Published on March 23rd, 2013 | by Grace Heerman1
Diane Wiatr Makes Strides in Repairing Tacoma’s Cycling Reputation
In 2012, Tacoma was recognized as one of the nation’s most bicycle friendly cities by the League of American Bicyclists, the same organization that has ranked Washington #1 on their list of bike-friendly states five years in a row. Until recently, I would have found this hard to believe.
As a Minneapolis native, I’ve been conditioned to consider bike lanes ubiquitous and inter-city trails commonplace. I moved to Tacoma to attend college and expected to find similar fervor. After all, the Pacific Northwest is the land of energy-saving and year-round shorts, isn’t it?
Contrary to my expectations, I’ve had to search to find evidence of a hardcore cycling community here. I’ve caught glimpses of cyclists as they fly down Union Ave., and I’ve heard tell of their numerous clubs and advocacy groups, but the city’s infrastructure offers few signs of their existence.
I’ll admit that the college lifestyle often keeps me inside the campus bubble, but even as I venture farther afield, I’ve experienced more limitations than I have benefits in terms of cycling accommodations. Bike lanes are few and far between. Often I am forced to choose between sharing potholed streets with motorists, and maneuvering along narrow, ramp-less sidewalks. And although bike racks are fairly common, they’re rarely full.
So who is pedaling the cycling trend in Tacoma?
Enter Diane Wiatr
Ask any serious cyclist about the future of two-wheeled transportation in Tacoma and one name is guaranteed to come up: Diane Wiatr. She’s a superhero amongst cyclists, but hasn’t received the credit she is due from the rest of us.
As Active Transportation Coordinator for the City of Tacoma, Wiatr has had a hand in many of the behind-the-scenes strides cycling advocates have been making toward repairing Tacoma’s cycling reputation.
After starting a family in the Pacific Northwest, Wiatr made the decision to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. But her love of the landscape brought her back to Tacoma and has fueled her work here ever since.
Wiatr played a large role in the conceptualization and adoption of the city’s Mobility Master Plan (MoMaP), which was approved by the City Council in June 2010 with the goal of developing a citywide, comprehensive network of bikeways and walkways. Outlined in the plan is a 13-mile system of bike lanes, bike boulevards (streets where motorists and cyclists share the road) and pathways that, once built, will enable cycling from Point Defiance all the way to the Tacoma Mall. And that’s just the short-term plan.
By 2020, the city hopes to build 123 miles of bike lanes and boulevards, develop 42 miles of trails and install 146 blocks of sidewalks. MoMaP was even honored by the Puget Sound Regional Council in 2011 with a VISION 2040 Award in recognition of Tacoma’s innovation and commitment to sustainability in anticipation of a growing population.
However, as is true with all public policy initiatives, creating a vision is only the first step: finding financial support to make that vision a reality is often the cardinal challenge. Wiatr has been instrumental on this front.
According to Bob Myrick of the Tacoma Wheelmen, she played an integral role in acquiring a $1.5 million federal discretionary grant as well as two major local grants that will enable the city to put a number of MoMaP projects into action.
Although MoMaP’s short-term plan was slated for completion in 2012, this recently acquired federal grant has afforded the city more options for next steps, and has led to a reconsideration of some projects. The deadline for short-term plan implementation has subsequently been extended to the end of 2013.
“If You Build it, They Will Come”
When I arrived at the Tacoma Municipal Building to ask Wiatr about the future of active transportation in Tacoma, I was expecting doom and gloom. Tacoma’s potential for infrastructural improvements does not appear promising considering recent cutbacks to the city’s public works department and the unfortunate reduction in public transportation resources. But doom and gloom is not what Wiatr gave me.
“2013 is going to be a really big year for Tacoma,” she said. “A lot of things are coming together; there’s a lot of momentum.”
First on the docket is the construction of MoMaP’s 13-mile bikeways network, along with the unveiling of the 6.5-mile Water Ditch Trail linking South Tacoma with the Tacoma Dome Station and the Thea Foss Waterway.
Wiatr also cited the anticipated completion of the Prairie Line Trail design, which will convert a one-mile section of the former Prairie Line railroad corridor into a pedestrian/bicycle trail and linear park through the heart of Downtown.
The Prairie Line is expected to be a major catalyst for the revitalization of the Historic Brewery District, and a means of connecting the Downtown area and the Thea Foss Waterfront.
Enthusiasm notwithstanding, Wiatr is realistic. She admits that “Tacoma is a little behind other jurisdictions in the Pacific Northwest region” in terms of cycling and active transportation, but numbers of cyclists are rising each year according to the city’s annual counts.
“Once there’s better infrastructure I would anticipate that [the numbers] will go up considerably,” she says. “It’s the ‘build it and they will come’ notion, and its proven to be true pretty much everywhere it happens.”
As improvements are made and cycling gains traction, Wiatr is confident that Tacoma will be better able to compete with its regional counterparts. “I personally feel like Tacoma will be the next cool city in the Northwest,” Wiatr said. “It’s just around the corner.”
Her confidence undoubtedly played a role in the city’s decision to go ahead with Tacoma’s annual Bike Swap event despite the unfortunate withdrawal of its longtime sponsor, Pierce Transit. “We’ve decided that we’re going to go for it,” she said, citing the invaluable opportunity it creates to connect hundreds of people with low cost bikes.
Wiatr doesn’t attribute the city’s recent cycling achievements to her personal involvement, and maintains that they were the result of a collaborative effort between the Public Works Department, City Council, constituents, and the Bicycle and Pedestrian Action Committee.
She never failed to use the word “we,” though according to Bike Month 2013 Coordinator Hannah Miner, community support for cycling in Tacoma “is a reflection of the strong foundation and network that Diane has been working to build.”
Matt Newport of TacomaBikeRanch.com is one of the many members of this strong network who echoes Wiatr’s persevering optimism: “Even if there are zero dollars to fund [cycling projects like these] there will be people who want to make them happen.”
With an advocate like Diane Wiatr at the helm, I’m beginning to believe it.
More information on the Mobility Master Plan including progress reports and project maps can be found here.
May is Bike Month! Event calendars and resources will be updated in the coming weeks.
Don’t miss the 2013 Bike Swap: Saturday April 27, 2013, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. at the University of Puget Sound.