As more people try biking in Cleveland, they’re starting to see things from a new perspective: Up close to pavement conditions or traffic laws written for motor vehicles, for example. It has led to some interesting ‘a-ha‘ moments. Like the first time a pothole almost swallows a wheel or when a traffic signal never changes.
What they’re confronted with is a feeling that is difficult to express outside of their tribe. Some cyclists are starting to wonder if the Same Road, Same Rules mantra is really serving their needs?
The Netherlands is a country slightly larger than Maryland that survived the Oil Crisis of the 1970s by turning to carbon-lite and car-free forms of transportation. Today, cities like Amsterdam have 40% of their population going places on a bike. The Dutch have gone so far as to build a bike-only “super highway” between cities.
The idea of creating a whole, separate network of bikeways is certainly appealing to cyclists who might not like the idea of mixing it up with cars and 4 tons of steel. But, the dream quickly vanishes when faced with the expense of buying land in urban places.
So, what the Dutch did—and are inspiring here in the U.S.—was to follow the path of least resistance. They realized the best place for cyclists to be was in the road. Bikes are more visible and move closer to the speed of cars. In Ohio, the law supports that bikes belong on roads instead of on sidewalks.
In the Netherlands and later in places like Montreal, bike lanes with a small barrier, such as a curb, or a grassy median, or a painted red zone started appearing. In the last two years in the States, so called “cycle tracks”—painted green and with popular barrier of choice, plastic bollards—started popping up in cities like Chicago, Memphis, Austin, D.C. and Portland.
There is a growing body of evidence that protected bike lanes like cycle tracks are attracting more people to try biking. While Cleveland has yet to build one, cycle tracks have been proposed on Lorain Avenue in Ohio City and on St. Clair Avenue on Cleveland’s east side where it’s so wide and empty most days, that they’re talking about running it right down the middle of the road (like in D.C., on Pennsylvania Avenue, in front of the White House) and planting trees around it. Imagine, a parkway for bikes. Planners see a bicycle expressway fanning out across 50, 80, even 100 miles of roads that once were streetcar routes, The Plain Dealer wrote this week about the plan that supporters call The Midway.
“It might not be elevated and separated by a parking lane,” Cleveland Heights resident and cyclist, Joy Henderson, says of the need to separate bikes and cars. “But, we have to start somewhere. Be bold and acknowledge it’s going to take away some parking or a driving lane.”
For Christina Vassallo, the Executive Director of SPACES Gallery, if a traffic signal only turns green when it senses a car, that could make her late to a meeting. What’s a busy person to do?
“I know this is controversial, but I think we deserve our own set of rules,” says Vassallo, who doesn’t own a car. “To physically separate bikes and cars would be the best, but most unlikely, scenario.”
Painting 80 or more miles of bike lanes—as the city of Cleveland has committed to doing by 2017—is a step in the right direction. In addition to infrastructure, Vassallo and Henderson would like Ohio to adopt a law pioneered in Idaho where it is legal for cyclists to treat stop signs the same way motorists treat blinking yellow traffic lights—as cautions. Known as an Idaho stop, the law also applies to traffic lights which cyclists obey the same way motorists do at stop signs—pause and go.
“If a car is going to turn right on red, they’re probably going to hit you if you’re on a bike,” explains Vassallo. “If you can get a bit of a head start, it will decrease accidents.”
Tom Ligman, a bike commuter from Cleveland Heights to University Circle, understands where the dialogue emerged that cyclists should have different rules on the road. But, Ligman sees greater need for driver education.
“At the point where we are, I would be happy with more visibility and the three-foot passing law being adopted by cities outside of Cleveland,” he says. “We should get to a spot where it is less likely to hit people on bicycles.”
Riding with his son, who turned 16, on a bike for the last four years, Ligman feels that driver’s education classes should incorporate a module on how to drive safely with bikes on the road.
“They should figure out a way of showing new drivers what 3 feet looks like when passing a bike,” he suggests.
He figures, since pedestrians and trucks are allowed in the street under their own rules, the same should go for bikes.
“Roads are built for people, not cars,” he says. “We forget that.”
Henderson, who bikes to work at Cleveland Heights High School, adds: “Are there vehicles we value because they are a valuable form of transportation? We might have children or use a wheelchair. If you’re more vulnerable, you need protection.”