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Bike lanes will be just a dangerous myth until all Alaskans believe in them

  • Author: Jim Magowan
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published May 12, 2015

I have been a cyclist for almost 70 years. I learned to ride a bike in New York City before there were bike lanes and where traffic, even 70 years ago, would make Anchorage streets today look almost empty. I have raced with Century Road Club in NYC and with Arctic Bicycle Club in Anchorage. I have survived encounters with cars and trucks ranging from a semi-truck driver trying to intentionally hit me and another rider to being hit crossing intersections (sometimes my fault, sometimes the driver's fault).

Lori Schanche, nonmotorized transportation coordinator for the Municipality of Anchorage, told Alaska Dispatch News (May 8), "Bike lanes give a dedicated lane for people to bicycle." She appears to be a dedicated and well-meaning bureaucrat who is doing her job the best she can. I am sure she fervently wishes it were so, but I can't believe she is naive enough to really believe this.

There have been bike lanes on Johns Road for years. The bike symbols painted in the lanes are usually difficult to see because of the cars parked on them -- including, for at least a year or two, a take-home Anchorage Police Department car. The bike lanes are usually narrower than most cars, so a cyclist must swerve a couple of feet into the traffic lane every time a parked car is encountered, unless the driver opens the door forcing the rider farther into the driving lane -- if the rider sees the door in time to miss it. And, of course, the car is usually parked partially in the driving lane because bike lanes are narrower than most cars. Numerous times, I have watched APD cars drive past lines of vehicles parked in the bike lanes without paying any attention to them. Actually, I have never seen APD pay any attention to bike lanes, except to park in them.

A couple of years ago I was riding around Potter Marsh when the swans were there. Many people, including me, love to watch and photograph the swans. Both sides of the highway by Potter are posted with "No Parking" signs and the "shoulders" are designated bike routes. This is a high-speed highway with no intersections from Potter Valley Road to the offramp at Rabbit Creek Road. It is used for bike races and is a popular training route for serious cyclists. This is a place where a cyclist can train and do 20 to 40 mph or more, depending on wind.

This time a car pulled in and parked in front of me, blocking the bike lane. The driver had intentionally passed the viewing turnout and stopped in the bike lane beyond it, for a closer look at the swans. He was in a no parking zone blocking a bike lane forcing me out into 50-plus mph (emphasis on the plus) traffic. As I passed I smacked the side of the car with my palm to be sure the driver knew I was there, trying to stay out of the way of cars, so he wouldn't pull out into me. After getting by the car I stopped and photographed the car, clearly showing it in a no parking zone, blocking the bike lane and extending into the driving lane.

Riding on toward Rabbit Creek, I looked back and saw the driver following me, driving partially in the bike lane and partially in the traffic lane at 15 to 20 mph. I'm sure the other drivers loved that. He was on his cellphone. My prayer that he was calling the police was answered. My hope that APD would do its job was not.

After we had looped up to head south on Old Seward Highway behind Potter Marsh, an APD police car showed up and stopped us. After talking to the driver the officer came up to me. The driver reported that I had hit his car with the bike and damaged it. This was not true; the officer found no damage. I explained to him that I had smacked the car with my hand to prevent the driver from killing me. I then showed him a photograph of the vehicle parked in a no parking zone, blocking the bike path and part of the driving lane and asked that the driver be ticketed.

The cop shrugged his shoulders, said the guy was from out of town. I thought anyone who had an Alaska driver's license should be able to read "No Parking" not to mention the pretty bike pictures in the bike lane, and the signs saying "Bike Route." The officer refused to ticket the driver and drove off.

Painting bicycle pictures for cars to park on does not make cycling safer. In fact it makes it more dangerous because some cyclists believe it is a bike lane until they hit a parked car, especially when a driver cuts them off to park in front of them.

It might help if APD officers were shown the bicycle pictures on the road, told what they mean and directed to ticket illegally parked cars in bike lanes the same as they do cars at expired meters downtown, that do not endanger anyone. And, of course, APD should instruct officers not to park take-home cars in bike lanes.

People in the U.S. often regard bikes as toys, not as serious transportation. APD and the Alaska State Troopers should not do so. There are constant comments that cyclists should obey traffic rules. Motorists and police should do the same for bike lanes and police should enforce no parking in bike lanes.

Bike paths (actually multi-use paths) in my experience are no place for serious cyclists. Serious cycling is far more compatible with high speed traffic than with baby carriages, families using the entire width of the path on blind curves, especially when the father is the only one paying no attention to other traffic, dogs walking on the opposite side of the path from the person on the other end of the leash, when a bike hits the 'invisible' leash the dog can be seriously injured, etc. Personally, I feel safer with trucks passing a couple of feet beside me at 65 mph than having to dodge vehicles blocking the bike lanes, forcing me into traffic or to make an emergency stop.

We often see comments that cyclists should slow down. Many cyclists are serious athletes and riding slowly on bike trails is not adequate training. For cycle commuters, as well as drivers, getting to work safely and quickly is important. Cyclists have as much right as motorists to a safe and expeditious route to work. Athletes are also entitled to have a place to train, particularly when cycling serves so many people at such a low cost -- nothing compared to ball fields and tennis courts that serve a relatively few people. Cycling is often called a lifetime sport. Most people can ride for a lifetime as long as they stay in shape (by riding) and you don't need a team or a specialized facility to do it; just a road with a decent shoulder or a bike lane without parked cars. If you just want a leisurely ride, even a bike or multi-use path can work.

For the record, I am not anti-automobile. In addition to a 25-pound road bike and a mountain bike I drive a 20-ton RV and a 5,000-pound SUV. I want safe roads for all of them ... well at least as safe as a road can be when drivers have smartphones.

Jim Magowan has been an avid cyclist for nearly 70 years, and an Alaska resident for more than 50. He is a former science teacher and state of Alaska bureaucrat. His current main cycling goal is to make the sport more accessible to blind and visually impaired kids of all ages and to improve cycling survival on Anchorage roads.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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