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Nationwide, cyclists and drivers trying to merge

The Towntalk: Nationwide, cyclists and drivers trying to merge

Sep 14, 2012

Written by
Elizabeth Weise
USA Today

Portland, Ore., can seem like paradise to bikers in other parts of the country with less well-developed cycling infrastructure. Though American cities are slowly making way for bicycles, the battle in many areas is hard-fought on both sides.

Many drivers feel bikes take precious space on already bursting streets.

Cyclists say they are subject to abuse and even attack when they claim their equal right to the roads.

The issue is even hitting Alexandria, as some Bolton Avenue and Lee Street business owners recently expressed displeasure at new bike lanes on those thoroughfares.

"It's going to kill business on this street," Tom Marler, owner of Marler Furniture on Bolton Avenue, told The Town Talk. "If I decided I wanted to sell this business, they just cut the bottom out of it."

But Alexandria officials have responded that Bolton Avenue never was meant for on-street parking, and that motorists started parking on the street because it's wide. Officials also said parking issues never were mentioned during public meetings before changes were made on the street.

People who support the bike lanes say it's necessary for safety.

"What we're trying to do is make it safer for people who ride bikes, either out of necessity or for health reasons, as well as pedestrians and people in wheelchairs," Teresa Coplen, chief operating officer of Fit Families for Cenla, told The Town Talk. "Alexandria has not been a safe place to ride a bike. It would be great if we made it more bicycle-friendly. Not only would it make the city more green, it would also make us a healthier city. If we build a place where it's safer to ride bikes, more people will ride."

Fit Families for Cenla collaborated on the city's biking master plan.

The issue of the new bike lanes is scheduled to come up again Tuesday during an Alexandria City Council committee meeting which begins at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, in council chambers at City Hall.

In Newark, Del., Andrea Trabelsi, 29, commutes by bicycle a few times a month to her job -- and doesn't recommend it to the faint of heart. It takes her about an hour to ride 10 miles, mostly on congested roads.

"There are some jerks out there who will get right up behind you and show their annoyance at you," Trabelsi says.

It's an attitude Matt Holloway, 43, owner of Henry's Bicycle Shop near Newark, Del., is familiar with. "Some people don't think bikes should be on the roads, they should be on the sidewalks," Holloway says. "They need to educate our younger drivers."

In Oldham County just outside of Louisville, Ky., Chuck Kimberl is pretty convinced bikes simply don't belong on roads because they don't follow the rules. He says they use rural roads as a place for training rides but don't follow traffic laws, riding in such a way that car traffic is impeded.

"Bicyclists on the road is the law, I understand that," Kimberl, a 60-year-old business owner, says. "But it's a bad law." If there were specialized bike lanes designed to make the roads friendlier for both vehicle and bike traffic, as Portland has built, he could see them co-existing. But for now, "roads are for motorized commerce."

That's easier said than done, says Rolf Eisinger, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for Louisville.

In the United States, many of our cities grew up "post-automobile, and they're built around the car, so we're trying to reconstruct. It's like fitting a round peg in a square hole."

Louisville is taking a low-key approach to making bicycling easy. It's already got 45 miles of bike lanes and has planned for "the Louisville Loop," a 100-mile "wedding ring" around the city that will accommodate bikes, kids, dogs, strollers and roller blades, but no cars. So far 26 miles have been completed.

The key to getting people cycling is to "make it easier than what they're doing now," Eisinger says. Only a tiny fraction of Louisville residents commute by bike now and they're "the fearless, Type A cyclists."

Another 30 percent "won't get on a bike no matter what, it's just not them." His focus is making it easier for the other 60 percent who might consider it.

It's those fearless cyclists that seem to set motorists off, says John Pucher, a professor of urban planning and public policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Something about "young, affluent men with fancy bikes in Lycra" just enrages drivers.

That rage can make biking a dangerous pastime. "Just Google 'cyclists killed' and you'll find a story this week, last week -- it's a problem," says Sam Seamans, 44, of Mountain Home, Ark. A police officer and cyclist, he says bike lanes are necessary simply for protection "due to the motoring public's attitude about the rights of cyclists."

Bike lanes protect everyone. "By law, we can occupy the whole lane but most cyclists ride way to the right. I don't think it's (bike lanes) asking too much," he says.

For some, it's just too dangerous. Ashton Lewis, 42, gave up riding his bike in Springfield, Mo., after moving from California where he was an avid cyclist.

"I don't feel safe. I'm afraid to get run over," Lewis says. Although there's been some recent success in Springfield's efforts to become a more bicycle-friendly city, a shift in culture by local motorists has not yet taken hold, he says. "A lot of motorists almost seem hostile toward bikes," he says.