Marek Warszawski

Shrink part of Blackstone to two lanes? Fresno trying to help cyclists feel safer

Feeling safe while riding a bicycle on the streets of Fresno shouldn’t require a police escort.

Unfortunately for many residents of California’s fifth-largest city, it takes nothing less.

Those were my thoughts Wednesday morning while pedaling south on Blackstone Avenue among a group of 100 cyclists, including Fresno City Councilmembers Esmeralda Soria and Miguel Arias, as part of the Mall to Hall Ride.

The sixth annual ride, from Manchester Mall to Fresno City Hall, was organized by the Fresno County Bicycle Coalition to kick off a series of local events for National Bike Month.

During every inch of the 3.5-mile ride, our progress was protected by Fresno Police Department cruisers. As we rode in the right-hand lane behind one cruiser with its lights on, others kept the street free of cars. When we arrived at intersections, two cruisers were already stationed there to block cross traffic and allow us to proceed.

Gotta say, it’s pretty fun and somewhat liberating to pedal through red light after red light with full police permission and blessing.

When we arrived at City Hall for speeches and proclamations, it wasn’t lost on me or others that the streets we just rode down would not normally be considered safe for cycling. None of them even had bike lanes.

But perhaps not for long.

During Thursday’s meeting, the Fresno City Council passed something called the Southern Blackstone Avenue Smart Mobility Strategy. Essentially, it’s a plan to improve the Blackstone/Abbey Street corridor from Dakota Avenue to Highway 180.

This file photo shows the concentration of shops along Blackstone Avenue in Fresno. A new effort is underway to redesign Blackstone so it can be a healthier roadway by accommodating bike paths and other uses. KURT HEGRE Fresno Bee file

While the exact design has yet to be finalized – and won’t be without additional community input – initial plans call for widened sidewalks and a bike way that would be separated from car traffic. (Landscaping and bollards are typically used for this purpose.)

To make room, that section of Blackstone and Abbey would be narrowed from three lanes in each direction to two.

“We need to design Blackstone to include bicycles and pedestrians in a much more thoughtful way,” Arias told the group of cyclists in front of City Hall.

In addition, Arias said the City Council will soon consider a measure requiring the city to include bike lanes and sidewalks in all new road construction and improvements.

“We have a council majority that is going to insist these amenities be the standard in the city of Fresno,” Arias said. “At the end of the day we need it so my kids, your kids and everyone’s kids can ride ride bikes and walk to school safely without having to compete with cars.”

With its flat topography and wide-open setting, Fresno could’ve been a great place to walk and ride bikes.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Streets in the city’s older core were designed only with cars in mind. Not until Fresno’s northward growth did city officials began requiring developers to make the neighborhoods they build more livable.

Which is why most of Fresno’s bike lanes, as well as its separated bike and pedestrian paths, are located north of Shaw Avenue. And why most of the bike collisions take place in central and downtown Fresno.

I’m convinced that more people would be out riding their bikes if they felt more safe, and statistics back up that assertion. In 2015, researchers surveyed 3,000 adults who live in the 50 largest U.S. metro areas and identified four types of cyclists.

bike graphic.png

Those classified as “strong and fearless” (people who ride undeterred by car traffic or road conditions) numbered only 7 percent. The next group, “enthused and confident,” was even smaller at 5 percent.

The majority of those surveyed – 51 percent – was classified as “interested and concerned.” This subsection enjoys riding bikes but doesn’t do it often because they don’t feel safe. (The fourth group, “no way and no how” numbered 37 percent.)

In Fresno, this 51 percent has been ill-served for so long. Yes, there has been progress. There are more separated bike trails in north Fresno than ever before. In other parts of the city, officials are experimenting with signage and green-painted bike lanes reminding motorists they need to share space.

At the same time, much-needed projects like the Midtown Trail have been struck in neutral – even though the Fresno Irrigation District and city officials reached an agreement last year that would allow bike paths to be built along canal banks.

“(FID) signed an agreement, but they keep coming up with silly demands,” said Gene Richards of the Fresno County Bicycle Coalition.

Even a small increase in the number of cyclists would ease traffic congestion and improve our air quality.

But that won’t happen without the infrastructure that makes people feel safe. Because the police can’t be there to escort us every time we want to go for a ride.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.