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One of the latest frustrations in downtown Chattanooga is the addition of new bike lanes, versus adding more parking and trying to move more vehicular traffic through the center of our city.
As a merchant of 28 years in Chattanooga, I understand. Parking traditionally equals customers. In malls and shopping plazas, dedicated retail parking lots serve this end. In downtown areas, though, it is rarely accomplished. Thus, the worry for businesses and restaurants becomes: My company will suffer without curbside parking.
Yet this is not true. Parking is always important, but ample parking is not a cure-all for slow growth or sales. If you believe it's that simple, move your business to the mall. There is plenty of parking there.
Reality, as is often the case, is more complex. There are hundreds of examples around the country where improving bike access, slowing traffic and increasing public transportation opportunities have yielded improved quality of life while also contributing to the success of downtown businesses. Some cities have even stepped beyond bike lanes to close entire streets and city blocks, creating complete walking districts. Denver and Boulder are two easy examples of this.
To quote the Chattanooga Department of Transportation, from a recent news release:
"Protected bike lanes improve access and safety of our streets for all users and are being implemented in cities all over the country . They are shown to decrease crashes and injuries, encourage active transportation, and improve local economies by increasing retail-foot traffic for shop-front businesses."
These places are living, working examples that have proven the value of a complete network of bike lanes. This is a much-needed phase of development.
It will never be possible to build enough curbside parking, or add enough additional lanes. That line of thinking creates the congestion it attempts to solve.
In Chattanooga, it is time for us to decide what we want to be when we grow up. For years, we have been on a quest to make ourselves a premier city, both as a destination and a place to live and raise our families. Our natural resources have long been one of our key assets, and we have leveraged them well; our urban parks and waterfront have supported much investment.
Our city and county have most recently attracted Ironman to host two events per year, with a third — the crown jewel, 70.3 World Championships — coming in two years. We market ourselves every single day as being bike friendly and run friendly. Being bike friendly, though, requires both cultural change and infrastructure change. A few blocks of bike lanes don't cut it; we need bike lanes that lead somewhere, that connect neighborhoods to downtown.
Building for success is a struggle, and it usually comes with opposition. This is to be expected.
We are not Boulder, Colo.; Portland, Ore.; or Seattle, Wash. We are Chattanooga, 2015's "Best Outdoor Town." If we want to honestly be whom we market ourselves as, a full network of bike lanes should already be on the ground and in use.
Dawson Wheeler is co-owner of Rock Creek.