I am a bicyclist in Anchorage. My bikes — I have two, summer and winter — are not adventure toys. At 61 years old, I have never owned a car. I neglected to renew my driver’s license years ago. My bikes, I never leave home with out one of them.
I know what is important in Anchorage. Pavement — why else would we have so much of it? Long black streams of it, lovingly maintained. So it’s pedal-to-the-metal when the stoplight turns yellow. So easy, the driver so special, the car accelerates so well that excessive speed is the only option.
Bike paths are pavement, too. But they do not get the same amount of care. It took 30 years to get wider sidewalks and bike lanes on Spenard Road that run from 30th Avenue to Fireweed Lane. I guess urban planners think we just levitate after that. A half-mile away. I challenge you to ride the trail from Lois Drive to Minnesota Drive along the south side of Benson Boulevard. Roots poking though, deadly longitudinal cracks, a collapsing trail — water from winter melt washing it out. The branches in your face are a bonus.
The sidewalks in Spenard are narrow, buckling and tilting. This is a nightmare in the winter, covered in ice. That is, if you can find a sidewalk. They are snow dumps most of the time. Forcing me into the place I never want to be: the street.
I shake my head in disbelief when I spot a biker in traffic. Those multi-lane roads leave no room between car, biker and curb. A driver will drift to the left if they see the biker. This causes some confusion to the cars on the left, who can not see that biker on the far right at all. Or the driver in the right hand lane doesn’t see or is triggered into road rage by the biker. Drifting to the right, the biker is forced into and over the curb.
A rider might just get some road rash — painful, but survivable. Or a harder hit with more trauma. With COVID-19 maxing out the hospitals, now is not the time to land in the emergency room. Always a cautious rider, I am now paranoid.
It is like I become invisible once on my bike. Waiting to cross A Street, I try to get ahead of the car in the right-hand turn lane. Those uprights that hold the windshield in place are at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock from the driver’s point of view. Drivers honestly can not see any one in those points. When the light changes, I look to the left. Are they going to let me go or speed ahead?
I have been on the corner trying to cross a street, waving my arms, yelling over traffic noise. Drivers will still not acknowledge my presence. Tinted windows making eye contact impossible. I jump up and down on my wheels. If I can time it so the car can not turn right because of oncoming traffic, I can make it across. Otherwise I wait.
The infamous “Right Hook” — a driver turning right while looking left. The only time I’ve been tagged by a car. With some skill on ice, I didn’t hit the pavement when the police cruiser spun me around. Yes, I was hit by a cop. He didn’t stop, either. Gave me a dirty look and went on his way down Benson.
The long dark is nearly here. I fight my invisibility. I have lights on my helmet, on the messenger bag I wear every day. A light on my handlebars lights inside my wheel. I love the light on my helmet because I can flash it at the cars before I cross intersections. I used to work with John Fletcher, Rosey’s dad. I told him how freaked I was crossing four lanes of cars in the snowy dark. “Walk it,” he said. Wise words, and I do walk my bike sometimes.
I am not alone waiting on the corner. While you in your car zip by, I am sharing airspace with the homeless.
My daily ride starts at Spenard and Benson. During this summer, there has been a 24/7 party on the benches there. As I ride east starting at C Street, there are more parties.
Sometimes it is a party of one. I rolled up on a man with eyes wide. Bobbing and weaving, following the flight of some bird only he could see. I wondered how long he had been tripping as I waited for the light to change. He didn’t cross A Street with me.
There is a nexus of poor choices at the bus stop by Walmart. Before they trimmed the hedges from eight to two feet high, I could count more than 20 homeless people there. Sitting, laying in various states of consciousness ranging from manic to comatose. Often blocking the walkway.
I watched a woman dart across Benson there. She ran south; there were cars, but she made it across. She immediately turned and ran back north. There were now even more cars. I would have not even tried to cross on my bike, a suicide move. She made it to the second lane and pulled up short. Drivers were slamming the brakes, a horn sounded. She ran for it. Lights, cherries and berries. A siren goes off; there’s a cop. Wow. He jumped out of the car and stopped her. Pulled her onto the grass so I could get by.
What if she hadn’t made it? Another pedestrian death? A three- or four-car pile-up, maybe hitting those under that hedge or me? Will she listen to the cop’s warning? Would it take a ticket to get it in her head that you don’t cross a street like that? Anything to keep her from becoming a red stain on the pavement. I saw the blood when a kid on a BMX bike was killed at Minnesota and Benson. That stain, it lasts a long time.
Why? Why do I keep doing this. Traffic is frantic, drivers inattentive. Sharing the pavement with the down and out cold.
I believe my life ride has kept me healthier. I’ve been down and almost out cold myself, but I can still ride. Get some air, clear my head. It keeps others healthy too — I am a crappy driver. The life you save may be your own; buy Angela a bus pass. And I’ve saved a lot of money not having a car. Which has let me spend more time on my art.
Fires, storms, the death of wildlife, the effects of the climate crisis grow every year. With more than one-quarter of greenhouse gases coming from cars and trucks, riding a bike is one of the best things a person can do for the Earth.
I wish more would join me on their bikes. The more of us who walk and ride in Anchorage, the greater the care that will be given to our shared pavement pathways, keeping everyone safer and healthier.
Angela Ramirez is a 30-year resident of Spenard. A visual artist, she hopes to complete a comic book this winter.
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