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‘Bike Montco’ initiative envisions 800 miles of new bike paths in suburbia

"Bike Montco" would retrofit roads to include bike paths, connecting them to existing infrastructure for cyclists.

Jody L. Holton, AICP, Ececutive Director speaks as Montgomery County unveils the early stages of its "Bike Montco" plan that will overhaul sections of roadways in the county to encourage use by cyclists,
Jody L. Holton, AICP, Ececutive Director speaks as Montgomery County unveils the early stages of its "Bike Montco" plan that will overhaul sections of roadways in the county to encourage use by cyclists,Read moreDavid Swanson / Staff Photographer

Officials in Montgomery County on Wednesday unveiled the early drafts of a plan that would bring nearly 800 miles of bike paths to the area's suburban landscape.

"We're still a car-oriented culture and a car-oriented county, but things are changing," said Matthew Edmond, the head of transportation planning for the county's Planning Commission. "We've had enthusiastic support in Montgomery County for a bicycle network unlike ever before."

The plan, "Bike Montco: Building a Bike-Friendly Montgomery County," introduced to municipal officials and residents at Montgomery County Community College's Blue Bell campus, updates a similar blueprint created two decades ago. In the interim, the surrounding counties followed suit, most notably Philadelphia and Delaware County, which adopted a 2005 plan that credited Montgomery County's original efforts in 1998.

But Edmond said that initial plan was limited by the technology available at the time, ultimately failing to hit its mark. The county has only 19 miles of bike lanes, he said, out of approximately 4,500 miles of roadways.

Using mapping software, the Planning Commission identified roadways in the county that are prime candidates for adding cycling infrastructure, whether a protected bike lane or a mixed-use trail. These roads have relatively lower speed limits and less congestion than other thoroughfares, making them less intimidating to casual cyclists.

Under the plan, the new bike paths would connect to existing paths, creating a comprehensive network.

"Building is in the title of the plan intentionally," Edmond said. "The goal of this is to get things done, to give the county a playbook to work with our partners."

One of the challenges the plan faces is logistics. A quarter of the roads in the county are owned by the state Department of Transportation, but individual municipalities account for 62 percent of the ownership. Making decisions, Edmond said, would be like dealing with "62 different owners."

Jeanne Sorg, Ambler's mayor, said her town has no issue working with the county on creating more bike-friendly roadways.

"Our borough is already accessible, and this works to enhance that connectivity," Sorg said after Wednesday's unveiling. "Municipalities' role in this is to make sure the plan fits, and to make sure that it works on our streets. People have to bike safely, and we have to pick the best ways to keep them safe."

Ultimately, the proposed plan calls for installing 583 miles of bike paths on PennDot roads, not only to ease negotiations but also to take advantage of the agency's recent commitment to paving the more heavily traveled roads in the county.

"This plan needs to be effective. We at the Planning Commission hate to have a plan sit on a shelf," Edmond said. "We want to be able to have it updated 20 years later, if needed. We don't want to look back and see we still have 19 miles of bike paths."

Edmond and his colleagues have opened the plan up to a public comment period through early July, and hope that the county commissioners will adopt it by the end of that month.

Its early reviews among cyclists were positive.

"I'm glad something is being done to improve the roads in the county," said Linda Freimark, a ride leader with the Bicycle Club of Philadelphia. "The roads near my home in Elkins Park are problematic to bikes. But we all do it anyway, and we will continue to ride."

Katie Hunt, another member of the club, said she appreciated the work being done on the plan, an "umbrella approach" to cycling that seems to take everyone into account.

"This is taking a universal approach to the issue," she said. "It's not just about helping cyclists; it takes drivers into account. It's for everyone."