I have just re-entered the cycling fold after a hiatus of 25 years. Growing up in Ottawa, I used to ride everywhere. Back in the day, Ottawa was already pretty bike-friendly and a bicycle was my only real transportation. Weather permitting, I would ride dozens of miles a day – to school, work, to the homes of friends – I never thought about distance. I had no car, no license, and lived in a city with affordable and convenient public transportation.
I resisted the temptation to succumb to Canadian progressivism though, and I couldn’t wait to begin burning fossil fuels with abandon. Just before my 17th birthday I did just that, first on a ’79 Yamaha XS400, a motorcycle bought with my summer job money, and eventually with a hand-me-down Buick Skyhawk. I don’t remember what happened to my old bicycle.
After I returned to New York, I worked far too hard to think about riding a bicycle for fun. I got married and had kids, and in the years that followed, I owned a series of the kind of crappy, mass produced mountain bikes that all dads probably buy – the kind designed to get you to the ice cream stand and back with the kids. I never took riding seriously and never commuted on these bikes. They just weren’t fun. They were heavy, needlessly-complicated, and badly built.
That all ended about four years ago when I saw a really cool retro bike at Rick’s Bike Shop in Queensbury. It was a Beach Cruiser made by Giant and it had been sitting at Rick’s for two years without selling. It was cheap and it had coaster brakes, wide swooping handlebars, huge tires and a comfy seat. As if to seal the deal, it was a three-speed with AUTOMATIC gears! How cool is that? I immediately forked over the money and I proceeded to ride it more than a thousand miles that first year. To work. To ice cream. To Lake George. Everywhere. I just couldn’t believe it. Cycling was fun again! I was eight years old again with permission to ride to the next block, out of sight of my parents. I was free!
I still ride a bicycle primarily because it makes me feel free, but now an average ride is about 35 to 40 miles (I do go much further when I have time). I look forward to days off I can devote to my new calling. I’ve completed a few century rides (100 miles) and taken a few trips. This past season, I put about 2,500 miles on my Cannondale R1000 road bike and have already logged about 1,000 miles this year. Several weeks ago I stepped it up again and got rid of my motorcycle to put a deposit down on an American made K. Bedford custom-made bicycle frame. I am seriously addicted to cycling. I can say, with all sincerity, that, while hardly an athlete, I am definitely a “cyclist”. I never saw this coming but I truly LOVE getting on two wheels and pedaling off on an adventure. Every time I do it.
Here comes the point. For all the miles I’ve put on bicycles in the past four years, I’ve been extremely lucky when it comes to vehicular traffic. Like all cyclists, I have had a few near scrapes and I have been yelled at by drivers who apparently sweat anger from their pores and seem awfully frustrated that they are asked to consider we lowly folk as they pilot their earth-bound spaceships on our shared asphalt.
For the most part, though, I have experienced caution and courtesy from most drivers in my area. I have been in only one crash and it was caused by unattended pedestrian children on a bike path and my own desperate desire to avoid them as they blocked said path entirely. I have occasionally felt the wind of vehicles as they pass by, sometimes mere inches away. I have had people who truly should not have licenses upset at me because they don’t understand who has a right of way. I will say, unequivocally, that my own experiences with traffic (compared with those of most other cyclists I know) have been uncharacteristically good.
Last week, a story came to my attention, though, that brings home just how horrific a car/person collision usually is in areas where we are asked to share the road. Ashley Poissant, a 27-year-old was struck by a car last Monday evening as she and three friends ran along the shoulder of Perry Mills Road in Champlain. She died later that night.
It reminded me of another story, that of Richard Shapiro and his business partner Melinda Ellis, who were riding a tandem bicycle in Saranac Lake and had a near collision with the driver of a truck. Shapiro gave the truck’s driver, William Reed, the finger and Reed then blocked the couple’s path with his vehicle. The two men exchanged words, fists flew, and both men were issued summons for criminal harassment. At the time Shapiro said Franklin County had declared “an open season on cyclists.”
I have heard other horror stories from friends and have read stories about people, like Ashley and Richard, whose experiences have been so much less savory than my own. People are regularly hurt and killed because we (cars and bikes) are not sharing the road very well. I have to believe that, for every example that makes the news, a handful of other incidents go unreported.
Heather Sackett, a two time Ironman finisher and an avid cyclist wrote an op-ed about this subject in the Lake Placid News several years ago. “No cyclist, runner or triathlete wants to be training on the same highways as vehicular traffic,” she wrote. “In the Adirondacks, however, this cannot be avoided. There are no bike paths, running paths or even bike lanes like those found in cities and suburbs. This very fact is what makes our area attractive to athletes. One of the best things about training here is that you get to bike and run on roads with beautiful scenic vistas and rolling hills. Unfortunately, those same roads are utilized by vehicles, which makes it a dangerous situation. Please, be safe this summer and give each other some space.”
I agree strongly with her sentiments. We SHOULD be able to share the road with each other and the Adirondacks ARE an amazing place to ride. But, after some careful consideration about the realities involved (that many Adirondack roadways simply lack sufficient shoulder space to effectively have cars and bikes use them at the same time), I’m not so sure that beseeching us all to “share the road” is a practical solution to this very real (and potentially fatal) problem.
The idea that my relatively slow-moving 225 pounds of bike and rider could ever effectively “share” insufficient space with a 4,000 pound vehicle is probably folly from the get-go regardless of how careful or courteous either party may be. I don’t know how you are when driving a car. I know how I am. I’m in my shell. I’m in the Batmobile. I’m already feeling isolated and empowered and restricted all at the same time.
My point is that it’s not really about “us” versus “them” when it comes to cars and bikes. Most of us who cycle also drive cars. We’re all “them” if we’re honest about it. So, while a cyclist may well be able to put themselves in a driver’s shoes, it’s far less likely that a driver can or will put themselves in a cyclist’s shoes. I highly doubt that we are going to fix this problem with public safety campaigns, good intent and pleas for good behavior. As I see it, asking a cyclist and a driver to share the road is like asking fish and cats to just get along. We truly don’t understand each other and one of us is fully capable of rendering the other dead in a very quick and one-sided manner. We might truly live best in totally separate elements.
So, perhaps, the best answer to keeping riders and runners safe is to not share the road whenever that is possible. I live near the Warren County Bikeway (a rail-to-trail bikeway). It’s not very long (about 10 miles between Glens Falls and Lake George), but where it’s a path separate from the road, cyclists are out of traffic. Much of the bikeway is still on streets and roads with only a slightly expanded shoulder that isn’t a true separation. Often, on these shared routes, the lane devoted to bicycles is strewn with broken glass, potholes and detritus from vehicular traffic which can often seem more dangerous for us to ride in the very space set aside for us. As a result, many cyclists still ride in the roadway where cars constantly sweep the asphalt clean. Regardless, and with all its foibles, our bikeway starts and ends most of my rides specifically because I feel much safer on it than I do on the road. When I think about our modest bikeway, I can’t help but compare it to Ottawa where over 300 kilometers of bike paths make it possible to travel all over while barely touching a roadway.
The Warren County Bikeway was started in 1977 and completed in 1980. It cost about $650,000 (or $65,000 a mile). Is it just a pipe dream to think that we could afford such a luxury in the Adirondacks? After all, Ottawa is another nation’s capital. It has lots of money and it is carefully designed to be both a transportation opportunity and a tourist attraction. It’s idealistic, I guess, to assume that we could build so intelligent a series of paths here as the Canadians get to experience.
But, let’s really consider this for a moment. Rail-trail projects like the The Great Allegheny Passage (150 miles in Pennsylvania) or The Katy Trail (225 miles in Missouri) show us that these trails can be built fairly cheaply. Let’s think back to the hundreds of millions in public money we spent on the 1980 Olympics (in 1980 dollars, too). Let’s think about the current $1.9 billion dollar state budget being spent on road projects this year. Let’s think about little municipalities like Glens Falls spending $12 million dollars of public money on a roundabout (a pretty small asphalt circle) to facilitate more commuter traffic. Let’s think about all the times new traffic lights and intersections have been built with our tax money simply to make it easier for America consumers to get in and out of their nearest WalMart!
So why is it so hard to get elected representatives to understand the benefits of having pathways specifically for bicycles? Why aren’t we pressuring them to do something concrete for local cyclists in the Adirondack Park and for all the businesses that would benefit from vastly increased bike tourism? People love to ride in the Adirondacks already. Are we really going to sit idly by and watch the NYS Department of Transportation, as it (yet again) re-paves old roadways with only vehicle use in mind and without concern for the safety of pedestrians and cyclists? Let’s try to look at it as an amazing opportunity to fix a very real problem and create a very real low-cost economic generator. With every repaving project, we have that opportunity to widen narrow shoulders and install dedicated lanes (which works very well at reducing collisions). Let’s also get serious about truly dedicated paths for cyclists that are separate from traffic.
Biking worldwide is growing by leaps and bounds. Munich began paying attention to these issues in about 1990 when only about 5% of its population identified themselves as cyclists. Now, 15% of that city’s inhabitants say they are using their bikes to get back and forth to work and would use the word “cyclist” to describe themselves. U.S. figures for those self-identifying as cyclists are fairly similar, but many say that safety is the major reason why cycling is not usually their first choice for transportation.
Major cities the world over have been making their roadways safer for bicycles with nothing but positive results. Many European cities already had smart policies regarding bike traffic in mind as they planned roadway projects, and now some American cities are following suit. The “Green Lane Project” is working its magic in six metropolitan cities (a “green lane” is just that, a wide painted green path on a roadway specifically for bike traffic only). The results of this work is starting to be revealed in some heartening health and safety statistics that should remind us of the opportunities we have right now to establish dedicated bike trails and green lanes, and offer a boon for tourism. In 2012 a green lane built on 9th Street in Manhattan netted an overall 49% increase in retail business for business owners within its first year (while the average Manhattan retailer only saw a 3% increase that same year). This may be attributed to cyclists returning more frequently to areas where they feel they can ride safely.
Perhaps, if we were thoughtful about it, we would realize the amazing potential that lies in catering to cyclists from outside the area. It’s really beautiful here and the cyclist in me, for one, thinks it’s far more beautiful when you’re not forced to share the view with smoke-belching vehicles and their often angry pilots.
Let’s expand our vision to include safer cycling in the Adirondack Park by creating dedicated bike paths, wider shoulders, and adding green lanes to our roadways. There is no downside to catering to those of us on two wheels. We come in peace and we are dedicated to enjoying the natural beauty of the Adirondacks. We also bring our wallets (they’re just smaller to fit into our jersey pouches or seat bags).