As a UNCW student who bikes to and from campus daily, I know the infinite dangers of using a bicycle as the foremost mode of transportation. I’ve been hit by fellow bikers, hit pedestrians myself, and have even been pushed to the ground by a moving vehicle. The good news, though, is that New Hanover County is working hard to become more bike-friendly and in turn hopefully may circumvent these unfortunate accidents in the future. It’s only a matter of time until bikers, pedestrians and drivers can all commute in harmony.
Once again, New Hanover County has declared May Bicycle Month. During this month, the county will be hosting bike rides and other events to promote and embrace bicycling in New Hanover County. On May 5th, the city hosted its 23rd annual River to Sea Bike Ride where almost 300 cyclists came to ride from downtown to Wrightsville Beach. On May 19th they held a six-park metric century, in which cyclists biked 62 miles and stopped at six parks in New Hanover County. Also, May 30th is Bike to Work Day, and all residents of New Hanover County are encouraged to bike to their jobs. Companies within the county are being asked to allow workers to dress casually so that employees will be more inclined to pedal their way to their desks.
Bicycle Month is a reminder of how much progress Wilmington has made in becoming a bike-friendly community. Wilmington’s Cross-City Trail is currently partially completed and will provide bicyclists with mostly off-road paths that lead to some of Wilmington’s biggest attractions such as Independence Mall, UNCW, Mayfaire Town Center, Lumina Station, Landfall Center and Wrightsville Beach. The trail begins at Wade Park and will end at the Heide Trask Drawbridge over the Intracoastal Waterway.
The city is also working to draft a Comprehensive Greenway Plan to connect most of Wilmington’s attractions by bike and walking paths. According to the project’s website, greenways are “corridors of land recognized for their ability to connect people and places together.” The plan also includes blueways, which are paths that include traveling by water via kayak or canoe. Greenways and blueways will increase property value in Wilmington, save local species, and generate local revenue, as well as connect fragmented communities to one another.
According to Austin Fenwick, an avid cyclist in New Hanover County, who at one point cycled 14.5 miles one-way to work daily, the Cross-City trails and the Comprehensive Greenway Plan are a great first step. He hopes one day Wilmington will become more like cities such as Portland, Oregon, where almost 8 percent of the population travels on two wheels. In order to increase the number of cyclists in Wilmington, Fenwick states that New Hanover County still needs to increase the number of trails, greenways and bike lanes.
“If the city can find a way to complete and expand on this infrastructure, we can realistically see a shift in the driving habits of some people,” he says, “and that will help improve overall health and ease traffic congestion.”
The city also needs to place more of an emphasis on biking as a means of transportation in addition to recreation. Fenwick states, “The more cyclists there are, the safer cycling is.” The Greenway Plan is offering public workshops to help strengthen its multi-use modal transportation model, with the next events slated for the end of the summer.
The City of Wilmington is well aware of the steps needed to be taken, and they are working diligently toward reaching this goal. According to Adrienne Harrington, transportation planner, and Suraiya Rashid, associate planner, last year, the city was awarded a bronze level designation by the League of American Bicyclists as a Bike Friendly Community. The league suggested the city focus on three major areas of improvement: education, facilities and enforcement. Cyclists of all ages within the community need to be educated on how to bike safely on paths and roadways.
Harrington states, “We have made some progress [on education] in the past; however, we are hoping to pick up momentum in the next few years.”
By implementing “Safe Routes to School,” a program that provides children with bicycle and pedestrian education, Harrington and Rashid believe Wilmington will become safer for cyclists. “Education at a young age proves successful by creating safe behaviors from the beginning rather than modifying unsafe behaviors that have been practiced for a longer period of time,” Harrington says.
The transportation planners also agree there needs to be a liaison between the law enforcement community and the cycling community. “It will create safe behaviors for cyclists and motorists,” Rashid says.
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation found that 50 percent of the trips people take in their cars are less than three miles. Hopefully, once the city’s trails and Greenway Plan is complete, that percentage will decrease drastically in Wilmington, and the community will try to live every month like it’s Bicycle Month.
Folks can check out Wilmington’s Greenway Plan and take a survey to help gauge public input www.wilmingtongreenway.com.