Bicycles, cars need to share the road
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 1, 2009
A fatal hit-and-run last weekend on a rural road in northern Guilford County was a grim reminder that although cars and bicycles share the road, that coexistence is not always peaceful.
There are frustrations and misunderstandings — not to mention mistakes and bad behavior — among both groups.
Physics plays a crucial role: For bicyclists, the unpleasant reality is that when cars and bicyclists collide, cars win.
But given that bicyclists have a legal right to the same spaces cars use, is there a way to share in relative harmony?
As cities everywhere work to encourage cycling, how can motorists, cyclists and planners work to minimize the conflicts?
Jeff Sovich , the president of Bicycling in Greensboro, said as interest in cycling grows, a key is education — for both drivers and bicyclists.
“If we don’t have the education and safety awareness campaign going on ... we’ll likely see an increase in conflicts,” he said.
“If you’ve got an increased number of cyclists on the road, that’s an increased chance of problems.”
Last weekend’s hit-and-run fatality was only the most recent in a deadly year for area cyclists.
In that incident, 55-year-old Summerfield resident David Sherman died after being struck from behind on Church Street near N.C. 150. The Highway Patrol seized the vehicle they believe was involved, but no arrests have been made while detectives finish their investigation.
In April, Elon professor Eugene Gooch was killed while riding his bicycle.
And last year, UNCG professor Mark Schulz was seriously injured when a vehicle struck his bicycle. The driver was texting at the time.
Still, in recent years, the total number of collisions has stayed fairly constant.
According to the N.C. Department of Transportation, there were 60 crashes involving a bicycle and a motor vehicle in Guilford County in 1997. In 2007, the figure was 59 .
Part of the issue, cycling advocates say, is the reluctance of some drivers to see them as full partners on the roads.
Sovich said that’s something he heard in the aftermath of the recent hit-and-run.
“There were a lot of comments that cyclists should stay off the roads and should use the parks and greenways. Those comments really come out of ignorance,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of cyclists to ride safely, but it’s the responsibility of motorists to ride safely and be watchful of all slow-moving vehicles on the roadway.”
Still, there’s no question that, as a practical matter, some roads are inherently more dangerous than others.
On the bicycling map put out by the area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the section of Church Street where the hit-and-run occurred is labeled as a “least suitable” road for cycling.
Walt Maxwell is a serious cyclist, one who frequently rides 40, 50, 60 miles at a clip. He’s had his share of close calls on roads in the rural parts of the county around his Summerfield home.
The area hasn’t done enough to accommodate bicyclists, he said.
“Unfortunately, some of the shoulders are nonexistent,” he said. “For the most part, in our area, there’s next to nothing to the right of the right line.”
Some roads, such as U.S. 220, he regards as flatly off limits.
“This is not a unique Greensboro or Guilford County problem,” Maxwell said. “It’s a national problem.”
Bicycle advocates point out that they have a legal right to the roads, and that both motorists and bicyclists share the duty of keeping roads safe.
“I think there’s more responsibility on the cyclist, quite frankly,” Maxwell said. “We want to push some responsibility back on the driver, but at the end of the day, we don’t have a lot to hide behind.”
There is plenty of blame to go around. Education is needed for both cyclists and motorists, said Peggy Holland , the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.
Among bicyclists, some weave, ride on the wrong side, veer unpredictably — generally causing chaos, or at least consternation.
“We have a lot of people who maybe someone just taught them to ride as a little kid but maybe didn’t teach them the rules of the road,” she said.
And among drivers, the problem isn’t only those who are hostile — even well-meaning drivers can be confused about what to do.
“I’m driving my car and there’s some crazy person in spandex in front of me — how do I treat them?” Holland said.
The city has made investments in bicycle infrastructure in recent years, adding bike lanes to roads including Florida and Spring Garden streets.
But one key change might simply involve time: the creation of a critical mass of bicyclists on the street. The more bicyclists there are, the more motorists take note of their presence. That, in turn, makes the streets more bicycle-friendly and encourages even more cycling.
That’s the case in big biking cities in United States or Europe, Sovich said.
“It’s expected that bicyclists will be there,” he said. “Motorists make a point to watch out for cyclists at all times.”
Greensboro has a way to go before that’s a reality, but, Sovich notes, the city has been building for cars for several decades.
It’s only in recent years that accommodating bicycles has been emphasized.
“I don’t see why Greensboro couldn’t get to that level,” he said.
In the meantime, cyclists hope for the best.
Maxwell offers up a plea.
“Just a plea, a plea to drivers,” he said. “It involves kids, it involves adults. It’s just a plea for everybody, to say ’Heads up. They’re out there.’”