Anniston wants to declare itself the state’s biking haven. But can the city back it up?
by Tim Lockette
Apr 14, 2013 | 12781 views |  0 comments | 59 59 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bicyclists are shown at the Weaver-Anniston border point during a recent competitive event. (Anniston Star photo by Trent Penny)
Bicyclists are shown at the Weaver-Anniston border point during a recent competitive event. (Anniston Star photo by Trent Penny)
Tom Sauret thinks Anniston has what it takes.

An avid cyclist and director of the Southeastern Off-Road Bicycle Association, Sauret is a big fan of Coldwater Mountain, the nature preserve where bikers can speed along more than a dozen miles of trail dedicated to cycles.

“In two years, I think, they'll be able to host a major race,” Sauret said. “That site can accommodate a multi-faceted mountain biking event.”

Anniston Mayor Vaughn Stewart wants to build the city's future around that. Stewart wants the city to pass a resolution sometime this summer declaring Anniston as "Bike City, Alabama" — implying that it's the bicycling capital of the state.

It wouldn't be an official name change, and certainly wouldn’t supplant “The Model City.” It would just be a self-chosen nickname like Gadsden's "City of Champions" or Fort Payne's "Sock Capital of the World." But Stewart hopes it will be the start of a re-branding for Anniston, a city once known as "Toxic Town" for its PCB contamination and chemical weapons — problems that have largely been cleaned up.

Stewart says the city has a strong case for the nickname. Coldwater Mountain is now home to 15 miles of off-road mountain biking trails, winding through 4,000 acres of undeveloped forestland preserved by the state, with another nine miles expected to be completed by mid-summer. Bicycling enthusiasts from across the country will pour into the city next weekend for the Sunny King Criterium, where hundreds of amateurs and professionals race through the city's downtown. It's just one of several bike races, such as last weekend’s Woodland-Calhoun Century, hosted in Anniston or the surrounding area.

It doesn't hurt that the Chief Ladiga Trail, a 33-mile stretch of railroad bed now dedicated to hikers and bikers, ends on the city's outskirts.

"I've talked to people in the bicycling community and I think we can safely claim to be Bike City, Alabama," Stewart said. “‘Bike City, Southeast’ may take a little longer."

Still, there are times and places when Anniston doesn't look like a bike city at all. Despite the presence of hardcore cyclists who pedal for the challenge of it, bicycle commuters are a fairly rare sight. There are few bike lanes for cyclists to ride on, and the city's street grid isn't connected to the Ladiga Trail. The Census Bureau ranks Northeast Alabama among the least physically active areas in the country, a hint that biking might be a hard sell to the general populace.

Catching up

Anniston's leaders have a lot of pedaling to do to catch up with Brandy Ezelle.

Ezelle is the traffic engineer for the city of Auburn, and every few years she does an inventory of the city's bike-accessible streets, counting the number of main traffic arterials with bike lanes, the number of bike racks and other facilities for bikers. She writes about the city's "three-foot law," which requires drivers to give bikers a wide berth. And she reports on the city's bicycle education program, which teaches the rules of the road to every fourth-grader in Auburn city schools.

All of that information gets sent to the League of American Bicyclists, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that, among other things, designates some cities around the country as official "Bike Friendly Communities."

About 250 cities have earned the honor so far, though officials of the group say roughly 600 have applied. Auburn is the only city in Alabama to earn the distinction.

Despite its lanes, laws and elementary-school classes, Auburn has so far earned only "bronze" status, the lowest level on the league's hierarchy, which goes up to "platinum."

The city's been working on it, Ezelle said, since 1998.

"It was really citizen-driven," Ezelle said. In the 1990s, she said, Auburn announced that it was working on a plan for urban growth well into the 21st century. The city's bicycling advocates asked for a place at the table, and the city created a Bicycling Advisory Committee, to meet regularly and draft a 20-year bike plan for the city.

At the time, according to city documents, Auburn had only one true bike lane, painted along Thach Avenue. Other streets had signs indicating a bike lane, but no markings on the road. Today, more than halfway into the 20-year plan, the committee publishes a map showing visitors where bike lanes and dedicated bike paths criss-cross the city.

Anniston is just starting down the path Auburn has already pedaled. Just last year, the city adopted its first "complete streets" plan, obligating the city to at least consider bike access in future transportation plans.

Honorable mention

James Moore is pushing hard to get out ahead of Ezelle. He's the transportation planner for Huntsville, a city that has been actively working on bike-friendly issues for more than a decade.

“We did our first bike plan in 2001, and revised it in 2006 or 2007,” he said. "We're up for another revision soon."

Moore is a member of the city's Bicycle Advisory Council, which for years has advised the city on bike safety. At the council's urging, the city has designated 150 miles of Huntsville area roads as bike routes, Moore said, where cyclists are encouraged to ride. Some have bike lanes, other have "share the road" signs remind drivers to look out for cyclists, and some roads are still works in progress.

"We have numbered routes, just like the interstate system," he said. "Odd numbers go north-south and even numbers go east-west."

The city has four miles of greenway, Moore said, where cyclists can ride and never see a car. City buses have bike racks. Police track bike crashes and look for ways to improve the most hazardous areas. The city is about to begin an ad campaign to remind drivers to watch out for cyclists, Moore said.

Huntsville isn't on the league’s Bike-Friendly Community list. But it's not like the city of 183,000 residents hasn’t tried.

"We got an honorable mention the last time," he said.

Moore said Auburn has one great advantage — a single, large university, with lots of young bike riders.

Ezelle, the Auburn traffic engineer, said being a university town definitely helps. For years, Auburn University has been limiting car traffic on roads on campus and encouraging parking on decks on the campus fringe, she said. As a result, it's not just students who take to bikes.

"If you live in any neighborhood near the campus, and you work on campus, it's easier just to ride a bike," she said.

Worth a try

Mayor Stewart said he'd like the city to apply for the same sort of Bike Friendly designation Auburn has earned.

Bill Nesper, who directs the league's Bike-Friendly Cities program, said it's worth a try.

"Most of our bronze-level communities excel at one or two criteria, and are working on the others," he said.

The league judges cities based on several criteria. Among them, the number of bike-accessible roads, the laws on the books to protect riders and the city's efforts to teach all residents about those laws.

"One question we ask is, do you have a bike plan, and is someone in charge of that plan?" Nesper said. There is, in fact, a bike plan for the entire county, last updated in 2012, that outlines 19 priority projects for bike access.

One hard statistic the group looks at, Nesper said, is the crash rate — the number of fatal bike accidents compared to the number of people who commute to work by bike.

That's still a painful subject for some Anniston biking enthusiasts. Last year, Derek Jensen, spokesman for the Center for Domestic Preparedness at McClellan, was killed in a collision with a truck while biking to work. He was traveling on Veterans Memorial Parkway, the newly built bypass through the former Fort McClellan.

It's not clear just how many Anniston residents commute to work, as Jensen did. About half of 1 percent of all American workers commute on bikes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Across Calhoun County, according to 2010 census numbers, 759 people commuted to work by means other than motor vehicles, walking or public transportation.

Country cousin

If Anniston made Nesper's Bike Friendly Communities list, it might well stand out as a sort of country cousin. At the top of that list, and of other lists compiled by bicycling magazines and groups, are high-tech cities and college towns like Austin, Texas, Gainesville, Fla., and Madison, Wis.

Historically a town of soldiers and foundry workers, the Model City would seem to be an odd fit among the town-and-gown set. And as Anniston has seen with every major cycling event, cycling as a sport seems to attract a disproportionate number of college graduates with disposable incomes.

Still, there's evidence that the demographics of cycling are shifting. A study by researchers from Rutgers and Virginia Tech found that in 2001, 28 percent of regular bikers in large cities were in the top quarter of income earners, making them the biggest segment of the biking population. By 2009, the bottom quarter of wage-earners had become the biggest biking group, making up 31 percent of all bike riders. The percentage of riders who biked to work or to keep up appointments rose, and the percentage of exercise bikers fell.

Nesper acknowledged that blue-collar cities were rare on the the Bike Friendly Communities list, though he believes there's no reason an industrial town couldn't make that push — if it wanted to.

"I'd encourage Anniston or any similar town to give it a try," he said.

The right path

Anniston is showing evidence that it is willing to make that push in a serious way.

City leaders met earlier this month to go over the city's efforts to support cyclists, said City Planner Toby Bennington. As a result of that meeting, he said, he expects bike lanes to be painted onto Alabama 202 approaching Coldwater Mountain within a year.

Bennington said the coming bike lane is a sign the city is serious about the "complete streets" policy the city adopted last year. That policy requires the city to plan infrastructure projects with walkable, bike-friendly thoroughfares in mind. A network of sidewalks could take many years to build, but Bennington said bike lanes require only sufficiently wide road and some paint.

"We're getting the low-hanging fruit," he said, noting that the city is studying the best options for creating bike lanes to link Coldwater Mountain to Alabama 202.

The city is also seeking another possible link that could advance Anniston's Bike City plans in a major way. The City Council voted last week to ask the McClellan Development Authority to give it 3,500 feet of old railroad bed for development. They hope to use that railroad bed to extend the Ladiga Trail, helping to link iit to the city's network of streets.

The lack of a link between the Coldwater Mountain and the Ladiga Trail has long been one of the biggest complaints of bicycle enthusiasts who otherwise love the city.

"Connecting to the Ladiga Trail is at the top of the list of things we need to do," said Mike Poe, president of the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association.

City planner Bennington and Mayor Stewart both say the city has its work cut out for it. Work toward on some of Anniston's biggest bike projects has just begun, they say.

But Stewart says the city is getting there.

"I think we're headed down the right path," he said.

Capitol and statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star.
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