Elena Studier is to arrive Friday afternoon on an Amtrak train in Anniston, where she’ll unload her bicycle, nicknamed “Stevie,” and ride through town on a two-day tour to study and promote multi-modal transportation.
Anyone else wanting to load or unload their bicycle at Anniston’s Amtrak station on Fourth Street won’t be able to, however.
Anniston is one stop on Studier’s more than 100,000-mile, 38-day trip by rail through 15 states. The trip is part of her year-long internship with the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a Washington D.C.-based organization that lobbies lawmakers on passenger train use. Amtrak has made an accommodation for Studier to bring along her bicycle.
Along the way, Studier, a sophomore studying transportation and urban environments at George Washington University, has met with local city and transit officials to learn about how those places incorporate non-automotive travel into their communities.
Amtrak in November chose not to add Anniston to its list of 17 bicycle-friendly stops along the Crescent line, which runs from New Orleans to New York City. Amtrak stated that the decision to exclude Anniston was because the station isn’t staffed to handle checked baggage.
“We’re working on that, and we’ll continue to do that,” Anniston Mayor Vaughn Stewart said, speaking of getting that service added in Anniston.
Kimberly Woods, an Amtrak spokeswoman, said by phone Thursday that the rail service continues to look at stations nationwide to add as bicycle-friendly stops, but plans to do so only for those with staffed baggage handling.
Traveling with bicycles requires getting them on and off the train along with luggage, Woods said, “and staff needs to be there to help them with that. It’s just a matter of making sure we’ll be able to accommodate folks.”
In 2015, 5,085 passengers used Anniston’s Amtrak station. Birmingham, which is a bicycle-friendly stop, saw 44,985 passengers during that time frame.
Studier, speaking by phone Thursday while riding Amtrak’s Crescent train out of Meridian, Miss., on her way to Anniston, said the cities she’s visited thus far vary in their abilities to accommodate cyclists, but most do well.
She’s made stops in St. Paul, Minn.; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; New Orleans; San Francisco and Los Angeles, among others.
Stewart said he’ll meet Studier in Birmingham on Friday morning and ride along with her to Anniston, where he’ll ride his bicycle with her and members of the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association to Hotel Finial.
Studier will stop off at Wig’s Wheels bicycle shop and other locations downtown, then to dinner at Peerless Grille. On Saturday she’ll ride the mountain biking trails atop Coldwater Mountain, and visit the farmer’s market and Main Street Art Project’s art bike parade downtown, then ride to the Anniston Heritage Festival in Zinn Park for live music.
Stewart said Studier’s visit to Anniston “solidifies for us as a community about what we’ve been working so hard on for three-plus years.”
Workers are to begin this year adding bicycle lanes and other street improvements to downtown streets meant to make cycling in Anniston safer, Stewart said. Plans are also underway to extend the Chief Ladiga Trail to the Amtrak station, connecting rail service to the popular cycling trail. Federal funding is already in place to pay for much of that work.
Studier said that through her studies and travels she’s learned that cities that have well-coordinated, practical transportation systems are best at handling bicycle and pedestrian traffic.
“Most of the cities we’ve been to were cherry-picked because they’re very good at this stuff,” Studier said, but not all of them.
In one such city on her itinerary the Amtrak station is located in an area with a large homeless population, which makes leaving the station on foot or bike less safe, she said.
A more common problem, however, is cities that build up infrastructure around their train stations that push out lower and middle income families, Studier said. That’s what she’s seen the most during her travels.
“It’s always an incredible thing to see that it changes neighborhoods, but again, it changes neighborhoods,” Studier said. “It’s a problem I find in almost every city I’ve been too.”
In Anniston, city officials are planning to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen near its Amtrak station. Stewart said he can see a future in which the area around Anniston’s station has mixed-income housing along with retail and entertainment venues, and the city streets are safer for those residents who ride bicycles not for a hobby or for exercise, but for transportation.
“Bike lanes will benefit them, and you’re not really bicycle friendly until you're providing for those commuters and presenting bicycle safety to school students,” Stewart said. “As much as we want to recruit and have tourism, we can’t forget our folks.”
“That’s a great thing, to get ahead of it,” Studier said, speaking of the city’s effort in accommodating all income levels into its plans.
City leaders are working on a marketing plan to advertise Anniston to outsiders, and the city’s Amtrak station is a major part of what it has to offer, Stewart said. He recalled a recent meeting with the Southern Rail Commission that included numerous cities across the South, 70 percent of which had no Amtrak service, he said, but wanted it.
“We’re sitting on this gem,” Stewart said. “And we’ve got to make the most of it.”