OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — This week saw the beginnings of construction on a massive and modern new bridge project intended to offer a safer option for cyclists and pedestrians crossing NW Expressway.
But, not every cyclist is happy with the concept.
The project, a result of both the 2007 and 2017 bond programs in OKC, is budgeted at more than $5 million and is being touted by the city as a major step in the advancement of pedestrian-based infrastructure for the city.
“This new ADA compliant pedestrian bridge will increase the safety of those utilizing the trail system, connecting the Lake Hefner and Lake Overholser trails,” said Shannon Cox, Public Information Manager for OKC Public Works. “As part of [the city’s outdoor activity-oriented health initiative] BikeWalkOKC, these connections are vital to the future of OKC’s cycling and foot traffic.”
Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt echoed much of the same sentiment, insisting that this new bridge project is just one of many designed to encourage and increase exercise and recreation throughout the city without necessarily affecting the most common modes of transportation.
“This is part of a ‘bigger picture’ trend of expanding safety and access for cyclists and pedestrians, and giving the community more options after a good half-century devoted to the automobile,” said Holt. “But it’s not always about commuters with these projects. A big part of it is attracting recreation and building infrastructure to encourage a healthier lifestyle. It’s hard to ask people to get out and exercise without giving them a place to do it.”
For many in the avid cycling community of Oklahoma, however, looking at the need for safer crossings as a primarily recreational issue is problematic.
Anthony Carfang Jr. serves as the Government Chair of BikeOklahoma, an advocacy group championing legislation meant to encourage infrastructure development away from traditional car-based traffic and to raise the profile of cycling as a legitimate commuter option.
“It’s great that the city is focusing money on improving accessibility and safe connectivity for residents beyond the automobile,” Carfang said, acknowledging many of the upcoming and ongoing projects around the OKC.
“However, the city isn’t pushing heavily enough for the safest and most convenient infrastructure that invites people of all ages and abilities to choose a mode other than a car. In particular, almost all projects to improve safety for people on foot, wheelchair, or bicycle are limited in scope so as to maintain existing car convenience and speed.”
He references a 2007 study in the journal “Accident Analysis and Prevention” that showed upward of 37% of cyclists and pedestrians still choosing to use the crosswalk even when a dedicated bridge was provided due to the extra time and distance required to access the bridge.
“The new pedestrian bridge over NW Expressway does help complete connectivity for bike and pedestrian infrastructure between Hefner and Overholser, but pedestrian bridges are not infrastructure for pedestrians,” Carfang explained. “Their purpose reinforces the paradigm that the roadway is for cars only. Pedestrian bridges force pedestrians and bicyclists to cover added distance and elevation in order to cross a roadway, which is far less convenient.”
Even the aesthetic design of the new bridge, chosen out of five proposals presented by MacArthur Associated Consultants, places the visual focus on the history of the automobile, as Shannon Cox explained: “The final design … represents cars from the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, as well as nearby airports’ aeronautical heritage.”
“So rather than having a pedestrian bridge remind drivers that we care about pedestrians,” Carfang says, “the pedestrian bridge is designed to celebrate cars.”
Mayor Holt acknowledges the continuing dependence on cars, and the effects on traffic and road safety as the city’s population increases, but says that it’s a complicated and nuanced issue given the logistics of a city as large as OKC.
“Some people look at these policies and projects like we’re pushing people out of their cars, but I don’t see it that way,” he says. “As mayor, I feel that many residents simply want more options, and we’re trying to meet that demand and to create pockets for the people that are serious about that lifestyle. Obviously, we can’t eliminate the need for cars around the city. OKC is just too large, and a lot of people have to commute sometimes long distances between home and work.”
Carfang sees the tasks of reducing car traffic and increasing cyclist and pedestrian safety as requiring solutions that are much deeper and more challenging than simply constructing an ornate bridge at a dangerous crossing.
He says that it will take a lot of new ideas, and a lot of voices calling for change.
“I’m optimistic, though,” said Carfang. “A number of engineering firms, and a lot of the public, have been increasing in number and volume to demand better transportation options that are truly safe and inviting.”
Correction: In the original version of this report we misidentified the intersection where the pedestrian bridge will be built as Britton and NW Expressway. It has been corrected to Wilshire and NW Expressway. Thank you for your patience.
Last Updated November 23, 2021, 9:29 AM by Brett Dickerson – Editor