Drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians can take high road to safety
November 15, 2012
Cyclists captured Pittsburgh's attention this summer after two bicyclists were killed and one was gravely injured in hit-and-runs and another was brutally attacked. Another cyclist was injured on Tuesday after being sideswiped by a driver who fled the scene. In comments on news websites, letters to the editor, tweets and Facebook posts, Pittsburghers offered their opinions on cyclists, drivers and the rules of the road.
Some of those comments make it sound as though the world contains only two kinds of people: bicyclists and drivers.
Some criticized cyclists for zipping through stop signs or red lights and otherwise failing to follow the law. Cyclists and their advocates lamented distracted drivers and speeding cars making the roads unsafe for cyclists, motorists and pedestrians alike.
Scott Bricker, executive director of Bike Pittsburgh, said some drivers view cyclists as just another obstacle -- "the equivalent of a moving pothole."
"We're not being seen as human beings just trying to get where we're going," he said.
And more often than not, cyclists are also drivers.
Last year, Bike Pittsburgh sent a survey to its 1,700 members. Of the 600 who responded, 90 percent said they own and drive vehicles, meaning that they have driver's licenses, pay fees to register their vehicles and chip in for the gas tax, all of which help fund road and bridge improvements.
"The whole idea that it's us versus them is completely unfounded," Mr. Bricker said. "Most people who ride bikes also drive cars. We're multi-modal people."
Law and enforcement
In a September letter to the editor printed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, one woman asked "if there are any rules for bikes riding on bridges."
She said in the letter that because no car was on her left, she was able to allow the cyclist to travel on her right unharmed.
"If there had been a car on our left," she concluded, "an accident might have happened."
Bridges are just like any other roadway, and a statewide law that took effect in April requires motorists who pass cyclists to give them at least 4 feet of buffer space. If they cannot do so safely, they must wait to pass.
The law also prohibits what bicyclists call the "right hook" -- a vehicle making a sudden right turn directly in the path of a cyclist.
Stephen Patchan, Pittsburgh's bike-pedestrian coordinator, called the 4-foot passing buffer "a very important law," noting that its intent is for motorists to slow down, evaluate their options and pass cyclists at a safe distance.
"Safety on our roadways is generally increased when people move slower," he said.
Mr. Bricker, who said he's been accused of being a militant cyclist, said he only wants drivers to share the road with bicyclists.
"We're not going to have a car-free city," he said. "And I'm not pushing for that."
He said cyclists have as much right to the road as drivers do, and he just wants "an environment where everyone riding a bike feels safe."
Mr. Bricker said a law that bans text messaging while driving, which took effect in March, was a good step in preventing distracted driving, but he said he'd like to see a ban on handheld cell phones as well.
"Put your phone away while you're driving," he said. "It's not that important."
Bike Pittsburgh recently submitted a proposal to Pittsburgh police for a program that would give officers more training on traffic laws and how to better enforce those laws.
Peter Flucke, president and founder of We Bike, Etc., is a former law enforcement officer who created one of the first police bicycle patrols in Minnesota. He now lives in Green Bay, Wis., and travels around the country to train local police forces on bicycle and pedestrian safety. Mr. Bricker hopes that Mr. Flucke soon will be able to share his expertise with Pittsburgh police.
Mr. Flucke teaches a two-day course that begins with taking officers on a bike ride.
"Who wants to work with a cop who learned how to shoot a gun by watching a video?" he said.
Getting officers on a bike gives them some perspective and shows them that "just because you're on a bike in traffic doesn't mean you're an idiot," Mr. Flucke said.
On the second day of the training, he has officers walk through crosswalks so they know how dangerous it can be to cross a street.
"If you're not stopping for a cop in uniform legally and safely crossing a crosswalk, I'm sure you're not stopping for my kid," Mr. Flucke said.
He said few officers would say they got into law enforcement "to make the world a better place for pedestrians and cyclists," but most officers would say that traffic control is part of their responsibility, and the key is ensuring officers understand that "traffic" includes pedestrians and cyclists.
Mr. Flucke said that people depend on officers to manage the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians, but officers often aren't given the appropriate training to deal with crashes and other safety issues involving bicyclists and pedestrians.
"They already know how to be cops," Mr. Flucke said. "They know how to enforce laws.
"They all got into law enforcement to help people. We haven't given them the tools they need to help pedestrians and cyclists."
He said more laws aren't necessary -- officers just need to enforce the laws that, when broken, lead to the majority of crashes, such as speeding, running stop signs, drunken and distracted driving, and not stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks.
"Pedestrians and bicyclists become invisible if you're not looking for them," Mr. Flucke said.
Bill Nesper, vice president of programs for the League of American Bicyclists, said encouraging targeted enforcement of bad drivers is important and giving officers the appropriate training is the best way to ensure that happens.
Of course, drivers aren't the only ones at fault -- when cyclists and pedestrians break laws or behave unpredictably, that, too, can lead to accidents.
Mr. Flucke said one of the biggest mistakes cyclists make is riding contrary to the flow of traffic, contributing to one-third of cycling crashes. Riding a bike at night without lights and reflectors is another no-no, but police rarely cite cyclists for riding without lights.
"If you can't see them, you can't yield to them," Mr. Flucke said.
Bike Pittsburgh recognizes the danger of riding without lights and, in the past year, the organization has given out nearly 400 bike lights.
Mr. Flucke also isn't a proponent of what's called the "Idaho stop" -- when cyclists treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs. It's been legal for cyclists to do that in Idaho since the 1980s, but it's illegal elsewhere, including Pennsylvania.
Mr. Patchan also isn't a fan of the Idaho stop law.
"No matter what you're doing -- driving, biking, walking -- if you do something unanticipated, then you're decreasing your safety and you're decreasing other people's safety," he said.
"Somehow, the message has gotten out there that bicyclists don't need to follow the rules of the road," Mr. Flucke said. But by Pennsylvania statute, bicycles are vehicles, so cyclists are supposed to follow the same rules as drivers.
But the Idaho stop law works in Idaho. That state's Ada County -- where Boise sits -- has a silver bicycle-friendliness designation from the League of American Bicyclists. Pittsburgh is one step below at a bronze designation. There are three levels above silver -- gold, platinum and diamond.
Matt Edmond, a senior transportation planner with the Ada County Highway District and the county's bike coordinator, said the law is sensible and a good concession for cyclists, who depend on their own power to get where they're going.
"I think unless a cyclist is doing something really flagrant, a lot of our law enforcement is reluctant to write out a $100 traffic citation for it," he said.
Because cyclists move more slowly than vehicles and because they have better visibility, they can see traffic at an intersection before a motorist can and so they can roll through stop signs safely. With traffic lights, Mr. Edmond said, the law allows cyclists to clear red lights ahead of vehicles.
Mr. Edmond did, however, echo Mr. Flucke's encouragement for cyclists to act like drivers.
"The more you act like a vehicle, the safer you are," he said.
Changing infrastructure, changing minds
Mr. Flucke, Mr. Bricker and Mr. Nesper all said infrastructure plays a big role in ensuring the safety of everyone on the roads. A lot of Pittsburgh's suburbs -- especially sprawling communities such as Cranberry, Robinson, North Huntingdon and Bethel Park -- aren't developed for bikes or pedestrians.
"If you don't own a car there, good luck to you," Mr. Bricker said.
Most of those communities have few or no sidewalks. Mr. Flucke said crashes are significantly reduced in areas that have sidewalks.
Pittsburgh has made "significant strides" in the past five to 10 years in improving infrastructure to accommodate cyclists, Mr. Patchan said.
The city has installed bike lanes and shared-lane markings all over the city, but Mr. Patchan said the more "substantial" the on-street infrastructure, the more bicyclists will use it.
The city has about 35 miles of on-street bike lanes and sharrows -- markings that indicate lanes should be shared by both vehicles and bicycles -- and 20 miles of separated pathways, Mr. Patchan said.
Sharrows will increase the number of cyclists on the road, but painted bike lanes -- or better yet, physically separated bike lanes -- will draw even more people to use bikes to get to work and to go shopping.
Mr. Nesper agreed.
"In the best cities in the country, you're seeing these separated facilities," he said.
The other Pittsburgh initiative is "to make sure that everyone who uses this public right of way ... knows their responsibilities to maintain the highest level of safety for everyone," Mr. Patchan said.
The city partners with Bike Pittsburgh to inform people who want to bike about best practices and tips such as what to wear when biking in winter and what to look out for when cycling.
Biking in an urban area re-quires cyclists to be alert, Mr. Patchan said, because "it can be like an obstacle course" -- cars, pedestrians, grates, uneven pavement, debris.
MOVEPGH, the city's transportation plan, identifies areas where bike lanes and bike trails can be installed. The long-term plan for the property along the Allegheny River calls for a trail that would run parallel to the rail lines from the Strip District to Highland Park.
Mr. Patchan said future education campaigns will focus on reminding drivers that cyclists are allowed on the streets and why cyclists do the things they do.
For example, Mr. Patchan said, when a cyclist is taking up a whole lane, he isn't doing it "out of spite" -- there could be dirt, gravel, a sewer grate or parked cars within the "door zone" that force the cyclist to the middle of the lane to ride safely.
Almost all cyclists are motorists, so cyclists understand why motorists are doing what they're doing, but not all motorists routinely ride bikes, so cyclists' behavior can be confounding.
Mr. Patchan said he hopes the education campaign can "mitigate any conflict between people."
For people who may be impatient with cyclists, Mr. Patchan reminds them that cycling in the city is still a relatively new thing, and as more people ride bikes and bicycling becomes a mainstream transportation choice, cyclists will see less tension, frustration and anger from some motorists.
"I'm not convinced that the comments section in news outlets reflect the majority" of drivers' opinions, he said.