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Chief Mew: Cyclists and motorists can safely coexist in Anchorage

  • Author: Mark Mew
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published February 7, 2014

There has been a lot of discussion and commentary of late regarding bicycle safety generally, and about the perceived conflict between bicyclists and motorists. This discussion is not new to Anchorage, but the tragic death of Mr. Eldridge Griffith on Jan. 2 has intensified the debate. I can tell from many of the comments -- and from my own observations and experience -- that a lot of people in Anchorage do not understand bike-related traffic laws. This assertion pertains to cyclists and automobile drivers alike. We do have safe drivers and riders here in Anchorage, but we also have plenty of both who are inconsiderate, aggressive, and dangerous. As a year-round cyclist, driver, and career police officer, I have lived this issue from all sides.

My purpose in writing is not to explain the specifics of last month's unfortunate fatal collision. That case is still under investigation, and we cannot discuss the evidence further at this time. My purpose is rather to capitalize on what is often called a "teachable moment." Now is a time when a traffic safety message might be more readily absorbed by the public.

Several changes were made to municipal traffic code in early 2011. The APD Traffic Unit, several cyclists representing local bike associations and businesses, the municipal traffic engineer, a nationally known bike traffic consultant, a municipal assembly member, a city attorney, and I spent the later part of 2010 studying, debating, and eventually agreeing upon some key changes to the code. The Assembly approved the code amendments. The new provisions were intended to improve safety of cyclists and drivers on the roads, and mitigate conflicts between cyclists and other users on the trails. Rather than quote a lot of code text, I'd like to share some general concepts which -- if followed -- will keep drivers and riders alike safe and within the law.

Information for drivers

Bicycles are allowed on the road. This fact is neither new nor unique to Anchorage, but local drivers have only recently begun to encounter street cyclists. Cycling is exploding in popularity, and drivers and riders alike need to get used to being around each other.

Cyclists must generally stay to the right part of the right lane. But they can "take the lane" (i.e. occupy the entire lane) when it is necessary for them to avoid parked cars, to avoid obstructions or debris on the road surface, or to change lanes to the left (which is necessary to be in the correct turn or through lane). When they take a lane, cyclists may ride two abreast (but never more).

Cyclists must signal turns, lane changes and stops. They must have lights on at night.

If you are going to pass a cyclist, you must pass on the left and give the bike three feet of clearance.

Information for cyclists

You need to decide if you are going to be a "car" or a "pedestrian." "Cars" are for the road. "Pedestrians" are for the sidewalks and multi-use trails.

If you are going to ride in the street, obey all traffic laws just as if you were driving an automobile. Ride fast (this undertaking is not for the casual rider; if you want to dawdle, get on the sidewalk). Be decisive in your movements so drivers can determine your intentions. Use hand signals. Wear proper equipment and clothing so you can be seen.

If you ride in the downtown business district, you must ride in the street (sidewalk riding there is illegal).

If you are going to ride on the sidewalk or trails, go slow. You are a pedestrian sharing with other pedestrians. You must ride at a speed that is "reasonable and prudent" considering the conditions and users you encounter. When crossing a driveway or intersection (obeying the signal and using the crosswalk if these are present) you must ride slower than 10 mph. If you cross a driveway or intersection faster than 10 mph, you lose any right-of-way otherwise afforded to you by the code.

Be predictable. Don't be jumping back and forth between street and sidewalk. You can't have it both ways. Choose the rule set you want to operate under and stay with it until such time as your route to destination requires that you change concepts.

Remember, even if you are in the right from a legal standpoint, the likelihood of coming out on top in a vehicle vs. bicycle collision is slim to none -- in other words swallow your pride and always ride defensively.

Information for all

Riding in traffic is not as dangerous as it seems. Riding on sidewalks is more dangerous than it seems, particularly counter-flow riding (which is required all too often in Anchorage). Drivers emerging from driveways, alleys and side streets often do not stop before reaching the sidewalk or crosswalk (as is required), but rather before reaching the actual street. Half of them are looking only left while they do this, because they are preparing to turn right. The sidewalk rider is not seen and gets hit, particularly the counter-flow rider (this has happened to me twice in Anchorage). Street riders fare much better. First, they are never forced into the counter-flow situation, and second, even the driver who crosses a sidewalk without looking will look before entering the street.

Another killer situation involves the driver turning right on a green light and a cyclist crossing straight in a crosswalk on the same green signal. The driver has often overtaken the cyclist -- who is to the driver's right, on the sidewalk -- without having noticed the cyclist is there. But the cyclist will be in the crosswalk when the driver makes the turn. The cyclist is hit.

The best and safest solution to these common conflict situations may be "bike lanes" painted on the road surface. The traffic code and the Anchorage Bike Plan both anticipate bike lanes in Anchorage, but few yet exist. Bike lanes function safely and well in the Lower 48. They seem to be intuitive for drivers and riders alike, but it remains to be seen how they will work in Anchorage when snow covers the lane markings.

In the meantime, we have well-reasoned laws here that should serve us well. If we learn them -- and exercise some courtesy -- we ought to be able to make cycling and driving safe for everyone. Hint for drivers: A nod or a thumbs-up will let the cyclist know whether it's safe to proceed, and he or she will really appreciate that. Hint for cyclists: if you acknowledge attentive drivers with a thank-you wave, it will go a long way toward gaining the acceptance you so badly desire.

For those who want to read the relevant code text verbatim in the Anchorage Municipal Code, it's available online, in AMC 9.16.030, 9.16.095, 9.18.060, and in the entirety of 9.38.

Mark Mew is chief of police in Anchorage and recently received his instructor certification from the League of American Bicyclists.

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