Coming soon to a school hall near you: A handful of Anchorage's finest are laying down the law on the dos and don'ts of bicycling about the highways and byways of Alaska's largest city. Nine Anchorage Police Department officers recently certified as bicycling instructors will visit the city's schools to inform adults and children on best practices for safe bicycle riding, while separating fact from fiction surrounding Anchorage bike laws.
Anchorage can at times be a city unfriendly to bicycle commuters, many of whom bemoan a dearth of bike lanes, sidewalks or other safe pedestrian options along busy thoroughfares. On the flip side, motorists get frustrated with cyclists going well under the speed limit and taking up roadway lanes.
So which is legal? Biking on the sidewalk, or biking in the road? Police chief Mark Mew says both are, with conditions.
"If you're going to be on the sidewalk, you're going to behave like a pedestrian," meaning police expect bike riders to go slower -- no faster than 10 mph -- observing sidewalk etiquette and pedestrian laws like waiting for all-clears at crosswalks, Mew said.
Caveat: The sidewalk-friendly bike riding ends around the Delaney Park Strip. Sidewalk biking in downtown Anchorage is illegal, Mew cautioned.
Like your bike ride a bit brisker?
"If you want to go 20 mph, straight through the city, you'll need to use the roadway," Chief Mew said.
Here, bike riders have options:
- Cyclists can "own the lane" by sitting in the middle of it, or
- If traffic lanes are wide enough, cyclists can ride farther off to the side of the road; but
- That means you must observe a little roadway etiquette and driving laws. For example, cyclist left turns at traffic signals must be made from the left lane or the turn lane, just like car drivers, Mew said.
What about drivers making right-hand turns with bicyclists in traffic?
"Some of the most common crashes we see are cyclists and vehicles colliding when the vehicle is turning right," said Anne Schlapia, a municipal project manager who has also coordinated education and licensing for Bicycle Commuters of Anchorage.
Drivers often underestimate the distance between vehicles and bicyclists, and fail to yield, she said. On the flipside, cyclists might travel faster than they should when approaching sidewalk intersections.
Licensed bicycling instructors teach city cyclists techniques to avoid these types of crashes. Police officers learned how to turn their bikes sharply in the same direction as the vehicle and stop so they don't end up T-boning vehicles.
Instructor training is conducted by the League of American Bicyclists. League Cycling Instructors must pre-certify for the course by becoming league members ($40) and by completing a basic traffic safety skills primer. APD officers completing the league's 25-hour course and will then educate others on proper bicycling etiquette and technique.
Now trending: Pedal pumping on rise in Anchorage
Bike safety is an important issue and bicycling is subject to lots of municipal code just like driving (See Section 9.38). Chief Mew, himself an avid bike rider, takes bike awareness and cyclist safety seriously. He recently competed in one of the events in the Fireweed cycling race series. He said APD has requested additional money to expand its bicycle safety training program to better educate what appears to be growing ranks of bicycle commuters -- and the drivers with whom they must coexist.
Bike awareness goes both ways, Mew said: It isn't just up to bike riders to know the rules of the road. Drivers are equally responsible for vehicle-bicycle safety.
"It's still unusual for motorists in Anchorage to see cyclists in the roadway. They're still not used to that," he said.
Just how many cyclists are out there pedaling around Anchorage? Keeping track of bike commuters isn't easy here, unlike, say, Seattle, Portland or San Francisco, where bicyclists are a well-organized political constituency. The Municipality of Anchorage has miles upon miles of roads, sidewalks and multi-use trails with multitudes of entrances and exits.
But signs point to a rise in pedal pushing here, according to the Muni's non-motorized transportation division. Day-to-day numbers aren't available but the city does a census of riders on Bike to Work Day, observed each May, when Anchorage residents are encouraged to park and ride, two-wheel style.
Bike to Work Day participation has been "steadily rising every year," said Lori Schanche with the Muni division. "It was up 13 percent this year."
This year's Bike to Work Day was marred when Joe Orr, a 55-year-old cyclist, was critically injured when he slid under a vehicle on Muldoon Road. Accidents such as that haven't been entirely uncommon around the city in years past. Another cyclist was killed in 2011 -- though not on Bike to Work Day -- when his bike collided with a vehicle at the intersection of C Street and Tudor Road. Police found the cyclist at fault in that accident.
Even with what seems to be an increase in cyclists on city roads, the number of vehicle-pedestrian accidents has declined in recent years, according to Lt. Dave Parker, spokesman for Anchorage Police:
- In 2010, there were 120 incidents involving pedestrians and vehicles.
- In 2011, that number dropped to 77.
- Through June 30, 2012, APD reported only 33 accidents. (At least one pedestrian-vehicle accident has been reported since then, on July 20).
Schanche said that there are numerous projects around town that should help the city's bike friendliness. In addition to planned striping along Arctic Boulevard to provide bike lanes, the ongoing work on a stretch of the busy Seward Highway will finally connect the heavily-traveled Campbell Creek Trail. The trail is currently broken into north and south sections, located on either side of the highway slicing through Anchorage.
"When they first put out the plans for the Seward Highway (project), we coordinated with them," Schanche said. "We worked on the initial Campbell Creek trail back in 1991, and they told us not to worry about the Seward Highway." Now, more than two decades later, the north and south sections of the trail will finally be linked.
So maybe Anchorage's drivers and cyclists alike are becoming more aware of laws and etiquette that go with sharing the roadway. With the new police program, hopefully the streets of Anchorage will get just a little bit safer for everybody.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com