Wednesday, May 22, 2013

BikeWalkLee rakes in awards by spurring awareness, action

 Florida Weekly shines a spotlight on BikeWalkLee's advocacy efforts and reports on the lessons from the Tice walking audit event.

May 22, 2013

The name falls a little short: Bike- WalkLee.
If the volunteers who started this noprofit (not nonprofit, not 501(c)(3), but no-profit) special interest group at the beginning of 2009 were striving for accuracy, they should have named it something else.

Maybe this: Bike-Walk-Bus-Rollerblade, Less-Internal-Combustion, More-Communion Between- Governments- and- Residents, Tie-Neighborhoods-Together, Make-Public-Transportation-More-Common and-Accessible, and Safe-Travel- From-Work-To-Play-And-High-to-Low- Income Lee.

Fortunately for all, they recognized the value of brevity.

But that’s really who they are, which is why in recent months BikeWalkLee has won several significant awards, including preeminent status in the Sunshine State as the Outstanding Public Interest Group of the Year for 2012.

That award came from the American Planners Association, of which Bill Spikowski is a member.
“They’re such an amazing group,” says Mr. Spikowski, president of Spikowski Planning and Associates, in Fort Myers, who offers probono consulting to BikeWalkLee when asked.
“Often bike advocacy groups are just the athletes, but BikeWalkLee joins little-old-lady cyclists like me who like to ride around without spandex, to the athletes. It connects the 8-yearolds and the 80-year-olds. And they’ve combined that with advocacy for public transportation, across the board,” he explains.

So its concepts are smart and even inarguable. But BikeWalkLee takes it beyond mere conceptualization.

“They’ve managed to work well with government,” he says.
And not just work well with government, but work government — break it in, saddle it up and ride it hard — to change both the concept of how we live and move around, and the pavement on which we live and move around.

“We’ve incorporated things in our master planning today that would not exist had it not been for this group’s activities and their influence,” says Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann.

And government is going to incorporate more, which is why Commissioner Mann and Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson mounted bicycles late last week and rode from Ortiz Avenue downtown with members of BikeWalkLee.

Commissioner Mann described himself as one of the last people to ride a bicycle to Fort Myers High School right up until he was 16 and could drive.

But he had to be loaned a bike and a helmet last week, he said, since his life followed the way of cars and trucks — the way of the second half of the 20th century — after high school (he is now 71).
“This is all part of the big picture — to break, in time, the love affair between the American public and the internal combustion engine,” he noted.

“In years to come, this will be a better-blended community from a transportation standpoint, because of the efforts of BikeWalkLee.”

The group’s efforts, for example, have helped the county’s Complete Streets program rise from mediocrity to noteworthiness, although it still has a way to go, say the experts.

And it’s going to get there in part with the help of another award, this one from the Institute of Sustainable Communities.

One of only 10 handed out in the United States, the award is designed to help sprawling, multi-cultural cities and counties function more vitally, more safely, and with less isolation of neighborhoods by delivering experts right to their streets, at no charge to the locals.

Those experts make recommendations after a walking audit with local residents — or in this case the Tice Audit, so-named for the East Fort Myers neighborhood flanking the northern end of Ortiz Avenue and centered around Tice Elementary School.

Tessa LeSage, who grew up in Fort Myers, went to Boston College and came back a planner, is now director of sustainability for Lee County, a three-year-old county staff position that allowed her to help write the Bike- WalkLee proposal and win the Tice Audit.

“It’s such a privilege to have experts who understand walkability and livability and how to engage multicultural communities come in here and give us fresh ideas,” says Ms. LeSage.

Arriving from as far away as California and Tallahassee, the experts and planners met with students, with community members and with each other, then started walking the streets — for two days.
The idea is to make the Tice neighborhood safer, easier to move around and directly accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists from the larger community around it.

The other idea, notes Darla Letourneau, a BikeWalkLee founder and leader, is to educate everybody around Tice, too.

“The Tice Audit has ramifications beyond itself for walking and biking.

“We wanted to make sure we had representatives from other communities — from Alva, Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Springs, the city of Fort Myers. Essentially, we wanted them to learn by doing, so we could replicate this in other communities.

“These tools are out there, these walking audits, as a way of engaging communities.”

Tice proves a fabulous laboratory from which others can learn because it’s complicated and challenging, suggests says Mr. Spikowski.

“In Tice, there are three mammoth governmental organizations: the city of Fort Myers, which lies west of Prospect Avenue, the county, which lies east of Prospect; and then you have the state of Florida going right through the middle of them with its own plans — Palm Beach Boulevard is a state road (SR 80).”

So, with everybody looking on and many participating, the suggestions of residents were many, starting with their insistence that putting a four-lane “highway” right through the middle of Tice might not be best for this vibrant community — a notion officials saw and embraced.

That had been the plan at one point; it isn’t now, officials said. They came from Human Services, Community Development, the Metropolitan Planning Organization of city and county officials, the state Department of Transportation, and the city of Fort Myers itself — and all of them got on the same page, so to speak.

“When you do an audit just from data and maps, you can make a suggestion and not realize where the real issues are,” admits Ms. LeSage. “So it’s a luxury to have experts give us a fresh idea.””

Such as this one: “On low-volume residential streets, actually painting a pedestrian/bicycle lane that decreases the width of the travel lanes for cars, but creates this barrier through paint and changing of the surface, encourages cars to slow down and provide a safe place for people to walk or bike.

“That’s a really great option in Tice and other places, where roads are flanked by ditches.”
Margaret Banyan, a professor of public services management and public administration at Florida Gulf Coast University and a long-time member of BikeWalkLee, offers a bigger-picture view of the Tice Audit.

“Tice has one of the highest bike-ped activities in the county,” she explains.

“There are fabulous examples across the country where bike and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods improve economically, are safer, serve citizens well, and increase visibility.

“So I think the grant more than met our expectations. The collaboration (between branches of government and citizens) was more than we would have thought possible, at the beginning.” ¦

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