Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Moser Column: Despite some progress, bicycle and pedestrian access still inequitable

Dan's column today highlights the inequities in access to bike/ped facilities in underserved areas, with a few examples and ideas for getting action.

Florida Weekly "Outdoors" section, May 4, 2016

These days it’s pretty clear there’s a big demand for safe bike/ped facilities throughout Lee County. Especially in the morning and early evening when the weather is nice there are an impressive number of folks getting in their daily exercise, walking their dogs or otherwise enjoying the environment. It’s no secret that walkable, bikeable communities are what the populace is now demanding and, in many cases, getting.

Being a critical observer of our community and its infrastructure means seeing the bad as well as the good. While there’s undoubtedly progress being made I continue to be dismayed at how parts of our cities and county that have the most critical need for pathways and safer streets for those who depend on walking, biking, and using public transit for their primary transportation continue to be neglected and underserved as things improve elsewhere. I’m no social scientist but from what I can tell there seems to be two primary reasons why this is the case.

The first seems obvious but shouldn’t be a justification: socioeconomics. In neighborhoods where incomes and property values are low there are frequently a high number of residents who do not own cars so depend on human power and transit to get around. Because of lower housing values tax revenue is depressed as well. But in a society that purports to treat everyone equally less taxable values should not mean safe bike/ped access is nonexistent or substandard and roads more dangerous than elsewhere.

Governments that bear the hidden costs of inadequate infrastructure and developers who reap profits — no matter the price range of their products — should ensure safe access for all users, an expectation I think is reasonable but clearly unrecognized by some. In fact, more than once I’ve heard developers say, “if our customers want to live in neighborhoods with sidewalks they’d buy into developments that offer sidewalks.” Yikes!

But the governments that allow developments to move forward without such vital infrastructure are just as guilty as is the private sector taking advantage of lax requirements. And, in the end, taxpayers end up picking up the tab for what should have been the developer’s responsibility, including in the form of emergency services and adding infrastructure after the fact.

Lack of a voice is the other factor I’ve found to be a common trait of underserved neighborhoods. This is something that obviously goes well beyond safe bike/ped access, but an absence of a decent walking and biking environment characterizes the other problems as well as anything. When residents are too busy trying to make a living and raise their families to attend meetings or simply feel they won’t be listened to because of their socioeconomic status there’s little possibility of getting their needs acknowledged. This is especially true when there’s a backlog of projects to the tune of well over $50 million, all of which are competing for an annual pittance of that shortfall. And that doesn’t even include deferred maintenance on unusable or hazardous facilities. It seems unfair that residents need to petition for basic infrastructure or repair since public works and transportation officials are usually aware of such problems. But the fact is that to even have a chance to compete for funds or services local voices are essential.

One would expect local elected officials who represent these underserved areas to be the voices. And they may indeed be doing their best, but there are clearly many more unsafe bike/ped conditions in low-income areas than in more affluent neighborhoods, all other things being equal. To our various governments’ credit there are many attempts underway to remedy the shortcomings, but it’s not nearly enough. And there’s still a serious funding priority disparity in that some of the neighborhoods and roads in need for the longest time remain on the back burner while available tax dollars are spent on other noncritical infrastructure.

Three glaring examples of overdue infrastructure come to mind (there are many, many more):
1.) A much-needed community center was built in Suncoast Estates a number of years ago but still lacks a pathway for folks to get there, many of whom walk and bicycle.
2.) Luckett Road in east Fort Myers is a busy, high-speed road that cuts through a residential neighborhood between Ortiz Ave and an I-75 interchange. There is no accommodation for nonmotorists. Residents who walk or bike are essentially forced into the ditches.
3.) Hanson Street in central Fort Myers is a heavily used east-west road that lacks pathways on much of it. A new extension of the road through undeveloped property (that will then be accessible for profit-making development) is being taxpayer funded while dangerous conditions in the already developed segments of that street remain unaddressed.

When you go out on your next walk, run or bike ride be grateful if it’s relatively safe. If conditions are not acceptable consider letting your elected officials and government staff know. There are also efforts taking place locally in the form of walking and biking audits by residents to document conditions and needs which can then be presented to elected officials by those directly impacted. Perhaps these will make a difference in places yet unaddressed or getting little traction. You can find out whom to contact to request improvements as well as more about neighborhood audits at

Dan Moser is a longtime bicycle/pedestrian advocate and traffic safety professional who cycles, runs and walks regularly for transportation, recreation and fitness.

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