This past spring Manhattan was included in a list of bike-friendly communities according to the League of American Bicyclists. Beyond the rating, the city is also recognized by the biking community as one where biking can be a good alternative to driving a car.
The biggest changes in biking infrastructure have been made just recently. The movement was sparked by city engineer Rob Ott’s discovery of an old Manhattan Bicycle Master Plan in 2008. That same year a bicycle advisory committee was with a group of experts and bike advocates collaborating on behalf of adapting city infrastructure to bicyclists’ needs and promoting bike culture among the residents.
“We have the expertise to make sure that what we plan and implement really work,” Peter Clark, civil design engineer, said. “That’s the key to it.”
In 2008 the city started hosting an annual Bike Week, among other things installing more bike racks. ‘Share Road’ signs and signs pointing the Linear trail were also put up. This April Manhattan became the first city in Kansas with a bike boulevard, Moro Street.
In a certain way all these achievements were possible because Manhattan was predisposed to biking. Unlike many cities throughout the state, Manhattan doesn’t have enormous highways crossing the city and impeding safe riding on driveways.
“I’d say Manhattan is one of the easiest cities to get around on a bike. Especially in Kansas,” Clark said. “Partially because of the way the city was designed. (It has a) great pattern street design, flattish area.”
The street design is being further used to facilitate the biking infrastructure. If the city will approve funding, next year Manhattan will get a few more bike boulevards and a bike lane on 11th street from Poyntz to Bluemont.
So far the bicycle committee is focusing on smaller projects, but in the future hundreds of thousands of dollars will be needed to build crossings over highways that will connect the whole city with bike paths.
“They don’t want to spend money on anything that they will consider as extra expenses or special interest,” said Joey Lightner, bicycle coordinator intern at City Hall. “[But] it’s not a special interest.”
Indeed, biking is far not special interest. According to Michael Wesch, K-State anthropology professor and Bike Advisory Committee member, 7 out of 10 Americans enjoy bicycling. Being a bike advocate, Wesch tries to change the conversation from being about making Manhattan bike friendly for bikers and instead making the city bike friendly for everybody.
“We need to create a community where 7 out of 10 people can bike and feel comfortable,” Wesch said. “That has been my thrust.”
From his perspective as an anthropologist, Wesch sees automobiles and cheap gasoline as degrading the sense of community. Unlike driving, he believes biking creates the sense of connection.
“When I bike to work I often see two or three people that I know, I’ll often stop and talk to at least one of them,” Wesch said. “You compare that to a car, you don’t see anybody, you don’t talk to anybody. You are just in a case, in this capsule.”
Wesch said he has already noticed changes after Moro Street became a bike boulevard. He said the children have never played in front yards. But after the speed limit on the street was decreased to 20 miles per hour, more children go to play in the front yards.
“And that improves community,” Wesch said. “Because if you are in the front yard, you actually see other people.”
Businesses in Manhattan are also joining bike movement. Varsity Donuts has been recently recognized as a Bike Friendly Business. The donut shop is not only decorated with bikes, but it has also bike rentals, a bike pump, tools to fix flat tires and even bike delivery. Many of Varsity Donuts’ employees are biking to work, as the employers do. Jeremy Corn and Diane Meredith, two of six co-owners of the donut shop, often bike.
“We loved donuts and love bikes, let’s somehow combine those,” Corn said. “People love it!”
One year after the shop opened it has become a meeting spot for many cyclists. Corn even hosted Bike Advisory Committee meetings in his donut shop. The K-State cycling team meets there, too.
Corn finds it crucial to bike more in Manhattan, as the city is already overwhelmed with cars. From his own experience it is possible to get almost everywhere on a bike in less time than it takes to get in a car, drive, park and walk to the store.
“For me it puts me in a good mood,” he said. “I think it makes the city a more civilized place to live.”