Video: Building a bicycle infrastructure

By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 7/18/2008 9:32:19 AM ET 2008-07-18T13:32:19

Over the last two months, Taylor Cabaniss’ morning commute has evolved into something entirely new. It has lengthened to an hour.

But that’s a good thing, said Cabaniss, a senior financial manager for Qualcomm Inc. in San Diego — it’s “just some good exercise opportunity, to get out a bit.”

Back in May, Cabaniss abandoned his car and began biking to work. With fuel prices topping $4 a gallon, it makes a big difference.

“I’m probably saving a gallon and a half a day — I imagine $6 a day,” he said.

Cabaniss’ story is a common one. Since the average price of gasoline hit about $3.25 a gallon early this year, bike sales have skyrocketed, the National Bicycle Dealers Association reported. Store owners across the country say two-wheelers are flying out the door faster than they can stock them.

“Gas prices have jacked our business quite a bit,” said Jamie McDonald, owner of Sunrise Cyclery in Minneapolis. “I’ve sold way more racks, way more bags, way more lights, way more fenders and more bikes in general than I ever have before.”

At Wheel Nuts in Alexandria, Va., a suburb of Washington, owner Ron Taylor sounds a common theme — he’s having trouble keeping up with both sales and repairs.

“With all of that business coming in, we’ve actually had to hire additional staff,” Taylor said. “We’re staying here late, trying to meet customers’ demands, trying to get their bikes back to them sooner.”

More bikes mean more accidents
Experts welcome the trend for all of the reasons you might expect: Transportation planners like that fewer cars clog the nation’s highways. Environmental activists like that fewer tons of greenhouse emissions are pumped into the atmosphere every rush hour. Doctors like to see more people pedaling off more pounds.

But in the months since motorists began pedaling in droves, it has become clear that all those cyclists on the streets pose a significant problem: all those cyclists on the streets.

“I believe it’s definitely going to cause some problems, because people don’t know how to share the road with cyclists,” said Kirk Hendricks, director of advocacy for the group Idaho Cycling Enthusiasts. “[Drivers] need to know that we have as much right as an automobile even though we’re not as big.”

There are no nationwide statistics on bicycle-related injuries and deaths for the first half of 2008. But authorities across the country say they are seeing a sharp rise in the number of accidents involving bicyclists.

“Last year in New Jersey 12 bikers, bicyclists, were killed in motor vehicle crashes,” said Pam Fischer, director of the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety. “So far this year — and we’re at the middle of the summer, July 15 — we have already lost 11 bicyclists.”

Fischer said that “in almost every case, the bicycle was doing something that put them at significant risk.”

At least five bicyclists have been killed in Chicago alone this year, leading to lawsuits, organized protests demanding safer bike routes and a set of new ordinances requiring drivers to give cyclists at least a 3-foot-wide berth when passing.

“Most of the crashes that we’ve seen are a result of inattentive driving,” said Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation.

Beware of newbies in the saddle
The problem is that so many new riders create road hazards because they don’t know the rules, police say. Too often, inexperienced riders take traffic signs as suggestions, not commands.

After the Seminole County, Fla., sheriff’s office recently began fielding scores of complaints from drivers that bicyclists were clogging major streets, it sent out deputies with video cameras. The cameras revealed large groups of bike riders illegally disrupting traffic.

“You need to obey the rules of the road,” said Officer Jeryl Vonderheid of the Eau Claire, Wis., police. “Bicycles are not exempt from [the] rule of stop signs.”

New riders also aren’t fully prepared for the inconveniences they can face — the worst one, experienced riders say, being drivers who also don’t know the rules or are too frustrated to observe them.

Bikers said they often struggled to blend safely with traffic. In the same video survey that found dangerous biking, Seminole County deputies also recorded a shocking level of rude and aggressive behavior by drivers.

“It’s not their right to assault a cyclist or to run a cyclist off the road because they get impatient,” sheriff’s Lt. Pete Kelting said.

Regardless, said cyclist Keri Caffrey, “they see a cyclist and they target them, in many cases.”

Transit riders feel the squeeze
Cycling advocates point to a host of other longstanding problems that they say are becoming critical now that so many new riders are hitting the streets: too many potholes and poorly maintained streets, too few bicycle lanes, too few places to securely park a bike, too few places to wash up after a long ride to work.

Add a new one: Too little space on the bus.

Transit officials in numerous cities report that more people taking their bikes along when the catch the bus or the train — in Houston, the number rose 33 percent in May alone, officials said. Those bikes take up passenger space, and that puts the squeeze on all paying customers. Video: Will oil prices keep dropping?

“Given the explosive growth in bikes, we’ll never have enough capacity on transit to accommodate every bike, especially during rush hour,” said Mary Fetch, a spokeswoman for the TriMet light rail system in the Portland, Ore., region, where 1 in 10 transit riders totes along a bicycle.

Deborah Ulinger of Beaverton often cycles to a TriMet station and hops the train with her bike. But late last month, security guards began kicking cyclists off bike-crowded trains at the perpetually packed 185th station and wouldn’t let any board unless there were empty bike racks.

“It’s frustrating, because we have places to go and things to do,” Ulinger said. “I know it’s a safety issue, but if they could provide more spaces for bikes it would be great.”

The Utah Transit Authority said it would probably have to rip out seats in its FrontRunner commuter trains between Ogden and Salt Lake City to make room for more bicycles. Each car now has straps to hold two bicycles, but James House of Layton, a regular commuter, said he had seen as many as 15 in each car, blocking the aisles.

Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell, meanwhile, recently ordered that a pending order for 380 cars for the Metro-North light rail linking her state and New York be modified to allow more bicycle storage before the state will take delivery.

‘A way of life for a lot of people’
Authorities and cycling advocates acknowledged that finding the money for the upgrades needed to accommodate all the new bike riders would be tough. But they said the move toward cycling was unlikely to reverse, and the sooner the fixes were made, the better.

“I believe in the future that cycling is going to not be just a trend, but a way of life for a lot of people,” said Gene Wells, owner of Fat Tire Cycle in Buckhannon, W.Va., an assessment that was echoed by Rebecca Anderson, advocacy director for Trek Bicycle Corp.

"Millions of people have bicycles hanging in the garage and they're getting them down and riding them,” Anderson said. “People are looking at the bicycle as more than just a toy.”

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