Sunday, February 28, 2010
By JOHN CICHOWSKI
ROAD WARRIOR COLUMNIST
It took several fatalities, too many injuries and a long-overdue spurt of unity, but bicycle enthusiasts from Sussex to Cape May finally got together Saturday to address conditions that contribute to the deaths of 15 cyclists and 152 pedestrians each year.
New Jersey’s first Bicycle Summit brought more than 130 cycling club members, bike-shop managers and state transportation officials to Denville, where cyclists like the mayor, Ted Hussa, and Grace Spencer, an assemblywoman from Newark, pledged to add bike lanes, improve driver training and lobby for laws for reducing a crash count that now exceeds 50 cyclists a week.
“There’s not enough bicycle information in the manual, but I’ve noticed in Newark, for example, that our police officers also aren’t all aware of laws that cover bikes,” said Spencer. “And when the driver of a car gets to municipal court, judges often downgrade violations involving bicycles to minor offenses, such as obstructing traffic.”
“What we start here today is going to transform New Jersey,” Hussa told the crowd.
What they started was the New Jersey Bicycle Coalition, a long-overdue unification of New Jersey’s regional cycling groups. For decades these clubs had concentrated on long runs, racing and social networking. But rising fuel costs, higher pollution and an escalating crash rate in our densely populated state began to take its toll on its estimated 1 million cyclists. In the 1980s, touring groups from Montclair and Bergen County to West Windsor and Burlington County began to lobby for widened roads, improved traffic controls and respect from motorists.
“It’s time for us to speak in one voice,” said summit organizer Brendan Poh of Parsippany.
For many, the need for activism was driven home either as they recuperated from road injuries or they read about cycling tragedies in the newspaper.
“I was riding in Morristown when a car cut me off, and I flew over the hood,” Spencer recalled of her crash. “I was in the hospital for one day and scared to get back on my bike.”
For Ramsey’s Paige Hiemier, it was the crash that killed New Yorker Camille Savoy while he was riding his new bike on Route 9W in Alpine in 2008. “It was so terrible that it got several of us to think seriously about starting a statewide group,” said Hiemier, an NJBC board member and its webmaster (njbike.org).
Unity had also been a goal of Edison’s Anne Kruimer, who checked attendees in at the door from the wheelchair that she has used since the car-bike crash that disabled her legs. She and her husband, Mike, continue to cycle on their specially equipped tandem — sometimes to Florida.
In a comment that redefines understatement, her husband summed up their commitment to the cause this way: “Nobody is more dedicated to this cause than the people in this room.”
In speeches and workshops, coalition members offered an ambitious agenda that was as critical of cyclists as it was motorists, including:
* Strict enforcement of traffic laws against cyclists, especially those who block travel lanes riding two abreast.
* Establishing bike-friendly roads for all municipalities, including shared rights of way.
* Adopting laws giving cyclists 3 feet of travel room to the right of traffic and making motorists responsible for crashes in which open car doors hit cyclists.
* Supplying bike racks in every rail station and installing hanging bike racks on commuter trains.
* Improving training for municipal judges and police in applying bicycle law.
* Revising the state driver manual to include cycling laws and conduct and adding cycling questions to the driver test.
* Exempting low-speed, electrical bicycles from motorcycle registration and licensing.
If some of this agenda appears unrealistic, speakers pointed to model communities, such as Portland, Ore.; New York City; and Copenhagen, Denmark, where many similar reforms are now common. In addition, speakers singled out New Jersey examples, such as Montclair, New Windsor and Princeton, where state grants have slowly been improving traffic conditions and safety for cyclists, pedestrians and motorists.
Crash rates declined appreciably in Portland when many of these reforms were tried, said Andy Clarke, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists, and bicycle use jumped more than 40 percent in the top 10 American cities that adopted many of the infrastructure reforms.
Achieving these levels is not beyond the reach of New Jersey, added Clarke, whose group ranks the Garden State 10th in bike friendliness.
“Even Copenhagen wasn’t a bicycle paradise in the 1950s and ’60s,” he said. “It takes time.”