Envisioning Transportation for Bellingham’s Future

Beth Hartsoch
Sep 9 · 6 min read

By Chanan Suarez and Beth Hartsoch, candidates for Bellingham’s City Council

As candidates for Bellingham City Council, we are spending even more time than usual on Bellingham’s streets and transportation is on our minds. Transportation policy matters for Bellingham’s housing solutions and decarbonization. Good, accessible bike/walk/roll — micromobility — infrastructure and a comprehensive bus system allows housing to be vibrant and livable at a higher density. It also offers opportunities for substantial reductions in emissions of carbon and other pollutants. As a bonus, we all save money, improve safety for our kids and seniors, reduce traffic congestion, and enjoy better health.

Housing is already in short supply in Bellingham, and we expect more people to move here over the next decades. We all want new housing to be vibrant and livable, but maintaining the status quo planning for private vehicles will mean we lose green space and walk/roll/bike-ability. Transportation policy should work in tandem with housing policies which facilitate and support social housing, expand tenant rights, and enact smart rezoning.

The necessity of that pairing becomes clear in Bellingham’s context of hyper-segregation, as the goal for children to be able to walk, roll, and bike to their schools runs up against the more urgent need to protect educational equity. Not only do we need to build the infrastructure to separate kids from vehicle hazards, but also housing policies that can challenge deep residential segregation. All transportation policies will need to take place alongside an active commitment to housing for all, food sovereignty, public preschool and childcare, and many other urgent priorities. An alliance of these policies offers exciting opportunities to make Bellingham more livable for everyone.

Most people want to walk/roll/or ride their bike to more places, but they drive because there’s no safe and connected route. We know that design solutions are the most effective strategy for improving the safety of trips by walk/roll/bike. The right infrastructure will make it easy for people to leave their car at home, or for families to have one car instead of two — saving $8000/year. Every trip made by walking/biking/rolling saves money for both the city and residents. It also means cleaner air, quieter neighborhoods and less sitting in traffic. The research is clear on health as well; families who often bike or walk around town will be much, much healthier — no gym membership required.

Transportation accounts for one-third of Bellingham’s carbon emissions, and one person moving one mile in an electric car emits ten times as much carbon and requires more space than if that person moved that same mile by riding an electric bike. The city can also reduce emissions by supporting WTA’s conversion to an all-electric fleet, and expanding the quality and quantity of bus coverage. Bellingham benefits from a solid basic transit system and soon WTA fixed routes will offer real-time GPS tracking, so you can skip the uncertain wait at the bus stop. On the council, we will also explore replacing the bus fee-for-service payment model to increase access and incentivize widespread use. We’ll pursue these goals in close collaboration with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 843 to ensure that transit workers receive living wages, great benefits, and gold-standard working conditions while providing residents with exceptional public transportation.

How do we get the right infrastructure to advance community goals? Three key strategies will get us really far: using the latest research and best practices, beta testing solutions, and measuring what’s meaningful.

New research frequently adds to our understanding of what works, and Bellingham should be responsive enough to use the latest best practices. Bellingham is currently behind the research on several issues. Sharrows (a painted bike and arrow in the traffic lane) can make the road less safe for both people riding bikes and people driving, but Bellingham still paints them as a bike facility. We should stop using sharrows and disqualify them as bike facilities in our bike network maps. Physically protected bike lanes are needed for most people to feel safe riding, and they make it easier for people driving to avoid injuring people on bikes; we should install physical protections for new bike lanes whenever possible, build bicycle boulevards and separated paths, and retrofit existing bike lanes with physical barriers. Protected intersections are described in engineering manuals and are common in other places, and safely connect sections of protected bike lanes. Network connections are essential in converting trips from driving to riding; a beautiful and safe bicycle path that disappears and requires riding in arterial traffic for two blocks will not be used by people uncomfortable riding in traffic. ‘Bulb-outs’ at intersections reducing crossing distances for people walking, and if built with a tighter turning radius will mean vehicles move slower through turns, both of which make the crossing safer. Short crossing distances and tight turning radiuses should be the default. Accessibility is central to all best practices; in tandem with Bellingham’s ADA transition plan, we can design bike lanes and paths to be safe for Deaf people and those on trikes, and the streets adjacent to school entrances can be safe for the age of those kid

On beta testing, we can learn from City of Seattle transportation engineer Dongho Chang who leads Seattle in beta testing individual projects. Beta testing means we try things first like installing a crosswalk or bike lane (etc.) with inexpensive temporary materials for a trial period. This helps the city assess demand and troubleshoot the design and it provides the neighbors with first-hand experience with the city plan. This common-sense strategy means we spend money on things with demonstrated success, and successful infrastructure builds community support. What gets measured, gets done. Bellingham needs authentic measures of what we care about, shared often and openly. Let’s count the number of trips made by walking, rolling, biking or transit and let progress on these outcomes drive our investments. By next year, we’ll have several bike counters permanently installed and collecting data that we can share publicly. Let’s also update our maps to accurately reflect conditions on the ground; a neighborhood collector street with painted sharrows meets none of the criteria for ‘bike boulevard’ no matter how often we mark it as such on a map. On the council, we will routinely check in with staff on progress and opportunities to accelerate change, and we will never request a checklist of projects in lieu of real metrics of progress toward our goals.

Close your eyes and imagine Bellingham in ten years. Do you see more parking lots, parking garages, wide streets, traffic congestion, and parents chauffeuring kids? Are you stuck in gridlock traffic? Do residents need to spend a big part of their income owning and maintaining a car for each adult?

Or do you see vibrant housing with green space in all our neighborhoods and where kids independently walk/roll/bike to their school or school bus stop without threat of being hit by a car, and where families can easily own just one car or carshare membership, freeing up money for rent, food, or recreation?

Bellingham! Let’s use city resources to support the wellbeing of all residents. We’ll use proven strategies and smart process. We’ll make mistakes and learn and do better.

Together, we can move Bellingham forward.


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