Can roads designed for cars be safe for bikes?

 

Pam Jahnke was riding her bike on a section of Highway 89 near Lake Tahoe, in an area where Caltrans, California's road and bridge department, had just installed a new storm-drainage system.

"The minute my tire hit the drain, I was air-bound and smacked down on the pavement in the middle of the road." she says. The crash broke her collarbone and left the rest of her body so terribly bruised that for a while her skin resembled a garish sunset.

Truckee, California, resident Larry Sage was rolling swiftly down Donner Pass towards Donner Lake when he hit an unseen bump in the highway. It sent him flying off his bike, too, and his injuries were so extensive that he died in the hospital. He was just one of the more than 700 bicyclists who die in bike-related accidents in the United States on California roads each year.

Bikes painted white, known as ghost bikes, mark the sites of cyclist fatalities.

Riders confront a series of challenges every time they get on their bikes. Many roads are built too narrow for both bikes and cars, and bike lanes on the edge of roads tend to get covered in debris or overgrown by vegetation, or else get blocked by unexpected construction signs. On some roads, traffic lights only work when cars reach the intersection; then they don't stay green long enough for riders to pass through before turning red. What's worse, storm drains are designed for the width of car tires, not bike tires, and what might appear like a small imperfection in a road to a car driver can prove a deadly obstruction to someone on a bike.

There are local government agencies that make a concerted effort to account for bikes in their maintenance decisions, but too many others tend to focus only on cars. Truckee bicycle advocate Paco Lindsey says, "With Caltrans especially, it seems like the needs of cyclists are not ever addressed until forced onto them. They talk about safety and inclusiveness of the cyclist, but seem to not practice it unless pressed."

Truckee Town Manager Dan Wilkins disagrees. "We are looking edge of pavement to edge of pavement. We recognize that the shoulder of the road is used by bikers." He says one problem caused by fast-moving trucks and cars is that they blow debris from the center of the road to the shoulder, where the bikers are.

Wilkins says he has changed the traffic lights in town to camera-video lights, which do a better job detecting a biker waiting for the signal. "From the town of Truckee's standpoint," he says, "our goal is to provide equal thought into our maintenance practices for vehicles, bikes and pedestrian travel."

It is undeniable that some cyclists need to learn better road manners. I ride a bike more than I drive a car, and from spending hours on the road I've come to understand the resentment and anger some drivers exhibit toward bikers. Too many bikers, for example, ride two abreast on busy narrow roads, and even when a driver is clearly trying to pass, they are slow to single-file. They also run through stop signs, though this is not a legal option except in Idaho. And sometimes bikers wander and fail to stick to the right side. So it's not surprising that we annoy and alienate many of the folks who might be our natural allies.

The bummer is that biking serves everyone's interest. It lowers the consumption of fossil fuels, reduces car traffic, helps keep the air clean, and improves the physical condition of riders. There needs to be a concerted effort by bikers and biking organizations to make bad biking behavior unacceptable. It's going to be a continuing challenge to get government agencies to respond to our needs as long as too many bikers are perceived as inconsiderate jerks.

On the other hand, there needs to be an across-the-board government effort to provide more separation between bikes and vehicles, and a change in attitude from all levels of government toward bike riding. While many officials like Wilkins have begun taking bikes into account, other transportation officials haven't a clue what the biking experience is all about.

They need to ride the roads they're maintaining and find out what they're like from the ground up. If they rode over debris and broken glass, or had to swerve to avoid an overhanging tree limb, you bet they'd be ready to pass on instructions to maintenance crews to make sure roads are safer for riders.

Tim Hauserman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He lives in Tahoe and wrote the official guidebook to the Tahoe Rim Trail as well as Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.