Places to bike, walk, roll during pandemic

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Signs of sustainability are like signs of spring. They recur. They give us hope. They renew our sense of possibility and our resolve to carry on. In these strange and uncertain times, we at Bike Walk Tompkins struggle like everyone else to look past the fear that has taken hold of us and remain true to our shared vision of a sustainable and humane future.

The Cayuga Waterfront Trail is a local multi-use trail that was envisioned for decades, took over 15 years to actually build and now feels like it has always been there. The trail serves as solace for each person who walks, bikes or rolls on it, now more than ever.

The Black Diamond Trail, the South Hill Rec Way, the East Hill Rec Way and the growing Dryden Rail Trail all provide similar comfort. We applaud the many people involved along the way, people who stuck with the vision and dug into the details to get these projects completed.

They are infrastructure amenities that are mental and physical health lifelines and cherished parts of our community. (Update: To ensure continued access to these lifelines, use them responsibly, such as by wearing masks and visiting during off-peak hours.)

Normally at this time of year, Bike Walk Tompkins is focused on pulling together the spring Streets Alive! Ithaca festival. The essence of a Streets Alive! is to create an experience of more safe public space to walk, bike and roll without the threat of moving vehicles close by endangering safe passage.
Gathering together is of course not at all what we can or should do right now.

But the experience of altered public space with quieter safer streets, a strange silver lining in these times, is taking place and can inform and inspire what we do for the future. At this difficult time, these are still true signs of sustainability, of what is possible, what it could feel like to have safer streets and more space for biking, walking and rolling.

Four months and what feels like a lifetime ago, over 50 people gathered in the twilight of the Winter Solstice to ride together from Cass Park to the Farmers Market and then downtown along State Street and off to a local business to socialize. The event generated a spirit of camaraderie and also demonstrated that without much more than good lights and well-chosen warm clothing, biking can be a year-round way to get around.

It is already a matter-of-fact option in numerous northern cities from Portland and Montreal to Copenhagen and Stockholm. This is another sign of sustainability and possibility we hold dear.

Ten months ago, on a few mid-week sessions in Stewart Park, Greater Ithaca Activity Center seniors reacquainted themselves with the feel of rolling and sense of freedom on bicycles and recumbent tricycles, guided by enthusiastic champions and dedicated instructors.

The experience demonstrated again, clearly and joyfully, that biking and rolling are for people of all ages and abilities. With guidance and cheerleading, in the right place and under the right conditions, people can master this elegant way to get around. There exists adaptive equipment to make it possible for more people to use rolling as a means to get around. This is yet another sign of possibility and sustainability.

Twelve months ago, two classes of second-graders at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School greeted a new fleet of bicycles donated from the Cornell S.C. Johnson College of Business and learned to ride during the school day as part of their physical education curriculum. Students embraced this activity with enthusiasm and resolve.

The pilot program has expanded to three other local elementary schools for 2020, and while this will be on hold until another season, the bikes and the enthusiasm will be there to teach this next generation of children the joy and skill of handling bicycles. 

Places to safely bike, walk and roll are at the center of every comprehensive plan in our city and county. Places not only for recreation and renewal, but also for reliable transportation and a means for people to get where they need to go are a necessity.

In the face of climate change, these are not trivial amenities but essential elements to improve our chances for resiliency, for livability and for continuity.

In their new book “The Future We Choose,” the architects of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord outline two possible scenarios, one quite bleak and the other much more appealing. Creating places to bike, walk and roll safely is at the core of the positive scenario. We need functioning and multiple modes of transportation for people, and biking, walking and rolling must be a substantive part of the options available.

At the end of this month, Bike Walk Tompkins will release “Biking for Everyone: Action Plan for Ithaca and Tompkins County,” a plan over two years in the making with much community and expert input.

The plan details the steps we need to take to make biking, walking and rolling widely possible in our community, including steps that will create more opportunities to do so safely within our existing public spaces. You can learn more by visiting bikewalktompkins.org and tuning in to the April 30 Zoom event.

This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. For more information about the organization, visit their website at SustainableTompkins.org.

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