Don”t tread on me: LEO readers sound off on cycling

Sep 11, 2007 at 6:57 pm

Coexisting with bikers  (by Jay R. Lillie)

“sharrows”: It wasn’t two days after the “sharrows” were painted on the Second Street Bridge that someone laid a heavy patch of rubber on the first two sharrows in the southbound lane. Talk about symbolism.
“sharrows”: It wasn’t two days after the “sharrows” were painted on the Second Street Bridge that someone laid a heavy patch of rubber on the first two sharrows in the southbound lane. Talk about symbolism.
Let me first say that I’m a big advocate of bicycling. I love areas with good bike trails. But I feel the need to respond to what seems like a lot of sanctimonious bashing of car-drivers that’s been going on in LEO lately.
Just as most bicyclists are not riding wild and out-of-control, most car drivers are not callously running down hapless bicyclists. Most of us do attempt to share the road, politely changing lanes to pass our two-wheeled friends. I am upset by (and concerned for) those cyclists who weave in and out of my lane unpredictably.

Having a heart and a conscience, I would like very much to avoid hitting them, but they make it challenging.
Earlier this summer, I was on Eastern Parkway and found myself behind a cyclist who was “claiming his lane.” I had no objection to that because I knew where he was going to be and I knew what I needed to do to safely pass him. Along with several other cars, I politely changed lanes and passed the cyclist. All went according to Hoyle … until the next red light. As I waited, our cyclist coasted past us on the shoulder and parked himself in front of the line of cars that had recently passed him. When the light changed, he resumed “claiming his lane.”

We had to pass him again. If you are going to “ride with traffic,” then you’ve got to follow all the same rules.
But bikes are nothing like cars. They are not motorized, cannot go nearly as fast under most conditions, weigh much less, and their riders are much less protected from harm (helmets notwithstanding). My strong opinion is that bicycles and cars do not belong in the same place. I’m all for bike lanes. We should have a lot more in this city. Or at least legalize riding on the sidewalk. I believe bicycles and pedestrians can coexist far more safely than cars and bicycles.

I’ve been a cyclist most of my life (since I was three), and a motorist for the last 30 years. I firmly believe in the principle of Vehicular Cycling, which holds that, “Cyclists fare best when they act as and are treated as operators of vehicles.” There are many folks who ride and drive responsibly. I appreciate those who share the road, whatever type of vehicle they use.

I cringe when I see a cyclist taking the shoulder to pass a line of cars waiting at a traffic light (as described by Mr. Lillie), knowing that that cyclist has undermined my credibility as a road user in the eyes of several motorists. I shudder when I see a bicycle being ridden against traffic on a one-way street, for the same reason. It irks me to see a cyclist blow through a traffic light.

All of these actions lead to valid complaints that motorists raise regarding SOME cyclists.
I also see MANY more motorists “catch the orange light,” slow a bit but don’t stop for stop signs, do 50 mph in 35 mph zones (how many cyclists do you see doing THAT?), or reading the morning paper while talking on the cell phone and trying to drive. The risk such motorists pose to themselves and other road users is huge — much greater than that posed by a cyclist who goes through a stop sign.

I would respectfully suggest that it’s difficult to be “a big advocate of cycling” and simultaneously contend that “bicycles and cars do not belong in the same place.” “Good bike trails,” as suggested by Mr. Lillie, rarely go where I choose to go — creating them is cost-prohibitive, and a full network of them would create more intersections (thus creating more opportunity for disagreements over who had the right of way). Pedestrians moving at 3-4 mph and changing directions randomly cannot coexist well with cyclists going 20 mph on a sidewalk — the percentage difference in speed is much higher than cyclist vs. motorist.
If all users of the roadway act with courtesy and according to the laws as they now exist, the complaints Mr. Lillie raised would not be an issue. —Tom Armstrong, Louisville

A contrast in styles: An avid bicyclist overtakes a regular Joe on the Second Street Bridge last week.
A contrast in styles: An avid bicyclist overtakes a regular Joe on the Second Street Bridge last week.
As someone who uses a bicycle as my primary mode of transportation, I found Jay R. Lillie’s letter interesting. As someone who has also coasted up to the front of a line of cars before, I was surprised to see that Lillie viewed this act as inconsiderate. Considering the time and space it takes to get up to a reasonable speed from a standstill, I feel that it is best to have nothing in front of me when I am at a red light. If I were to wait in a line of cars, then when the light turned green I would have to wait until the car in front of me was moving before I could start pedaling and delay any cars behind me. I guess my consideration for those cars behind me is inconsiderate to the cars that already passed me, but at least more people got through the light. Another reason I might ride to the front of a line of cars is because I don’t really care to sit behind a car, directly breathing in exhaust. If I am going to be surrounded by exhaust-emitting vehicles, I would much rather be in front of them than with the exhaust pipe right in front of me. —Anonymous

In response to Jay Lillie’s letter to LEO about cars and cyclists coexisting, first let me thank Mr. Lillie for “politely changing lanes to pass” bikes and “having a heart and conscience.” It is my experience that most car drivers are this conscientious and caring. There are, however, a good number of people who aren’t. Some are good drivers who become impatient and fall into rage when delayed, some are inattentive when driving and become dangerous when text messaging, putting on makeup or eating. These are the drivers who shake cyclists to the core and force us to “take the lane” in order to avoid being killed. I have been honked at, yelled at, swerved at and had things thrown at me by car drivers. I know there are inconsiderate cyclists out there also. I’ve seen them cutting in front of cars, riding the wrong way on streets and hopping on and off of curbs. I can’t do anything about them, any more that those in cars can do something about inconsiderate drivers.

I do have some suggestions to drivers and cyclists that may help us to coexist, because coexist me must. We must coexist, not just because the law says we should, but because the realities of the 21st century will force us to. The 2000 census shows that 1 in 5 households in Louisville does not own a car. The rising cost of gas is forcing more and more people to seek alternative transportation. Pollution in this city is getting worse. We are once again out of compliance with EPA air quality standards and 30-45 percent of the air pollution comes from vehicles. Global warming has begun and we increase the amount of carbon dioxide we emit every year. The world production of oil is about to peak just as consumption is at an all-time high. We must stop driving our cars so much and cycling is the cleanest form of transportation we have. It’s also healthy for you at a time when obesity and heart disease are nearing epidemic proportions.

My suggestions: Cyclists should follow all laws that apply to them and take the lane to be safe. Drivers should realize that most laws were written for cars and that bikes are disadvantaged by many of them, for example, timed lights, green lights triggered by the weight of the car, traffic lights in general as opposed to roundabouts, speed limits and so on. Cyclists should stay off the sidewalk (unless you’re under 13 years old) — it’s the most dangerous way to ride for cyclists and worse for pedestrians. Drivers should be patient when passing a cyclist and realize the poor soul may not be cycling out of choice or may be out there trying to be a part of the environmental solution. Also, don’t pass a bike closely cutting them off to beat them to a red light. You may want to be in front to pull out fast when the light turns green, but forcing someone to sit behind you and breathe your exhaust is nauseating.

Freewheelin’: Mayor Jerry Abramson and a group of Humana employees gathered last week to announce the start of Freewheelin’, a rent-a-bike program for employees of the healthcare company
Freewheelin’: Mayor Jerry Abramson and a group of Humana employees gathered last week to announce the start of Freewheelin’, a rent-a-bike program for employees of the healthcare company
Cyclists should pull over periodically to let cars pass when riding on a two-lane road. It’s safer that way and courteous, too. Drivers should stay at least three feet (state law) from cyclists and pass by fully switching lanes. Cyclists shouldn’t pass a line of vehicles at a red light if you’re not turning right at the light. Instead, hang back at a distance so you don’t sit in the exhaust plume. Drivers should realize that their vehicle is potentially lethal to others and should slow down and pay attention to what they are doing.

Finally, I have a challenge to car drivers. On Sept. 22, cities around the world will be celebrating World Car Free Day, a day where people are asked to leave their car at home and travel by foot, bike or bus. Here’s your chance to see what it is like to be a cyclist on the streets of Louisville. Groups like Bicycling for Louisville, Bike Louisville (Metro’s program) and the Louisville Bicycle Club will be glad to help you. Riding your bike will give you a better appreciation for cyclists and will be helping the world, too. For more information on World Car Free Day, contact CART (the Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation), the Greater Louisville Sierra Club or Louisville Climate Action Network. —Tim Darst, Louisville

You called for cyclists to defend their transportation mode in a note following Jay R. Lillie’s naïve attack in the Aug. 22 issue. There are several things that need to be said about that, and I don’t think 250 words is enough to get the job done. So here’s my offering, a little long. I’m a cycling instructor certified by the League of American Cyclists, a veteran of more than 30 years of regular cycling for transportation — including 25 years commuting to work at The Courier-Journal — and author of two books of cycling routes and tour guidance:

Letters such as Jay R. Lillie’s are frustrating and a bit irritating to experienced transportation cyclists, and I think I know why. Everybody knows that riding a bike is a skill one never forgets. Some seem to extrapolate from that that you can learn all you need to know about cycling by riding around the block when you are six. Mr. Lillie’s pronouncements and admitted opinions suggest to me that something of that sort is at work in his case. And for all his earnestness, it leaves him looking clueless to transportation cyclists — a group, incidentally, that can be distinguished by experience, and, with any luck, education, from purely recreational or sport cyclists.

It is his “strong opinion,” for example, that “bicycles and cars do not belong in the same place.” I don’t know what cycling experience leads him to that opinion, other than perhaps fear, but I know from 30 years of riding in traffic that it is wrong. Bicycles and motorized vehicles can and regularly do operate very well in the same space. It does help if both groups have a good attitude and are not too quick to take umbrage, or chances, with each other’s lives. And it is MY strong opinion, as both an experienced transportation cyclist and a regular motorist, that the more cyclists there are in the mix — and therefore the fewer cars — the better off both of those groups and the world in general are.

Where cyclists do NOT belong is on sidewalks — as Mr. Lillie suggests, rather blithely, in my opinion — or even in bike lanes, or other reservations he might seek to set aside for us. Bikes are much more compatible with cars than they are with pedestrians. They travel in a straight line, significantly faster than pedestrians. They can’t move sideways from a dead stop. They don’t hold dog leashes that can telescope across a path without warning. Cyclists travel enough faster than pedestrians that pedestrian moves that would be innocuous among pedestrians can be a serious hazard to themselves and to cyclists.

The sign above the “sharrows” on the Second Street Bridge.
The sign above the “sharrows” on the Second Street Bridge.
Riding a bicycle on a sidewalk at any speed compatible with transportation is suicide. Motorists crossing sidewalks from their driveways or other street entrances scan the sidewalk for objects moving at pedestrian speed. For traffic moving as fast as bicycles, they scan the street. A motorist can glance in one direction and see nothing that registers as a hazard approaching. In the time it takes him to glance in the other, a cyclist moving on the sidewalk at a speed that would get him to work on time can become a hazard. The resulting collision may cause more damage to the bicycle than to the car, but it won’t be insignificant to the motorist.

That’s reason enough to keep cyclists off the sidewalks, without even getting into the danger it would pose for pedestrians even with cyclists riding so cautiously that cycling for transportation becomes hopelessly impractical.
Contrary to what many who don’t ride bikes for transportation take as a “given,” bike lanes painted on the street, or even separated from the street by a hump of asphalt, are not much better. They create conflicts at intersections, where cyclists must leave them to turn left. They force cyclists to ride close by parked cars where oblivious motorists can nail them by suddenly flinging doors open. And they generally relegate cyclists to space on the street where they are less visible, and therefore more likely to have conflict with motor vehicles entering and leaving the roadway, or in turns. The one thing they do accomplish, in my opinion, is to call attention to the legitimate presence of cyclists on the road. That could well save lives in places such as the George Rogers Clark (Second Street) Bridge, but so could enlightened driving.

The best way for bikes to coexist with motor vehicles is for everybody to share, a concept that admittedly runs contrary to instinct for humans. People have to be civilized to share. There are, of course, cyclists who damage the on-road modal relationship as much as motorists do, though I am convinced motorists are a bit quicker to take umbrage. That perception may come from my own bias, formed and nurtured through listening to people like Mr. Lillie for many years.

Cyclists should, as Mr. Lillie suggests, obey the rules of the road just as they would if they were driving cars. But there might be reasons for behavior that Mr. Lillie considers violations of fair play. For example, a cyclist waiting behind a line of cars at an intersection might notice that the first car in the line is waiting to turn left. The other cars are forced to wait because there’s not enough room for them to get around the first car. Where there is such room, motorists generally don’t hesitate to go around and proceed. A bicycle is nimble and can maneuver adroitly in space where the motorists can’t. So maybe the cyclist he sees as a transgressor is merely doing what he, as the driver of a car, would do if he could. For the cyclist, the maneuver has the added advantage of saving him from several minutes of breathing concentrated carcinogens.

There is more to know about what motivates cyclists, and about how they should behave, than can be intuited behind the wheel of a car while stalled in traffic. Anybody who sincerely wants to understand what science says about cycling in traffic should read John Forester’s book, “Effective Cycling,” which is available in bookstores and libraries.

Or better yet, ride to work for a month, and THEN read it. —Joe Ward, Louisville

As for your call for cyclists’ thoughts, I am a cyclist: a motorcyclist.  And it’s my only means of conveyance.  I face the same dangers and frustrations as a bicyclist. Every day I have near-death experiences caused by impatient or thoughtless drivers. As more cyclists cover the streets, the city has become more aware of the economic and environmental benefits of cycling, as well as the dangers of sharing the road. As the city adds bicycle lanes, some cyclists feel as if they have a permit to hunt down inconsiderate motorists. Since the beginning of this riding season, I have seen more cyclists screaming at motorists and purposefully slowing traffic, yet I have not seen a single cyclist use turn signals or yield to the rules of traffic lights.

Last week, a group of a dozen cyclists slowed traffic on Broadway by claiming both lanes, and when the light turned red, each cyclist ran the light. When I called from my bike “follow the rules of the road!,” three cyclists protested in unison: “Share the road!,” as though I was in some way hindering their civil rights. Although this was a fun display of irony, I see no way cyclists are going to be treated equally if they themselves can’t treat others with equality. — John King, Louisville

I would like to respond to Jay R. Lillie’s letter about cyclists. I agreed with virtually everything he said, right up to the point where he said we should “legalize riding on the sidewalk.” The last thing we should do is legalize riding on the sidewalk — not that the illegality of doing so stops many people. I walk my dogs on a daily basis, and we have to dodge adults on bikes every time. Some cyclists on the sidewalks have actually yelled at us to get out of their way — even though they are supposed to be on the street. I have had to train my dogs not to react to bikers on the sidewalk since the dogs are a herding breed and instinctively want to herd anything going in the “wrong” direction. This is not a new phenomenon; when my children were small and I was pushing them in a stroller, I had to dodge cyclists, too.

I have often noticed the behavior described by Mr. Lillie in which cyclists ride up to the front of the line of traffic at stoplights. I also notice cyclists running red lights on a regular basis. Many bikers seem to think that the laws only apply to them when it’s to their advantage.

While I appreciate the fact that Bardstown Road is a dangerous place to ride a bike, that doesn’t mean it’s all right to ride on the sidewalk. It means that cyclists should find an alternate route — like Cherokee Road or even Baxter Avenue. If more cyclists respected the traffic laws, more drivers and pedestrians would be more sympathetic to their plight. —Ann McBride, Louisville

I understand that motorists need to be alert and obey all the traffic laws, even/especially (pick your choice) when they pertain to bicyclists. I only wish that more cyclists realized that the same laws they wish automobile drivers to obey applied to them too.

I live close to Big Rock. There is a three-way stop there, and if I had a nickel for each time I have seen a near-wreck caused by a cyclist flying down the hill from Alta Vista and going through the stop sign without so much as a slow-up, I would be a very rich man.

And if I also had a nickel for each time I have seen a pack of cyclists riding as many as six, sometimes eight, abreast, even spilling over into the oncoming traffic lane, through Seneca Park, I would be rich beyond my wildest dreams.

I wish no cyclist harm, but I do wish them intelligence, understanding and a sense of responsibility. —Charlie Bensinger, Louisville

I am a local columnist for the Evening News in Jeffersonville and recently wrote an article on the sharrow markings and signs on the Clark Memorial Bridge (The Evening News, Sept. 6). I included a few options to help improve the safety of cyclists crossing the Clark Memorial Bridge.

In addition to the signage on the Clark Memorial Bridge, other options to improve safety are worth discussion and consideration.

1) Designate the southbound sidewalk for CYCLISTS ONLY (there are on/off ramps) and the northbound sidewalk for PEDESTRIANS ONLY. Common sense dictates that it is safer to ride on a sidewalk than to share a lane with an 18-wheeler.
2) Educate and improve riding skills of the cyclists.
3) Provide consistent enforcement of the vehicular speed limit on the bridge.
4) Ban bikes on the bridge. However, this is an impractical ban as it would deny access to cyclists crossing from one state to another. Pedestrians and bicycles are not permitted on the alternative Kennedy Bridge.
5) As a cyclist, ask yourself if the ride across the bridge is worth the risk.
6) Local and federal government move forward on turning the Big Four Bridge into a walking-biking bridge.
Perhaps cool heads and common sense will improve travel by any means.
—Sylvia Griggs, Jeffersonville

Bicycles and cars cannot coexist on city streets, at least on the Louisville city streets as we now know them. Is there not a law of physics which states that two material objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time? Yes, there is. Let me lay this out for you and let me know if I’m thinking right.

I have been driving an automobile for 42 years and have regularly ridden a bicycle both recreationally and for commuting to work on and off for some 33 years. I have some knowledge of these streets from both vantage points.

As a cyclist, I understand my rights and responsibilities as outlined on pages 64-66 of the Kentucky Driver Manual. If you read the manual, you’ll see that everything’s laid out all nice and proper, and, on paper, at least, it looks like it could all work out. Cyclists are quick to point out, and rightly so, by way of this manual, that motorists must “share the road with bicycles,” but this is a nebulous directive and leaves much to be individually determined. The manual does get a bit more specific and goes on to say, “all slower moving traffic, including bicycles, must drive as closely as practical to the right-hand boundary of the highway.” Here is where it gets dicey. What’s “practical”? Some cyclists would define this as needing to take up the entire lane. They cite safety as a reason for this; needing to move as far left as possible to (1) avoid getting smacked by car doors opening unexpectedly, and/or (2) avoid getting whacked or sideswiped by cars passing (in the same lane) on the left. Let’s say for the moment that these are both valid points. Who wants to get smacked or whacked? I see no hands going up. This is where the sanction provided by the law comes into direct conflict with practicality, and in this case, I think practicality should win.

Unless you are traveling on a very sparsely traveled side street (let’s say Sulgrave in the Highlands), it is not wise for you to take up a whole lane going 12 mph when all other traffic wants to go 35 or faster. I know, there is no minimum speed limit and you may well be within your rights to go 12, but it is very foolish indeed. Bikes and cars are fine, unto themselves, but are two different animals and should not coexist on the same street and in the same lane. It does not work. There is nothing, for example, wrong with either Donald Trump or Rosie O’Donnell (well, that’s debatable), but you wouldn’t want to put them in the same room, would you?

Personally, I have had no problem riding busy streets and staying on the far right of the lane; close to parked cars — true — but if one is a defensive rider, one can detect about-to-be-opened driver’s doors and the like. This way, cars have room to pass me at whim. Yes, this has worked and I’ve been lucky, but I would be the first to say that this is not the best way at all; it’s still fraught with potential problems and dangers.

As a driver of a car, I’ve been dismayed with cyclists in the recent past. I can’t generalize, but there seems to be a sense of entitlement going on. And there appears to be a direct relationship between the pomposity of this entitlement and the seeming “seriousness” of the cyclist. The bikers with all the right designer gear, and who are traveling in a group, are the most arrogant in my experience. I’ve seen them occupy an entire lane, riding at a leisurely pace, blowing through stoplights and stop signs, and in other ways appearing oblivious to traffic around them. They saunter on as if on a Sunday morning ride through Floyds Knobs. The times when I’ve, for example, brought it to their attention that they just ran a stoplight, I’ve been told where to go and what to do to myself while there. Real nice.

The obvious solution is to install bike lanes. Some cities, here and abroad, have gone this route decades ago and Louisville is now slowly catching on. Separate, marked lanes are certainly preferred, although the recently installed signs urging motorists to acknowledge and share the lane with bikes are at least educational, though in some cases not practical. If you travel over the Second Street Bridge, where these signs have been hung up, please break the law and ride on the sidewalk; trying to nagivate the right-hand lane can be a death sentence, as we’ve so tragically discovered of late — the lane’s so narrow, no shoulder — there’s just nowhere to go.
So these are my thoughts. Let’s hear feedback from others. Bikes are here to stay and will be on the roads in more numbers. We have to find a way to coexist and not blow any gaskets due to frustration. —Jack Teeple, Louisville

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