Christine Avenue in Anniston is as wide as a lot of highways — but with all that space, it has no bicycle lane.
Quintard Avenue has miles of sidewalks — but with six lanes of traffic, there’s no place to ride a bike.
Anniston City Councilman Jay Jenkins would like to change that landscape, one street at a time.
Jenkins proposed a resolution in June that establishes what’s popularly known as a “complete streets” approach to urban planning in Anniston. Under the policy, city officials would factor pedestrian and bicycle access into their plans whenever they study new road projects — and write sidewalks and bike lanes into their plans when possible.
The one-page measure passed unanimously with little fanfare at Tuesday’s council meeting. It doesn’t require the Anniston City Council to approve a single new sidewalk or bike lane.
But Jenkins thinks it could be the start of a long-term — and long overdue — move toward a more walkable and healthier Anniston.
“It should have been done long ago,” Jenkins said.
A good grid
Anniston’s environment for cyclists and walkers actually isn’t so bad, said Jack Plunk, principal planner for the Calhoun County Metropolitan Planning Organization. At least, it’s not bad compared to most American cities.
“We actually have a good grid of sidewalks, particularly in the business district near Noble Street,” Plunk said.
In fact, Plunk said, much of the flat, lowland part of Anniston has a grid of streets with sidewalks on both sides of the road. But that’s not the part of Anniston that’s been growing over the past few decades, Plunk said. In Saks, Lenlock and Golden Springs, subdivisions and stores have sprung up largely without sidewalks to connect them.
And then there’s the Chief Ladiga Trail — the 33-mile hiking and cycling trail that ends at Anniston’s city limits. The trail is popular among sports enthusiasts, Plunk said, but because it isn’t connected to Anniston’s street grid, neither resource is used as much as it could be.
“There are people who would commute to work on ‘the Chief’ if we had it connected to our streets,” Plunk said.
The obesity connection
If Anniston isn’t as walkable and bikeable as it could be, the city is far from alone. Plunk said that for decades, cities have been building their streets for cars rather than for human traffic. He believes it’s one reason why obesity rates have swelled nationwide in the past few decades.
“The more you’re forced to drive, the less you walk,” he said. “That’s less exercise.”
Alabama is among the 10 states with the highest rates of obesity, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control. Census numbers show that Alabama is also among the 10 states with the lowest percentage of people who walk to work.
But will building sidewalks and bike lanes actually slim down Anniston’s population? Maybe. A 2009 analysis by the Centers for Disease Control, compiled from a number of studies, concluded that adding bike lanes truly does lead to an increase in bicycle traffic. The CDC found that most studies supported the idea that improved walking infrastructure leads to higher levels of physical activity in a community — though some studies found that the boost may be due to walkable cities attracting more physically fit residents.
City officials say they wouldn’t mind attracting more fitness-minded people to the area. In fact, attracting those people, and their dollars, is part of the plan.
“I’m a proponent of ecotourism,” Jenkins said. “We need to take advantage of the events that are already swirling around us.”
Chance for branding
Anniston is known well to runners and cyclists across the country. People have come from as far as the West Coast — and even from Kenya — to run in the Woodstock 5K, a road race that takes runners through the old residential heart of the Model City. The Sunny King Criterium bicycle race attracts thousands of spectators and world-class riders to the business-district race route.
Yet Calhoun and surrounding counties rank among the nation’s least physically active areas, according to the estimates from the CDC. In a nationwide study, 33 percent of Northeast Alabama residents told the CDC they hadn’t done any physical activity — running, biking, walking, even gardening — in the previous month.
Jenkins thinks better connections between sidewalks and bike lanes could also connect the everyday Anniston to the city’s reputation as a mecca for biking and running sports.
“It has to be about more than bike races,” he said. “It has to be about residents getting to the grocery store. We need a healthier living atmosphere for citizens.”
Jenkins noted that Jacksonville’s downtown bike racks — bright-red racks shaped like bicycles, with the Jacksonville State University logo — have helped build the university’s brand.
“I would like to see us attack this in the same way,” Jenkins said.
One piece at a time
If things had gone Joe Faust’s way, the whole state would have a “complete streets” policy.
A Republican state representative from Fairhope, Faust proposed a statewide complete streets bill in 2011. He says he won’t try it again.
“I’d love to see more sidewalks and bike lanes,” he said. “But right now, it’s hard to justify anything that would add to the cost of a project.”
Faust said his bill failed largely because of the cost increases it implied. Adding sidewalks to new road projects mean adding width — and expense — to new roads, he said.
Or maybe not. The cost of Minnesota’s statewide complete streets program has so far been minimal, according to Julie Skallman, director of state aid for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
“I wouldn’t want to say there’s no cost or negligible cost, but so far there hasn’t been enough to even bother calculating,” said Skallman, whose job includes overseeing implementation of complete streets.
Some governments take an “all roads, all modes” approach, demanding every street accommodate cyclists, walkers and cars, Skallman said. Minnesota takes it piece by piece, she explained, making a bicycle-friendly road here, a pedestrian-friendly road there. As long as everybody has a path from one point to another, the theory goes, they don’t have to ride the same road.
In Birmingham, the closest city with a complete streets policy, officials took a similar approach.
“If complete streets were put into place on every street in a city, it would be cost prohibitive,” said Steve Ostaseski, principal planner for the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham. “Completeness is about context. You need to pick the places where you can have the greatest impact.”
Jenkins plans to take it one street at a time.
“I don’t pretend we’re going to have a sidewalk on every street in Anniston,” he said. “In some cases, it will probably be prohibitive to have sidewalks.”
But he does see what he calls “low-hanging fruit.” Wide streets such as Christine Avenue, he said, could be striped for bike lanes right now, at the cost of a little paint.
“Share the road” signs could be put up at little cost. A few bicycle racks in the right places, he said, would be very visible.
Jenkins said he’d like to eventually create corridors that would allow people to cross the city east to west and north to south without a car — while connecting the city to the Chief Ladiga Trail or Coldwater Mountain’s new bike trails.
Those changes will take a long time, Jenkins said.
“This is a plodding kind of change,” he said. “Things won’t change overnight, but it is an achievable goal.”
It takes more than a policy to get a sidewalk built. Plunk, the MPO planner, notes that the city already has policies in place that require private developers to plan for sidewalks in their subdivisions.
“It’s usually the first thing that gets waived,” he said. “The developer will say it’s not cost-effective.” And no city council wants to say no to new development, he said.
While the new city policy requires city staff to include pedestrian and bicycle needs in their plans for new or repaired roads, it doesn’t bind the city council to any action. Future councils could shoot down any bike lane plan that comes along.
But Jenkins said he sees encouraging signs.
“I haven’t run into any real resistance,” he said. “People seem to like this idea.”
Nationwide, sidewalks and bike lanes seem to have broad support. A poll by the organization America Bikes found that 83 percent of Americans would favor more federal funding for both. That support was bipartisan, with 88 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans saying yes to federal funding.
Paying for it locally, though, might be a harder sell.
“I hope we can keep the momentum going,” Jenkins said. “It doesn’t do any good to write a resolution and put it on the shelf.”
Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.