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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 20, 2007

We need to build bike lanes and respect the rules of the road

The snow is banked high by the sides of the road. It is not bicycling weather. Yet we have another letter this week in an ongoing saga on cyclists’ rights.

Phil Erner, a student of physics, writes us with an equation for kinetic energy. His point: Cars can cause far greater destruction than bikes.

The turmoil on our letters pages began with a brief but caustic letter, which we published on Nov. 15. John Ryan, who teaches driver education and used to be the supervisor of transportation for the Guilderland schools, wrote "to all the frustrated out-of-shape ‘athletes’ who feed their egos riding bikes on two-lane, no-shoulder highways."

He advised them, and joggers, too, to use bike paths and stay off the road. Like Erner, Ryan saw that a cyclist has little protection against a thousand-pound vehicle. But, while Erner, quite rationally, concludes that, because cars by their nature can cause far greater destruction than bikes, motorists have the far greater responsibility to drive carefully, Ryan came to a different conclusion.

Ryan wrote that he was nearly wiped out when "some poor pickup driver" came into his lane to avoid a cyclist. "If you dent my car," he wrote, "I’m going to sue your estate."

The response from our readers was swift and edifying. We ran nine letters the following week and eight since then. Several writers made the point that traveling by bicycle rather than by car saves oil, that it’s better for our health and the health of the planet. A number of writers also pointed out that the "poor pickup driver" was at fault. By law, he should have waited for a safe point to pass the cyclist. They cited the state’s Vehicle and Traffic Law requiring cyclists to "exercise due care to avoid colliding with any bicyclist, pedestrian or domestic animal upon any roadway."

One letter-writer, Dana Field of Altamont, took a philosophical tack. He has ridden over 70,000 on his bike and wrote, "I am not frustrated, I am not out of shape, and I don’t ride to feed my ego. I ride for fitness, fun, companionship, solitude, scenery, wildlife, and just to feel the fresh air in my face."

Field wrote of areas across the country that are "cycling meccas" with highly developed networks of trails and "a populace that accepts and respects bicycles as both a form of recreation and an alternative mode of transportation."

He continued, "Sadly, New York State, especially the Capital Region, has a long way to go to match the accommodation and acceptance of cyclists I’ve experienced in other parts of the country."

However, Field also stated, "I have always considered Guilderland a kind of cycling oasis in the area...I always figured the rare get-off-the-road people weren’t from Guilderland because I have never known anybody from here who would exhibit that type of behavior.

"I have always attributed the lack of encounters to the same set of reasons I find Guilderland such a desirable place to live, a progressive, enlightened community that understands the all-inclusive word ‘public’ and takes pride in continually upgrading its already top-notch libraries, parks, and roadways. I have always considered Guilderland, and especially Altamont, a community that promotes tolerance and understanding."

A husband and wife, the Deleskiewiczes of Berne, then responded in agreement with Ryan, telling cyclists who don’t move over and ride single-file on the shoulder of a road: "Get outta my way."

Another Berne resident, Max Godby, pointed out there is a difference between what a cyclist has a right to do and what is the right thing to do. Because bikes are slower than cars, it can create dangerous situations, he wrote. "Do the courteous thing, which is also the smart thing, and take your pleasure ride away from busy roads," Godby advised.

We’ve learned from our letter-writers about the frustrations felt by both drivers and cyclists. The best solution would be to build more bike lanes on busy roads — to promote cycling as a means of everyday transportation. Most car trips are to destinations just a few miles from home. It would be better for our environment and our oil-dependent economy if we each replaced some car trips with bicycle trips. At the same time, we should also build more bike paths for healthful recreation, which would be good for a nation facing a plague of obesity.

Such projects take money and widespread support. If the passion shown on our letters pages is any indication, it’s ready to be harnessed.

In the meantime, we need to exhibit both common sense and common courtesy. The attitude expressed by Ryan has no place on the road. Someone who teaches drivers should know better.

Both motorists and cyclists have a responsibility to follow the rules of the road. If a bicycle lane is not available, the cyclist should ride on the right shoulder, if it’s usable, or near the right edge of the road if it’s not, and cyclists shouldn’t ride more than two abreast.

If a curve is dangerous, without a shoulder, and the driver of a car can’t see around it, the driver must slow down and wait until it is safe to pass.

We’ll close with a thought inspired by veteran cyclist Dana Field. Public roads belong to all of us. The law allows motorists and cyclists alike to use them. Let’s not lose our civility in the anonymity and sense of power that engulfs us when we get behind the wheel. Let’s be that community that Field describes — progressive, enlightened, and tolerant.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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