Chico’s new $2 million bike corridor
Stimulus funding pays for major expansion of the cycling grid
When the city of Chico first announced in 2009 that it was planning to create a nearly 7-mile-long north-south bicycle route adjacent to and paralleling Highway 99, my first thought was: How is that possible?
I did a quick mental check of what I knew of existing bikeways and saw nothing but obstacles to a route along the freeway: Little Chico Creek, for example. Teichert Ponds and Community Park. East 20th Street and The Skyway and the ramps where they meet the freeway. No way, I thought.
Recently I got to wondering how this mission impossible was going, so I called the city and was connected with Tom Varga, director of Capital Project Services. As it turned out, it was moving right along, though Varga—also an avid bicyclist—was quick to acknowledge that the route “is not necessarily an absolute straight shot.”
Phase 1, starting at the far north from Eaton Road heading south to Little Chico Creek, will be completed this summer, Varga said, and Phase 2, continuing southward to the Neighborhood Church, by summer of 2012.
Seeing is believing, of course, so I decided to check it out for myself and asked Varga for directions.
On Easter Sunday, my good friend Jasper and I found ourselves way out on the north end of town, at the corner of Silverbell and Eaton roads, preparing to follow the freeway bike corridor as far south as we could go. It seemed like it would be easy, but there were no markers and we didn’t have a map, so we ended up on a few wild-goose chases before we figured it out.
Heading south on Silverbell for about a quarter-mile, we found a brand-new bike path alongside the freeway, behind a cement fence separating it from the adjacent neighborhood. A sign said it was closed, but I figured the public’s right to know trumped a contractor’s directive.
Straight as a plumb line, the path went all the way past Lassen Avenue to East Avenue.
Well, close to East. We rode for a couple of blocks on Tom Polk Avenue before hitting East, then crossed and continued down Tom Polk past the California National Guard station.
The route does a quick jig at White, and then shortly arrives at the new apartment complex at the curve on Pillsbury Road across from North Valley Plaza, where it connects with the airport bike path.
This junction gave us a choice of routes: Turn left toward the airport, turn right toward downtown, or follow the new bike route by going straight on Pillsbury, crossing Cohasset and continuing on Manzanita, alongside the freeway, to Lindo Channel.
At Lindo Channel, we crossed using the old bike path under the freeway, and turned left on East Lindo to Neal Dow Avenue. Had the water in the creek been high, we would have been forced to go east on Manzanita to the Ceres bike bridge and then double back to Neal Dow, a minor inconvenience.
It’s a straight shot down easygoing Neal Dow all the way past East First Avenue and, after a couple of jigs, into Lower Park, which more or less marks the end of Phase 1. Jasper lives on Downing, which for about one block is on the route, so we stopped at his place.
All in all, it had been a pretty good route so far, though it was hard to reckon how much use it would get. I was eager to see how Phase 2 would compare.
Tom Varga had said that, for various reasons, the southern half of the route was the more problematical and, at this point, incomplete phase of the project. From what I could gather from what he said, it seemed easier to explore from south to north.
There’s an old bike path that runs from behind the Chili’s restaurant, next to the Chico Mall, north a few hundred yards to the rear of the Kohl’s store.
Lately it’s been extended, and a swath of fresh asphalt has been laid alongside the freeway all the way to the Teichert Ponds (if you’ve never explored the ponds, this is a good way to do it). I followed the path past the ponds to where it stopped just shy of Little Chico Creek.
Varga said by next summer there will be a bridge across the creek connecting the path to the bike path on the north side of the creek and to Fir Street, creating another four-way bike-path junction.
(As part of a separate project, a second bike bridge across the creek will be constructed on the other, west side of the freeway that will provide a direct connection between Humboldt Avenue and the 20th Street Community Park.)
I was beginning to see how this new bike corridor fit together with existing corridors, facilitating connections on a large grid of bike paths, lanes and routes—“strengthening the background,” as Varga put it. It’s not perfect, largely because it had to be adjusted to an existing, dominant grid designed for automobiles, but each addition to the system has improved riders’ ability to get around comfortably.
The idea, Varga said, is not that people will use it to go all the way across town, but that it will provide a valuable north-south route that can be used to make connections to other routes. By summer, riders can begin looking for special “branding” signs along the corridor that will help them become familiar with it.
The cost of the corridor—especially the new bike paths and bridge—will be slightly more than $2 million, Varga said, all of it provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
There’s still a lot to do. For one thing, the city hasn’t yet worked out deals with various property owners to build a new path from Business Lane south to The Skyway. In fact, that whole commercial area presents a number of problems that must be resolved, but Varga is confident that by next summer both phases of the corridor will be finished.
It’s just one of several bicycling projects in the works. When finished, the rebuilt Fifth Avenue between The Esplanade and Mangrove will include bike lanes, and there’s the downtown couplet project, which will add bike lanes to both Second and First streets. In addition, a Safe Routes to School grant will be used to add bike lanes and improve sidewalks in the vicinity of Marigold Elementary and Pleasant Valley High schools.
Ultimately, the city intends to turn all of its roads into “complete streets,” Varga said, roads that provide room for cars, bikes and pedestrians, each in sufficient measure. The complete-streets model will be used whenever a road is rebuilt, he said.