Cyclists must be responsible users of highways, too

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 25, 2009 

Lots of reaction to last week’s column on the return of springtime bicycling and the need for driver caution on our highways. The responses ranged all the way from, “Warren, how could you say that as a linguist?” to “Eek! This was much too graphic!” to “The highway is no place for cyclists!”

To start with, indeed, I did blow it last week as a linguist. But then, so did three editors who read the column before going to press. As Waiparous coffee companion Heinz Unger so aptly put it:

“It seems you got rather sentimental when you reminisced about Mary Anna and you ‘peddling’ through town (on your bicycle-built-for-two). What wares were you trying to sell? Happiness, maybe, or did you mean pedalling?”

Well, yes, I hope this column – and my wife and I personally – are always in the business of peddling happiness. But when it comes to cycling, Heinz is right: we will always travel much further by pedalling our bikes than by peddling them. Good catch, Heinz.

Then there were those readers who felt I went over the top in running last week’s detailed description of what it’s like when a car’s windshield makes contact with a cyclist’s head at 100 kp/h. No apologies here. If those few paragraphs will save even one cyclist’s life – and one driver’s lifetime of grief – then they are worth any discomfort they may have caused.

As Oakville, Ont., reader Helen Hare put it:

“I think there ought to be special prayers for cyclists - and for those of us who always try to avoid them! It is so nerve-wracking to try to skirt around the young who have never been trained. Also, youngsters should take a cycling course before getting a license to use a bicycle. But maybe I am not up to date; perhaps there are not licences anymore. This article ought to find its way into every newspaper in the land, for it is so important a message.”

Which brings me around to whether bicycles should even be allowed on public highways, as Bev Keats asserts:

“I think the road, especially the highway, is no place for cyclists. Of course, we are careful, mindful and watchful of cyclists when we see them, but with a bunch of traffic, cars going at much faster speeds because they are in fact legally and properly driving down a highway, having cyclists in the same path is a recipe for disaster, and cyclists are certainly not always respectful of the drivers and the dangers that exist just inches away from them. I say, stick to the bike paths! That is what they are for. Highways, including the shoulders, are for cars. Sorry, but that is the reality and the safest alternative. Why not campaign to have paved bike paths put along the roads that bikers want to travel?”

Back to my long-distance cycling advisor, Rick Ducommun, on this one.

Rick agrees with Bev on several levels – in part, at least.

First, he says, respect is of the essence of safe cycling – and that means not only respect from motorists for cyclists, but from cyclists for motorists. No more cycling down Highways 1A, 22 and 8 three-abreast! No more cycling in the driving lane when shoulders are available (and gravel-free). No more cycling on the wrong side of the road. (Cycling towards the traffic can result in a head-on collision with another cyclist!)

About only using bike paths, however, there is a problem, Rick says, although things are changing for the better, and “we are becoming more bicycle friendly, especially in the U.S.A.”

Rick points to Portland, Oreg., as a good example. “Portland has a bicycle support system that rivals Holland. There are truly dedicated roads for cyclists only, lanes on their bridges for cyclists only, buses with bike racks on them, traffic lights and bicycle thoroughfares – i.e., no stop signs and no auto access/parking.

“This carries over to places like Walla Walla, Wash., where one rides the equivalent of Horse Creek Road, only there are non-stop signs “Caution – Cyclists on the Roadway,” and you know they mean it. I rode those roads, and I attest, all motor vehicles passed with tremendous respect and courtesy.

“In New York, the transit authority has come to the realization that the city is so densely populated that it is not viable to drive in the city, and they have a long-term plan that features the bicycle as the primary mode of transit, and the auto as non-existent.”

The Calgary-Cochrane area is starting to get into this approach, as well, Rick says. But we still have a long way to go.

Meanwhile, whether as cyclist or as driver, “I am legally obligated to conduct myself responsibly on these roads,” Rick says.

“I also have a moral obligation to treat you as if your life matters.”

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

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