Everyone Loves a Shortcut

 Here is the essay I wrote in December.

As the daylight fades, the winds pick up, and we prepare to settle in for another long Northwest winter, readers may find it an odd time to think about bicycling. I will reluctantly admit that the riding season may be winding down, and snow-covered streets may soon end it altogether. But, as gardeners and baseball fans can attest, winter is the time to argue, plan, and dream about next year. So, let’s start the conversation about what we want our community to look like and how we can get there. The “hot stove league” is just warming up.

Viewing the world from the seat of my bicycle, as I often do, puts me in a different frame of mind from most folks. I often compete for access and space with powerful, multi-ton behemoths possessing minds and agendas of their own. Sometimes I feel like a very small animal indeed. In fact, I often look at human activity as though I were studying a complex, exotic species; for isn’t that what we are? Part of my undergraduate studies included wildlife corridor ecology, and I find it a useful lens through which to view personal transportation. In the case of commuting, let us argue that we are examining human migratory and dispersal patterns through a mixed-use landscape.

One common trait with animals, and in this humans are no exception, is the tendency to take the easiest route possible between two points. The needs to conserve energy and save time are prime directives in the wilderness, and serve to guide animal behavior. Obstacles and impediments are to be avoided, and helpful resources like food, water and shelter should be nearby. No wonder, then, that valleys and riverbanks have been such popular travel routes since time out of mind. It’s not just the scenery; it’s the convenience. The “path of least resistance” is the shortest, safest, and healthiest way to go. This is part of the reason why wildlife corridors and “critter crossings” have become a popular solution for reducing human-wildlife conflict and loss.

The same principle applies within the human sphere too. Sidewalks, crossings, and multi-use paths are pieces of infrastructure designed to provide safe access points and travel options. However, it is all too easy for auto-centric thinking to dominate city and highway planning, choking off vital avenues for alternative transportation. Asking a pedestrian or cyclist to cross four unmarked lanes of traffic is like asking a deer to swim a river. They’ll do it once or twice if they have to, but it’s not likely to become a habit. Study after study reveals that the number-one impediment to people getting out on their bicycles in their own communities is their concern about safety.

“But wait!” you say. “What about the bike paths? Why can’t riders just stay on them?” I’m glad you brought that up. The Grand Avenue Greenway and the Bill Chipman Trail are both wonderful assets and get their fair share of use, but they don’t always go where they are needed. Try going from Terre View Drive to Bishop Boulevard on a bike sometime and you’ll see what I mean. There are a few of us who are fearless or foolish enough to navigate the narrow streets and dicey intersections along the way, but most recreational riders I know prefer not to play in traffic. Getting around the WSU campus is more of the same story. Bike lanes appear and disappear randomly, multi-use paths shrink into sidewalks with no warning, and the sheer density of automotive traffic is rather intimidating.

I intend to address specific trouble spots in a future essay. My point here is to put the issue into a different perspective, and to try and get interested parties thinking “outside the lines” when it comes to the future of transportation in Pullman.


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