Cycling lanes for Morgantown: So close, yet so far

12 Oct

If everything goes according to schedule, Morgantown may finally have its own cycling lanes next summer. That is if.


Despite having a population that tops 30,000, according to the US Census Bureau, the West Virginia college town still has almost no dedicated bicycle lanes, with its only cycling infrastructure in Granville.  “[But even] Granville is, technically, outside Morgantown,” Drew Gatlin, the chairman of the Bicycle Board of the City of Morgantown, said in an interview moments before the board met on October 5.


The story could change by next summer.  For the past four years, the City of Morgantown has received funds from the US Department of Transportation’s Transportation Alternative Grant, monies Gatlin says it has mobilised for its bike lanes project.  But there is still uncerainty on when the project will actually commence.


“It’s hard to say,” Gatlin admits. “With any other traffic installation infrastructure, it goes through a series of public input processes to approve where these things are located. We have preliminary designs, we are redesigning some of the stuff right now. The earliest the majority of the stuff will be installed is in April of next year. But that is an aggressive target. We should have some installations in the next couple of weeks…but it’s hard to try to say. This money is coming from the federal government and it has to go through the state government and then the state government and the municipality work together to engineer the installation.”


And even if the bureaucratic hurdles are scaled in the process of getting segregated cycling infrastructure installed in Morgantown, the element of good weather in Morgantown must be in place. “If it’s too cold we can’t burn down what’s known as thermoplastics, which is what makes up most of the line markings around town,” the Bicycle Board chairman adds. “We have to wait for warm days when it’s not raining essentially to put the stuff down.”


Not that eventual installation of cycling lanes will automatically translate into a sudden increase in biking in Morgantown. There is more work to be done. First the topography: Morgantown, like most parts of West Virginia, is mountainous – a terrain that appears too risky for many riders. Gatlin admits that that “fear of the unknown” exists, but says most people get to realise riding uphill is “much easier” than they usually think once they start.


Then there are not many two-lane roads in Morgantown. Gatlin acknowledges this leaves “little room for error” for cyclists riding past speeding cars in the opposite direction. But he is quick to explain that driving in Morgantown is “not aggressive”, hence bikers should feel safe sharing the road with cars, as laid out in the West Virginia traffic code, and be minded that cycling on sidewalks is prohibited.  As an additional safety measure, he reveals that the bike board is ensuring shared lane markings on Morgantown’s roads to notify “cyclists and drivers that bicycles are allowed to use the entire travel lane if they deem it necessary.”


And the board’s drive to popularise biking in the town has already seen it embark on some communal events this year, with more to follow. Mayor Marti Shamberger declared May as Morgantown Bike Month. On May 18, Morgantown joined the rest of the US to commemorate Bike to Work Day.  Then in June the Bicycle Board launched social rides.


“…The social rides,” according to Gatlin, “are intended to provide a space for people who are new…and want to meet other cyclists and have a good time…and ride around, maybe learn some new streets if they can be taken safely or quicker to some location.”


The event, held on the second Friday of every month, has attracted only six to 10 cyclists per ride so far, Gatlin discloses. But he says the bike board remains unfazed despite the low patronage, with October’s ride just a week away, and speaks of a grander ambition.


“We are hoping that these will turn into celebratory events that are somewhat self-perpetuating and that attract dozens of people to them,” he enthuses. “We hope that [they] will encourage more people to get out on their bicycles and ride in the streets. A lot of people are pretty afraid of that [but] it is a pretty safe way that people can get into cycling, with a focus on fun, non-competitiveness…”


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