By Robert Nolin and Angel Streeter
September 8, 2009
Two warring tribes are battling for dominance on South Florida’s mean streets.
Cars and bicycles, traditional foes, are clashing with seemingly more intensity on the asphalt battleground, and advocates and officials are calling for measures to quell hostilities.
Consider recent incidents: In March a Coral Springs surgical assistant on his weekly ride along State Road 84 in Weston was struck and killed by a Mercedes. The driver received two traffic tickets. The same day a hit-and-run driver clipped and bloodied a cyclist in Parkland.
Late last month a cyclist, infuriated over a car that nearly clipped him along State Road A1A in Boca Raton, was charged with assault and battery for attacking the 69-year-old driver at a stoplight. Police said other cyclists punched and kicked the man’s Lexus convertible.
Jousting between car and bike has long occurred on South Florida’s traffic-choked roads. Cyclists say motorists honk, toss objects, make obscene gestures or “buzz” them by swinging perilously close.
“I have been knocked down. I have been clipped,” said Greg Cousins, of Pompano Beach, who regularly rides A1A in Palm Beach County, a flashpoint in the car-bicycle conflict. “There’s a lot of tension. It’s very troubling.”
In 12 years of pedaling in southwestern Broward, Celia Conti has had her share of close encounters of the vehicular kind.
“They just plain come too close. I was buzzed by a fire engine,” the Plantation woman said. “Sometimes people are just downright rude to us. These are people that don’t think bicycles belong on the road at all.”
For their part, drivers accuse cyclists of hogging the road, blocking intersections and running stoplights.
Jack Howard, of Pompano Beach, has photographed bike packs taking up entire lanes. “If you honk the horn to let them know you’re passing, they cuss you out and flip you the bird,” said Howard, who is agitating for limits on the number of cyclists in a group.
Ron Consiglio, of Delray Beach, experienced bike rage last month after passing a group of cyclists who had commandeered a lane on A1A. A cyclist chased him down. “He was spitting and punching my car like a maniac,” Consiglio recalled. “He said I almost hit him. You want to share the road with them but they can’t.”
Part of the problem is the very nature of the region. Rural roads, where cyclists may freely wheel, are rare. And in bustling urban sprawl, cars rule.
“We definitely have the culture down in South Florida where the auto is king and it dominates,” said Bret Baronak, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for Palm Beach County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization.
With streets typically congested, cyclists can further fray the nerves of drivers already frustrated by traffic jams.
“A motorist gets impatient; they may be late for work; they may even be driving to the gym to get on a cycling machine,” Laura Hallam, director of the Florida Bicycle Association, said from her office in Alachua County.
Elaine Glassman, of Boca Raton, knows the feeling. Two-wheelers riding several abreast can really chafe. “My feeling is they’re in my way,” she said. “Now you’re pushing my buttons.”
Enhanced law enforcement for both cars and bikes, along with public awareness campaigns, could alleviate tensions, Hallam said.
Within a few months, Baronak expects to see programs educating motorists that cycles are vehicles entitled to their share of the road.
Some cyclists take umbrage at hard-core competitive pedalers who travel in massive packs in unsanctioned races, breaking rules and giving conscientious cyclists a bad name.
“The testosterone kicks in and the adrenaline kicks in and often all hell breaks loose,” Hallam said.
“They run red lights, they don’t stop for anything, cars are totally irritated with them,” Conti said. “I’ve seen them force cars onto the grass.”
Bob Rothfield, a Weston surgeon, cycles with the Weston Flyers, the antithesis to the rogue racers. His band has achieved a peaceful co-existence with its fuel-injected fellow travelers and rarely encounters an angry driver.
“We pride ourselves that we’re a safe ride and do our best to follow the traffic rules,” Rothfield said. “Following the rules of the road, it keeps us out of trouble.”
If trouble does arise, Conti said, it’s best to just roll on. “To engage a motorist under any circumstance really lacks intelligence and forethought on the part of the cyclist,” she said. “You don’t argue with 3,000 pounds. You don’t want to be dead right.”