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Ride on the Sidewalk Yourself

 

I was glad to hear that Chuck Quackenbush [Letters, April 13] has an easy time cycling in the Capital Region. Sadly, though, he’s the only cyclist I’ve ever heard say that Capital Region drivers are friendly to cyclists. And I’ve spoken with a lot of them, as well as been one.

In fact, I find it truly staggering the number of times I have been shouted at, while calmly and predictably riding in a straight line along the right curb, to get off the road or ride on the sidewalk (that’s illegal for those of us over the age of 10, by the way). Along with being hyper-aware of recent area car causalities like David Ryan, I personally know many riders who have had much worse shouted at them than I have, not to mention been hit, by grumpy drivers who refuse to believe that bicycles have, according to state law, “all of the rights” (and yes, all of the duties) applicable to drivers.

Cyclists are less polluting, less traffic-causing, and easier on the roads than drivers, not to mention they’re doing their part to reduce the obesity crisis. A public good if I ever heard of one.

And so some better attention needs to be paid to their legal status. Bicycles are traffic, but they are also different enough from cars that “all of the rights and all of the duties” doesn’t quite cut it.

Local ordinances governing bicycles are piecemeal and often anachronistic. In Scotia you may not coast with your feet off the pedals. In Hudson if you dismount and walk your bike you become subject to pedestrian laws. In the city of Albany, bicycles, tricycles and velocipedes (those would be those old bikes with the really big wheels) have a speed limit of 8 miles per hour and must ring a bell as they approach any intersection they plan to cross. I can think of few things more certain to lead to an increase in vehicular violence against cyclists if obeyed.

The state law is better, clearly enunciating a few key rights many cyclists aren’t even sure they have. It says that bicycles should ride as near the right hand curb as practicable, except when preparing for a left turn or when it would be unsafe to stay all the way right. The latter conditions explicitly include obstacles (parked cars, people. . .), surface hazards (potholes), and “traffic lanes too narrow for a bicycle . . . and a vehicle to travel safely side-by-side within the lane.” Cyclists are also supposed to ride no more than two abreast, and to go down to single file when “being overtaken by a vehicle.”

The state regs get at more of the heart of the matter, but they still beg a few questions. If one considers all the places within our cities where cars swerve across the double yellow lines when passing a bike as places too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to “travel safely side-by-side,” which would seem reasonable, you’ve got quite a high percentage of our roads. If you then add in all the places that might be wide enough except for the potholes that tend to be concentrated in that strip between the parked cars and the travel lane where a bike would go, suddenly it would make sense to see cyclists in the flow of traffic much more often.

Of course it’s a good indication of how much cyclists, even clearly experienced and skilled bike commuters, trust that that would work to watch how many of them instead regularly pop onto the sidewalk for a few blocks here and there along major arteries for their own safety. To quote Albert Howell in a column from the April 11 Toronto Globe and Mail, “No cyclist wants to ride on the sidewalk; it’s slow and full of obstacles. But when the alternative is being injured or killed by a car, I go where I have to.”

If you then ask how the safe-to-travel-side-by-side test would interact with the double-wide/single-wide regulation, you get a real muddle. Does it mean anything to be overtaken by a vehicle in a lane where it wouldn’t actually be safe to be passed? Should it? I would hazard a guess that if they couldn’t actually safely pass a group of cyclists, car drivers would probably at least prefer those cyclists to be compact and moving swiftly, rather than strung out in creeping single file. But I’m talking common sense here, not the letter of the law.

(Note to Critical Mass: it could be interesting, theoretically, to see what would happen if a ride stuck strictly to two abreast, far enough into the lane to be safe, and then proceeded to also stick very strictly to an 8 mph speed limit and ring very loud bells/horns in chorus upon approaching every intersection. I mean, I’m not suggesting it, but it might put a new spin on the law-abiding vs. obstructing traffic equation, you know?)

I tend to hate arguments whose main conclusion is “there needs to be more education.” But sometimes it’s true, and this is one of those times. (Check out the New York Bicycling Coalition’s Share the Road driver-education program for a good model.)

I would, however, add that we’re also in need of clear and explicit statements on the part of municipalities that they support cycling, that they’re interested in making their ordinances reflect that, and that they won’t tolerate law-enforcement patterns that are more concerned with not inconveniencing drivers than with protecting cyclists from them.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

maxel-lute@metroland.net

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