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Alli Harvey: Alaska cyclists vs. autos: Can't we somehow learn to live together?

Alli Harvey

About a month ago, I got hit by a car while riding my bike.

The car drove away immediately. Incredibly, I wasn’t hurt or even knocked off my bike. (Later, the only evidence I found was a cracked Tupperware in my bike pannier, which is incredible when you think about other possible outcomes of cyclist versus car.) This experience, coupled with the knowledge of three tragic bicycling deaths already in Anchorage this year, led me to reflect on what it means to safely ride a bike and drive a car in this town.

I bike commute almost daily, and frankly, I don’t do it to prove a point. My husband and I share a car. Actually, we share a large truck that gets paltry gas mileage. On any given day, we negotiate who gets the truck and who will bike to work. The perks to this utilitarian approach to cycling include saving money on gas, getting exercise and breathing fresh air. However, the thought doesn’t escape me as I’m riding: I could die, I could die, I could die, is my unfortunate daily mantra. It’s frequently reinforced by drivers hollering out their windows (“GET ON THE SIDEWALK!” is perhaps most common), or swerving inches away from me as they pass.

I don’t want to die for this cause of riding my bike, I just want to get to where I’m going.

The nice thing is that Anchorage has many lovely and functional bike paths and lanes. The two definitions are distinct, and that’s important for someone like me who uses both.

• A bike path -- like the Coastal and Chester Creek trails -- is a separated, multipurpose route that’s both beautiful and functional. But such trails are designed more for having fun and meandering than commuting. They tend to follow the contours of natural, scenic features (such as Chester Creek or the Anchorage coast) rather than connect points A and B in the most straightforward way.

• A bike lane, on the other hand, is created by a painted stripe on the road that allows a cyclist a designated lane; she must share the asphalt with cars and obey traffic laws. Bike lanes are designed for utility. They allow cyclists to use the roads to get places, much as a car would.

The problem with these Anchorage bike paths and lanes is that where they exist, they’re not all connected. There are also transitions from path to roadway where drivers do not expect to see cyclists.

Tricky transition

I wasn’t on my normal route when I got hit. I was riding from downtown Anchorage to a work-related event near Elmore Road. Elmore has an awesome bike lane, clearly marked with a nice wide shoulder. I feel safe riding there. I don’t chant I could die, I could die as frequently as I might in other parts of town. However, getting there can be tricky.

That evening, I took the Chester Creek Trail east, and crossed the bridge over Tudor Road just south of U-Med. Then I turned right onto the trail, preparing to cross Elmore and turn left into the glorious Elmore Road bike lane.

This transition from bike path to bike lane is notoriously dangerous. Drivers (myself included) expect to see the phlegmatic pace of someone walking across the street, not the sudden blur of two wheels with a human on top, shooting across the crosswalk from out of nowhere. An important side note: Some cyclists consider sidewalks safer than streets, which is understandable from the perspective of a pedestrian, but usually not true for cyclists. Sidewalks are frequently bisected by driveways and roads. A person on a bicycle barreling along a sidewalk can surprise car drivers, and vice versa, which results in collisions.

When I prepared to transition from the bike path along Tudor Road to the bike lane along Elmore Road, I was very careful. I got hit anyway.

Collision

You’re probably wondering if I did everything right. By the book, I think I did. I stopped at the end of the trail where it met the road, putting one foot on the ground. I looked up and saw that there was a crosswalk with the illuminated man beckoning "go." There was a line of cars waiting along the foot of the crosswalk at the red light. I saw a car to my left turned slightly to his right, clearly intending to make a right hand turn on red onto Tudor. I looked into the windshield and made eye contact with him, nodding. I started to roll forward, slowly.

As I went forward, he lurched forward. At this point, I was committed to the crosswalk and couldn’t go back. I started screaming before words came. What I meant was “I’M HERE, SEE ME!” I saw bumper and lights gunning straight toward me, there were inches between us, I pushed hard on my pedals, and then I felt a crunch as his bumper hit the pannier on the back of my bike and I rolled forward. I stopped in the middle of the crosswalk stunned, and looked back at his profile as he took off, looking forward, unperturbed, almost serene.

I finally found a word to holler and it was a long, drawn out profanity. I gestured with my hands open at the line of cars that had watched as though to say, “Can you believe this? Did he really just do that?” One man behind the wheel mirrored my gesture back at me, shaking his head, and from this I drew a small hope for humanity.

The red hand was, at this point, blinking and I needed to go. So I got back on my bike and rode the rest of the crosswalk. I was shaking as I turned into the Elmore Road bike lane. I was physically fine but rattled. I played the scene back over and over, thinking about what had happened and what I could have done differently. I saw how close it had been. I made it to the work event fine, but incredulous.

The fact is, I don’t think the man making the right turn on red saw me. I don’t think anyone sitting behind the wheel of a car thinks, “There’s a cyclist, I should probably run into her” (even if some people opt to swerve close enough to cause a spike in my heart rate, I don’t think they actually want to hit me). I think many of us, when behind the wheel of a car, expect to see only other cars. I realize this sometimes when I’m driving and it scares me. Maybe a cyclist or pedestrian will come darting out of left field and I won’t see them. Or, maybe they will be there plain as day and my reaction time will be too slow. In this case, I would hope I would make a different choice than the right-on-red guy at Elmore, and actually stop and make sure the person was OK and apologize profusely for nudging them with my bumper and scaring them.

Wary and slow

I could have memorized his license plate. That was the first reaction of most of my co-workers. However not only was I was too stunned to think about that in the second-long window I had, but that’s just calling out one driver. The issue of cars and cyclists is citywide. The real opportunity I have is to write about it from a perspective of both driver of a massive truck and a bike.

My takeaway for when I’m biking: Re-learn and understand the rules of the road, and practice them. Then ride defensively, because I can be on the right side of the law and still lose a one on one with a car.

My takeaway for when I’m driving: Be wary and be slow, because cyclists are much smaller and defenseless compared to me. No matter what I may think of sharing the road with cyclists, even when I think they are biking badly or erratically, each person on the road is someone’s loved one, colleague, or friend.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.