road, more pollution in the air, and more parking headaches into our community. Surely there is sufficient demand for a fare-based bus service connecting these two cities? I plan to investigate this question.

4. Keep it local. Sending used bikes and bike parts to far-off Africa is a good-hearted undertaking, but charity begins at home. Instead of shelling out hundreds of dollars for an inferior box-store bicycle unsuited to the realities of urban commuting, what if low-income riders could build their own custom bike at minimal cost with existing materials? I have seen it happen, and I believe it can work here as well.

Improving the Moscow-Pullman bicycling experience in these ways would help ease motor vehicle traffic in the crowded downtown areas; reduce pressure on an overcrowded transit system; improve the health and well-being of our citizenry; highlight the Palouse as a forward-thinking region, dedicated to responsible, sustainable development; make the city an even more attractive destination; and help mitigate the effects of global climate change and resource scarcity. We owe it both to ourselves and to future generations to make this beautiful corner of the world as good as it can be.


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