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Shifting gears

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A couple of months ago, I was asked a cycling-related question that, to my surprise, left me stumped.

I’m all the time fielding questions about which bike to buy or which cold-weather gloves to recommend or whether I prefer wet lube or dry, though I’m certainly no expert. I’ll freely give my opinion, even if, often, that opinion is to get thee to a bike shop and ask somebody who really knows what he/she is talking about.

But a couple of months ago, in response to a blog I wrote about the cycling nirvana of Seattle, a regular reader asked, “What are the top three things you think Lawrence should do to become more bicyclist friendly in reality? No magic wands are available, so your suggestions have to be realistic given economic realities.”

I promised a considered response and have thought about it since.

I’ll admit, I haven’t been a great advocate for cycling. A proponent, yes, but advocate? Hardly.

See, I figure cycling is a lot like a finding a cool, unknown restaurant or band. You dig it and enjoy it and, as much as you want to share it with the world, you fear if you do, it just won’t be the same.

And I realize cycling isn’t for everybody. I’m as opposed to telling people to ride their bikes as I am having people tell me I can’t ride mine.

So that shift in mind-set, from passive proponent to active advocate, was a bit of a challenge, though not at all alliteratively.

That said, I thought of a couple of real-world things that would make the city more bicyclist-friendly.

First, I think we need to get ’em when they’re young.

When I was a kid (and, yes, the wheel had been invented), I loved to ride my bike to school. Now, I’m a bit saddened to see the mostly empty bike racks outside schools of all levels.

More recently, for years I rode to and from elementary school with my son. I felt it necessary to ride with him because of the distance — a little over two miles each way — and the risk. We crossed Sixth Street and rode past feeder streets for Free State High, sometimes during the to-school rush. There was maybe a two-block stretch of bike lane the entire route, and it ended in a traffic circle, which confound even the most savvy road-users.

And then there’s the school zone itself. We had more close calls with traffic in the couple of blocks closest to the school than any other portion of the route. A small minority of harried parents seemed to harbor little concern for the little ones outside their vehicles, and it shouldn’t be that way. It was amazing the vitriol I saw spewed at the crossing guard on several occasions when he admonished speeding drivers to slow down.

The roads and walkways leading to our schools should be the safest in town, though I’m not sure the best way to make that the case. “Walking/Riding School Buses,” overseen by responsible adults shepherding young charges, is a start. I’d also like to see greater enforcement of existing statutes. Instead of relying on volunteers wielding stop signs to try to tame traffic, park the po-po down the block from school armed with hefty citations for violations. Ding enough people and I'd bet compliance with that flashing yellow light would go way up.

And separated bike lanes — not merely painted lines, which don’t do a thing to stop encroaching cars — would be nice, too, though I’m not sure how that fits into the stipulated economic realities.

Speaking of getting ’em young, I’d like to see more programs similar to the track or marathon clubs.

Don’t misunderstand: I think track club is a great idea. I participated in and volunteered to assist with track club for my daughter and son for years. They’re great for getting kids outside and moving a couple of times a week.

But it’s disconcerting to see the same little darlings being dropped off in cars to participate in track club. They’d benefit far more being taught the benefits of and encouraged to participate in walking or riding as transportation. The same grants that are used to fund some marathon clubs could go to rewarding kids for walking/riding to school. Instead of a T-shirt for running a marathon a mile at a time, a couple of times a week, give ’em a T-shirt for self-propelling themselves to class for the same 26.2 miles. Maybe they’ll grow up recognizing it’s OK to ride a bike or walk as a means of transport, not just fitness.

Finally, I think there’s a tremendous opportunity out there for the sharrows I see cropping up all over town.

Sharrow

Sharrow by Andrew Hartsock

Sharrows are the shared-use arrows painted on roadways, a combination of a bike and chevrons. They’re painted on roads that can’t accommodate bike lanes and are meant to reiterate that the roads are supposed to be shared by cars and bikes alike.

I measured one the other day and found it’s just over three feet wide.

Many people are still unaware that last summer a law was enacted requiring drivers to give cyclists at least three feet of clearance when passing.

Discomfort around moving vehicles is considered one of the greatest obstacles keeping people off bikes.

If every driver gave every cyclist the mandated three feet — and, of course, that’ll never happen — it’d go a long way toward making cyclists, especially new ones, more comfortable on the road.

But I know I have a hard time judging three feet on the fly; I had to measure a sharrow to find its actual width.

A simple addition to the standard sharrow marking — a ruler, say, with “3 feet to pass” — would call attention to state law and give a tangible, visual guide to what three feet looks like. Slap it on every fourth sharrow and maybe drivers will be more likely to give the full three feet.

So there you have it.

None of those ideas will make Lawrence like Seattle overnight, but I reckon anything that gets a few more folks on two wheels and makes them feel a little safer while they’re there is a step in the right direction.

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