Obligatory Bike-Related Post

If you know me, you know that I am a habitual bicycle user. In fact, bikes were what got me into urban planning to begin with. Back in 2003, I started working with a scrappy group of folks at the Hampshire College Yellow Bike Project. It was a community bike program that fixed up a fleet of bicycles and put them around campus. Anyone was free to pick one up, ride to class (if it worked), and leave it for the next person (hopefully). I’m the long-haired, overalls fellow on the right.

yellow bike

It really snow-balled from there. I ended up fabricating a frame and building my own bike at the Hampshire College Lemelson Center (which I guess is now called the Center for Design):


I went to grad school with the intention of eventually heading up a bicycle-related nonprofit. Once at the University of Oregon, I helped start the Bike Loan Program (now the UO Bike Program):

bike loan program
Pictured with Dave Villalobos (University of Oregon) and Briana Orr (Cascade Bicycle Club)

My interests zig-zagged in grad school, as they should, but I did end up becoming a manager at a bicycle nonprofit. Here I am during my time as Programs Director for the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (MassBike):


So it was only a matter of time until I started feeding my addiction (Or is it passion? Is there a difference?) and got involved in the bike scene in the Pioneer Valley. I went to my inaugural public meeting dealing with bikes on Monday night, the Holyoke Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee. I even grabbed a shot of public participation in action!

From Left to Right: Rep. Aaron Vega, Dillon Sussman (PVPC), Marcos Marrero (City of Holyoke), Sean Condon, Elbert something, Colby something, Liz Budd

The hot topics in bicycle planning in the Pioneer Valley seem to be:

  1. How do communities access the $12.5 million that MassDOT set aside for Complete Streets projects?
  2. Should there be a regional bike share network?
  3. Can Northampton even further cement its position as the #1 Massachusetts city for biking outside of Route 128?*

Meanwhile, the topics in Holyoke in particular are:

  1. The city has no money for planning or preliminary design of any bicycle or pedestrian facilities. As the sage of our times Sean “Puffy” Combs said, it’s all about the Benjamins.
  2. The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission has generously allocated a very small budget toward putting together a strategic bicycle implementation plan. But we need to contribute sweat equity in order for it to really pay off.
  3. Meanwhile, there are only three streets with dedicated bike lanes on them and a short section of path along the canals. We can do better.

To put things in perspective, let’s compare Holyoke and Northampton. Here is the map of the two cities with some annotation:

holyoke_nton bike map

As you can see, Northampton has this amazing off-road network that Holyoke lacks. Indeed, there is a really big mountain in the way of connecting to it.

Now let’s look at commuting patterns. Here are the two communities in 2009:

2009 commute
Source: 2009 American Community Survey 5-year estimates

You can see that Holyokers are much more likely to drive (either alone or in a carpool) and Northamptonites are more likely to bike or walk.

The difference in bike rate is even more pronounced in 2014:

2014 commute
Source: 2014 American Community Survey 5-year estimates

Of course, there are a lot of reasons people commute the way that they do, and whether or not there is a bike lane or a multiuse path may not make that big a difference by itself. For example, another major difference between the two cities is crime rate and, perhaps more importantly, perception of crime; conventional wisdom is that Northampton is a safe Bohemian “Cambridge in the country,” while Holyoke is a dark scary city with urban blight and gang violence. In that context, of course more people walk to work in Northampton than Holyoke.

However, infrastructure matters. In both communities, trends are (more or less) heading in a favorable direction for my line of work – more walking, biking, and using transit. But I want Holyoke to shift up into the big ring and really ratchet up the number of people using active transportation. The city has got to either connect up to that amazing off-road network just north of us, or build some of the best on-road facilities this side of Walden Pond. We can do it, and I’m looking forward to helping out.

*Northampton recently received a grant to put together a Bike/Ped/Complete Streets Equity Plan. I mean, come on already! We get it, you’re an active transportation advocate’s dream!


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