Sharing the road | June 27, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - June 27, 2008

Sharing the road

Summer brings safety challenges as cycling groups hit the streets

by Meghan Neal

Driving has taken on a whole new dimension now that summer's in full swing. There seem to be cyclists at every turn, whizzing down the road in throngs that take up half the lane.

Who are these two-wheeled flocks dominating the streets? Well, the Valley is ripe with cycling groups and racing teams - and with Mount Diablo and Morgan Territory to the east, Sunol down south, Briones Regional Park up north and Las Trampas and the Berkeley Hills to the west, they frequently cut right through Danville and Alamo.

But sharing the roads isn't always easy. Drivers say bicyclists put themselves at risk by riding in large groups on narrow streets or ignoring the rules of the road. Cyclists say they have just as much right to be there as their 4-wheeled counterparts. It begs the question: Can't we all just get along?

The spandex gaggle

"We call them 'a gaggle of spandex,'" said Bob Worthington. He and his wife live on Laurel Drive in Danville, a popular throughway for cyclists.

"On Saturday or Sunday it's not unusual to see 75 in a group all of a sudden fly by," he said. "I've gotten in the habit where I'll stand on my porch and try to count them all, just to see if I can do it. Count them all as they speed by. It's tough."

Seventy-five may be pushing it, but a group of up to 50 isn't unheard of. And they'll often ride two, three or four abreast. Alameda County is considering a law to require bike clubs hosting group rides of 50 or more to apply for a permit, which the county sheriff's office could approve or deny.

Here, more and more residents are expressing frustration with the "gaggles" and their apparent disregard for the rules of the road. Two particular trouble spots are Hartz Avenue in downtown Danville and Railroad Avenue between Prospect Avenue and Linda Mesa, where space is tight, cars are parked on the side of the street, and there are no bike lanes.

When the town expanded the Clocktower Parking Lot two years ago it narrowed Railroad Avenue from four lanes to two and took out the bike lane; the space was about a foot too narrow to keep it in.

The town built up the curb along the side of the road, rather than having it slope down as usual, so bikes could still use the area to ride. And they regularly do, but the close quarters put them at risk of, say, being clipped by a car making a right turn or getting "doored" by someone coming out of a parked car.

"When you put 15, 20 bicyclists at once simultaneously in a group, that's tough," said Linda Stolow, owner of the Small Frye Shoppe on Railroad Avenue. "All it takes is one misplaced movement and you can knock over a bunch of bikes."

Alice Anthony and her husband Alex Ianuono have been biking in Danville for more than 30 years - long enough to have gained insight on the cycling culture in town.

"I honestly think that people who drive cars are so impatient that they don't - in America - want to share the roads with anyone," Anthony said. "They seem to have this idea that they're only built for them."

People don't always think to look out for bikes, agreed Jim Kohnen, president of the Dublin-based Valley Spokesmen.

The Valley Spokesmen is one of the biggest cycling clubs in the East Bay, along with the Grizzly Peak Cyclists out of Berkeley and the Fremont Freewheelers.

Danville and Alamo also see riders from Diablo Cyclist, Strada Sempre Duro and Folks on Spokes, all based out of Walnut Creek, and an advanced group called the House of Pain, which meets at the Rudgear Road Park and Ride.

Kohnen said Danville is a great place to bike, except for the busy sections downtown.

"The people are shopping so they're not paying any attention," he said. "They open doors in front of us, and they don't look. The bicyclists have to be really careful during the three blocks on Railroad and Hartz."

What about the Iron Horse Trail?

Careful is something any experienced cyclist knows to be. Regardless of fault or blame, when bikes and cars share the road both parties should be extra alert.

Few know this better, perhaps, than tri-athlete star Chris Lieto, a 3-time Ironman Champion and Danville native.

"You've gotta be aware," he said. "You're on a bike. You don't have a lot of steel around you to protect you. And a lot of times cars don't see you. They're looking for a car - they're not looking for a cyclist."

"Every time I ride, my eyes are scanning all over the place, watching cars," he continued. "Because the cars think they have the right to be on the road and we don't."

Stolow said safety is the main reason drivers can get frustrated with the cycling masses.

"No driver who's worth their salt wants to harm a pedestrian or a bicyclist," she said. Yet cyclists increase the chances of that happening by putting themselves at risk, drivers say.

"One of these days somebody's going to try to swing around these bikers and there's going to be a car coming in the other direction. And I can just imagine the disaster," said Worthington.

Many people, including Danville Mayor Candace Andersen, strongly encourage bicyclists to ride along the Iron Horse Trail instead of the street. At least through the narrow jag of town, she said, "in my mind it's a great option."

"They're putting themselves at risk on Railroad and, you know, 40 feet away, 50 feet away is the Iron Horse Trial! And it's much nicer, it's much prettier - it's pleasant," said Stolow.

For the lone or casual cyclist the trail is certainly an excellent choice. But hardcore cyclists say it's not for them - no way.

"We would get a lot of letters from pedestrians saying it's very unsafe and dangerous. There'd be a lot more accidents if people road their bikes on the Iron Horse Trail," said Lieto.

"You have 20 bicyclists going 20 mph and some lady pushing her baby carriage, talking on her cell phone and has a dog in the other hand," Kohnen said. "It's a disaster."

The speed limit on the trail is 15 miles per hour - too slow for long, fast rides, cyclists say. Plus, they don't like having to stop at almost every block to cross a street.

"If you really want to ride your bike, you don't take that trail," said Anthony.

Still for everyone's safety cyclists must go slower in the downtown area, many say, and Andersen pointed out that even with its obstacles, the trail offers more room than a bike lane does.

If people do choose to bike on the streets, she said, then they just have to be sure to abide by the rules of the road.

The law: Bikes are cars, too

Legally, there's no difference between a bike and a car when it comes to traffic rules. Realistically, it's no secret that more than a few cyclists tend to be loose about following those rules.

They'll even admit it.

"Bicyclists blow through red lights; bicyclists make illegal turns; bicyclists do stupid stuff all the time - sometimes in front of a police car," said Kohnen. "And very rarely do they get stopped."

If police don't enforce the rules, cyclists likely won't be apt to follow them, he said.

Danville Police Chief Chris Wenzel said it's against the law to ride two or more abreast on the street. He couldn't remember how many citations had been issued for breaking that rule, but guessed it was probably only one, if any.

"Ask them how many tickets they've given for bicycle violations and you'll probably get, 'Huh?'" Kohnen said. "They probably don't even know how to write a bicycle ticket."

In fact, they do. Police issue about six to 10 bike citations per month, normally for failing to stop at a red light or stop sign. They have to prioritize where to use resources, said Wenzel. "We have enough to do already than worry about groups of bicyclists who don't follow the law."

Ideally, police would love to trust the cyclists to be responsible and follow the rules so they don't need to spend time ticketing, he said.

The issue can't be ignored, though. Residents will point the finger at police, Wenzel said, asking, "What are you guys doing about this?"

"I think that some way or another, the Town of Danville has to get the word out to the cyclists that they have to obey the same traffic rules as an automobile," Worthington said. "I think the cyclists need to be made aware of the danger they are imposing."

Kohnen suspects many police officers don't think cyclist groups should be on the roads at all, "but the state law says we have as much right to the road as cars."

Being synonymous with a car comes with all the rights of one, but also all the responsibilities. In other words, cyclists can't have their cake and eat it too.

A classic example is 4-way stops. Drivers assume a person on a bike is going to follow the law and yield to whoever arrives at the intersection first. But often they'll zoom through without stopping, and sometimes that'll be right in front of a turning vehicle, said Wenzel.

The rules are there for the safety of the public, he said. "I'm not telling anybody not to ride their bicycle through town ... We have to work together."

Coexisting on the roads

With gas prices averaging $4.50 a gallon it shouldn't come as a surprise that a growing number of people are benching the gas-guzzlers and bringing their bikes back onto the field.

Heightened environmental awareness and health consciousness further the rising popularity of cycling, said Jose Gutierrez, owner of Danville Bike.

The owner of California Bike, John Knowles, said cycling is once again the "cool" thing to do. They've both noticed more customers coming into the store in the past few months.

"There's no reason why the cyclists and the cars can't get along. I mean it happens in Europe. They get along just fine," said Gutierrez.

But others point out that ours is still a culture dominated by the automobile.

"America was never set up for it," Anthony said. "Because we produced cars and that became one of our biggest products."

In the first half of the 20th century public opinion shifted in favor of cars, buses and highways over bicycles and trains, she pointed out.

Still, most people agree Danville and Alamo are pretty comfortable places to ride.

"We live in a town that's perfect for biking and going to get groceries or going and running errands, and we want to encourage that as much as possible," said Lieto.

If more people start riding their bikes it could make Danville safer for everyone; the more prevalent cycling is in a community the fewer bike accidents there are, said East Bay Bike Coalition's executive director, Robert Raburn. If there are enough bicyclists around, motorists expect to see them. He called it "safety in numbers."

"And that's what leads to, I think, a shift in behavior, to know that we're sharing this road," he said. "The good news is, that shift is happening."


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