Slowly but surely, Carbondale is becoming a bike-friendly city.

This week, the League of American Bicyclists named Carbondale a Bicycle Friendly Community at the Bronze level, a designation that recognizes the city’s ongoing commitment to enhancing safety for bicyclists.

City Manager Gary Williams called the award “a big deal,” as only 14 other communities in Illinois have received it and Carbondale is the only city south of Champaign to do so.

“In the long run, it’s not only a great asset and great distinction for our residents, but I think that it’s an asset that will make the area more attractive to people who are considering moving to Carbondale or attending SIU,” Williams said.

The program has accepted more than 870 applications since 2002, and just 408 communities have received the award nationwide.

In May 2016, city officials rolled out the Carbondale Bicycle Master Plan, a strategy for enhancing bicycle infrastructure — and for elevating the culture and visibility of bicycling in Carbondale.

“We’ve had designated bike routes for many years, but we wanted to develop a plan that was much more robust and that created a system that would allow residents to navigate the community more easily on a bicycle,” Williams said.

The plan establishes routes that allow for bicycle access to downtown Carbondale, SIU and the city’s main retail areas.

This past fall, the city increased its bicycle network by four and a half miles. Bike lanes have been added to several streets, including Willow Street, Sunset Drive, Tower Road, Chautauqua Street and McLafferty Road. Mill Street and Wall Street are high on the priority list, Williams said.

Carbondale’s secondary streets allow for a fairly easy addition of bicycle lanes, since they’re generally wide and don’t have a high traffic count.

“It’s amazing, just in the past couple years, how much more bike-friendly Carbondale has become,” said Doug McDonald, owner of Phoenix Cycles on South Illinois Avenue. He cited the recent additions of bike lanes as clear indications of improvement.

“This is going to open up a lot more doors for the city. With this designation, they’ll be able to apply for more grants and receive more funding. They jumped through a lot of hoops and did a lot of hard work,” he said.

But the city still has a long way to go to comprehensively improve infrastructure for bicyclists.

“Our goal is to continue to strengthen our bicycle network and to keep moving up the rating scale as much as possible. In order to do that, we need to continue to add mileage, number of miles in bicycle network, to improve bicycle education, particularly in schools, and frankly we need to make more investments in infrastructure,” Williams said.

Jackson County Board member Julie Peterson is a member of the Southern Illinois Metropolitan Planning Organization (SIMPO), a bi-county organization that oversees transportation planning for the Carbondale Urbanized Area. SIMPO approved consultants for the city’s Bicycle Master Plan.

“Considering how much effort is being put in, I think (the award) is a very good thing,” Peterson said.

In terms of her hopes for upcoming improvements, Peterson said she’d like to see more designated bike paths that are off roadways to increase safety for commuter bicyclists.

The League of American Bicyclists uses five key criteria to grade a community’s bike-friendliness: engineering (whether the community has safe, convenient places to bicycle and park), education (whether the community gives people the skills and confidence to ride), encouragement (whether the community fosters a strong bicycle culture), enforcement (whether the community ensures safe roads for cyclists), and evaluation and planning (whether the community plans for bicycling as a safe and viable mode of transportation).

Whether they’re accepted for the award or not, all applicants receive a report card from the League of American Bicyclists that shows where their communities need to improve.

“Many of communities that have earned the designation are communities that are usually considered idyllic communities to live in,” Williams said. “They’re generally more affluent, more stable, they have better economies. They’re communities that are considered more attractive among residents and visitors. Just to be mentioned among those other communities is certainly an honor.”

janis.esch@thesouthern.com

618-351-5082

On Twitter: @janis_eschSI

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Janis Esch is a reporter for The Southern covering Carbondale.

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