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Bicyclists have a right to the road; drivers have responsibility

The Duluth News Tribune: Our view: Bicyclists have a right to the road; drivers have responsibility to share


Tensions between motorists and bicyclists — and their growing inability to share Duluth’s oft-narrow,

sometimes-clogged streets — have been building for at least a couple of years.

Then Ryan Bennett’s letter to the editor dropped.

“Cyclists need to use sidewalks,” the letter, published on the 14th of this month, was titled.

“If a cyclist can’t get his or her bike up to 35 mph in a reasonable amount of time and hold that speed so dozens of motorists don’t need to swerve into the other (and often occupied) lane or edge into oncoming traffic, the cyclist should consider more time on the mostly unoccupied sidewalk,” wrote Bennett, of Duluth. “Sidewalks are for pedestrians. Anyone who slows traffic is a pedestrian.”

A flurry of response letters followed, some of which are published on today’s Opinion pages. A couple rightly pointed out that it’s actually illegal for bicyclists to ride on sidewalks. With respect to Bennett’s obvious and widely shared frustration, it’s also sort of dumb.

“Pretty much, bicyclists have to (stay on the streets and) follow the rules of the road just like a car,” Duluth Police Sgt. Jim Lesar told the News Tribune Opinion page last week. That’s made clear in state statute 169.222 and in Section 33-5 of the City Code, he said.

So, too, do inline skaters, roller skaters and skateboarders, all of whom also are prohibited from public walkways.

“Bicycles travel slower than motor vehicles, but even someone out on a casual ride on their bike is going much faster than a pedestrian and certainly faster than someone with a disability or someone who’s elderly,” Lesar said. The laws are meant to prevent potentially dangerous collisions between bicyclists and slower-moving sidewalk users.

Also, bicyclists on sidewalks tend to ignore or don’t see traffic signs or lights. Bad crashes can result. Lesar recalled one at or near 40th Avenue East a couple of years ago. A bicyclist, a young man with a lifetime ahead of him, was left with a serious brain injury after pedaling from a quiet sidewalk into a busy street.

“The motorist never had a chance,” Lesar said. “Even if she saw this kid it would have been for the briefest instant. She never had time to react.”

Another bicycle-car accident in which a bicyclist entered an intersection from a sidewalk happened more recently near 20th Avenue West. That bicyclist broke a wrist and injured his arm.

“He hit the driver’s side front of the car; he

T-boned the car and went right up over the top,” Lesar recalled. The young man was cited for failing to yield.

“Helmets are critical, too,” Lesar said. “It’s like motorcyclists. You tell tem to wear helmets for protection and bright colors so they can be seen, anything that gets attention.”

Should a bicycle move over to the right for a car? That’s a matter of common sense, Lesar said.

“Even if you do everything right on a bicycle, (in a collision with a car), the bike is going to lose,” he said. “(Bicyclists) have to be over to the right. They need to use their hand signals and give motorists an idea what they’re doing so motorists have some reaction time. That’s all stuff a bicyclist has to remember.

“They always say drive defensively. You’ve got to ride defensively, too.”

Whether riding bikes or driving cars, another “got to” is sharing the road —with respect and with safety as an ultimate goal. That’s especially critical in Duluth where few streets are accommodating to or welcoming of bicyclists, pedestrians and other non-car users, few of whom were imagined when Duluth was first laid out. Most streets were built for horses and buggies — and little else.

That can be fixed as streets wear out and are rebuilt. Bicycle lanes and other accommodations can be added — and will be, in accordance with Duluth’s commitment to “Complete Streets,” a commitment formally adopted by the City Council in March 2010.

But until roads are fixed and more uses can be accommodated, “Bicyclists and motorists need to find a way to co-exist and safely share the road,” as Mayor Don Ness said in a News Tribune editorial in the fall of 2009.

This is hardly the first time motorists and bicyclists have squared off. In September 2009, three bicyclists pulling a trailer of donated food to the Damiano Center were stopped and ticketed by Duluth Police for impeding traffic. As many as 12 cars had backed up behind the trio of slow-moving, two wheeler-riding young people. Then, like now, outraged readers posted comments at duluthnewstribune.com and sent letters to the editor, blasting the long arm of the law. Others, just as outraged, argued police need to crack down more on bicyclists who weave in and out of traffic and who regularly ignore signals and signs.

“Streets are public spaces,” James Gittemeier of the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission and Metropolitan Interstate Council, which focuses on transportation issues, said at the time. “What streets look like and how they’re used should be a public decision.”

And that should be a public that can safely use its roadways — with respect for others and without hindering others — whether driving cars, riding bikes, walking or getting around some other way.