When you bike in Boise, "STOP" means maybe

  • Steve Bunk

 

Boise, Idaho, one of the most liberal cities when it comes to bicycling, issued new rules of the road this June that basically said to both drivers and bicyclists: "Don't be jerks."

The rules said drivers should make room for bikers as they pass them and not harass them, while cyclists should never ride recklessly and get off their bikes when sidewalks get crowded. As much as an effort to improve safety, the new rules appeared to be an attempt to mollify disgruntled folks in both camps.

Since 1983, Idaho has had the nation's friendliest statute toward cyclists, which, of course, makes some drivers cranky. The "stop-as-yield" law says it's legal for cyclists to go through a stop sign (cautiously) without fully halting, and to proceed through a red light after coming to a stop. Regionally, such permissiveness has inspired Arizona, Oregon, Montana and California to look at emulating Idaho in the past year or two, though no laws have been enacted yet.

The new Boise city ordinances were drafted after three cyclists died within a few weeks of each in crashes with cars last spring. In two of the cases, the drivers were charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter. One hit a cyclist from behind and the second driver, a juvenile, turned left into an oncoming cyclist. In the other case from last year, no charges were filed, as the cyclist was crossing a heavily trafficked street against the light, and the driver failed to see him in the sun. Then this July 31, another cyclist was killed by a driver late at night on a heavily trafficked but poorly lit road. Police, who said the biker had no lights or reflectors, were not expected to file charges against the driver of the SUV.

Beyond the anguish these accidents sparked, cooler heads in town acknowledged that some people act dumb no matter what means of conveyance they operate.

Most people who bike also drive, and even if the reverse is less common, Idaho ranks fourth among the states in per capita bicycle commuting, says the U.S. Census. Boise has created great places to ride, including bike lanes and a long greenbelt, no helmets required for adults, and you can even ride on the sidewalks legally.

That's why I'm interested in what appears to be the cyclists' victim mentality. I've been a cyclist since childhood, and usually ride my bike to work each day. On the way, I've witnessed all sorts of bizarre behavior by both drivers and cyclists. But it's the brainlessness of some bike riders that bothers me the most, because they threaten to blow it for the rest of us who are allowed -- by law! -- to roll through stop signs and red lights.

Here's what I too often see: Cyclists pedaling down the middle of one-way streets in the wrong direction. I've seen drivers going the wrong way, too, but they usually look startled or guilty at their blunder. Cyclists, however, are serene, as if they're beyond ordinary concerns -- the law, consideration for others, awareness of one's surroundings. Are they anarchists? Holy warriors? Brain-damaged? Or do they just feel very safe in our little burg? Their expressions of Zen-like trance are unmatched even by drivers deeply in thrall to their wrongly named smart phones.

Looking at a cyclist blissfully weaving back and forth across a street and its sidewalks, I can't help wondering how many are on bikes because they've lost permission to drive. It's true that the police are giving out more tickets to cyclists this year, not that a crackdown will matter to the already cracked.

Otherwise, I see plenty of fine riding through Boise's quiet North End: couples tooling along at dusk, parents pulling their kids in all manner of safe contraptions, young women floating by with faultless posture on their upright comfort bikes, kids on their BMXs restlessly cruising, like sharks in an aquarium. Every second intersection going in either direction has no stop sign, for easy rolling. The streets are flat, low-traffic, lined with a democratic mishmash of big and little houses interspersed with old-growth trees. Frequently, a car stopped at an intersection will wait a long time until I arrive and meander through. Cars often stop even when they have the right-of-way to let me go first. Cowed by my cycling rights, they try so hard not to break the law that they end up breaking the law.

Bicyclists like me were once a repressed minority, but now we are empowered. I just hope we don't blow it.

Steve Bunk is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndication service of High Country News (hcn.org). He bikes and writes in Boise, Idaho.

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