Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Just the Facts Ma'am

Recently Lexington (actually Jessamine County, but no one is very good at making the distinction) has been in the news for a supposed injustice toward one single mom who is a car-free commuter.  She rides 18 miles round trip from her home in Jessamine County to her place of employment in northern Lexington.  She uses some of the busiest roads in the area and has been cited (in Jessamine County) three times for reckless and careless “driving.”

The story first came into the limelight from WKYT, the local CBS affiliate.  The Lexington Herald-Leader also picked up on it, as well as a few other local news outlets and even some national information sources.

I composed a long rant about the issue but redacted it after chatting with some local cyclists who are closer to the issue.  But the new information I gained was simply hearsay and after a few false starts I realized I couldn’t go to press with a post touting that information as gospel. 

Last week I sat in two meetings with other local transportation professionals and the issues came up both times.  In one meeting some were suggesting that perhaps the Transportation Cabinet needed to up the sweeping schedule of US 27 in light of this story.  There was a good discussion on the practicality of process of increasing the frequency of sweeping on that road and others.

US 27 south

The Lexington Area MPO’s Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Committee list serve was also very active with conversations back and forth about the issue for most of the week.  Again, the issue is complex because while cyclists are not legally prohibited from using the drive lanes of US 27 it makes no practical sense to do so when there are other options available (I’ll get to that shortly).

From the outside the issue seems pretty cut-and-dried.  Most cycling advocates see this as a clear infringement on the rights of a cyclist.  And at one level it is.  Many locals in the know see the issue as that of a rogue cyclist choosing the wrong high ground to make a stand.  It appears as if Ms. Schill could choose to change her behavior and incite less motorist animosity, but chooses not to on principle.  So here is my effort to spell out the facts and let the rest of the world make a judgment call. 

Kentucky has just dropped from the 47th Bicycle Friendly state (2013) to #48 in 2014.  Lexington is a bronze level Bicycle Friendly Community.   There is a new statewide bicycle citizen advocacy group in the beginning stages called pedalKY.  Lexington has a very active and progressive bike-ped and mobility program as well as the Bike Lexington citizen interface which is currently hosting a Bike Month commuter challenge.

US 27 (the point of contention in the Cherokee Schill saga) is a four lane full access major arterial with center turn lanes and ten foot paved shoulders with rumble strips on the extreme left edge along the white line.  While there is detritus on the shoulders they appear to be in fairly good condition and passable to even the skinniest bike tire. 

Just south of the intersection with Man O’ War Boulevard US 27 has an ADT (Average Daily Trips/Traffic) of 53,704 estimated in 2006.  There are no shoulders for most of this section.  Moving south, just south of the Fayette/Jessamine County line the ADT drops to a mere 37,021 (2007).  A little further south past Brannon Crossing it drops to 36,061 (2008).  The speed limit is 55 mph.  It’s 1.4 miles south from Man O’ War to Brannon Crossing.

from KYTC

Where the ADT is the highest the paved real estate is about 65’ wide.  And like I said, that’s four lanes with a center turn lane.  It averages out to about 37 cars per minutes (about a car every two seconds) over the entire day. Peak times are obviously going to be much, much higher.

At Brannon Crossing KY 1980 heads east and has an ADT of 4,977 (counted in 2008) and connects over to Clays Mill Road with an ADT of just over 12,000.  By taking this alternate route it would be possible to avoid the section of US 27 with the highest traffic and no shoulders.  I cannot attest to the feasibility of riding on this road, but I will investigate the matter in the very near future.  At a minimum this would be a 2.5 mile longer route than taking the direct US 27 route into town.

US 27 heading south, just south of Man O' War Blvd
ADT here is 53,000+

What’s really scary—and I don’t know if she’s using the road north of MOW—but the ADT at US 27 and New Circle Road is over 90,000 with no shoulders or bike lanes.  I truly hope she is jumping off on side roads north of Man O’War.

Now, let me tell you where I’m coming from.  I’ve ridden in traffic in Nashville, Tennessee, Dayton, Ohio, Lexington, Kentucky, Denver, Colorado, and countless smaller cities and towns, backwoods and country lanes, singletracks and bushwhacks…I’ve kind of seen it all when it comes to riding a bike. 

I’ve been an unrepentant lane taker.  I’ve nearly been killed by buses and semi-trucks.  I’ve been hit twice by motor vehicles.  I can’t count how many near-death-experiences/close calls I’ve had.  I’ve ridden in heavy traffic with my kids.  I’ve ridden in any kind of weather and lighting condition you can imagine from extreme heat (104F), to hail, to high winds, to fog so thick you couldn’t see the backs of your own eyelids, to deep snow, to solid ice, to torrential rain.  And I’ve jockey for position in heavy traffic in all of those conditions.  Successfully.

I understand Cherokee Schill’s plight.  I’ve been without a car and needed to go to work and to pick up the kids.  I’ve ridden many more days when I didn’t want to ride at all than I can count.  I’ve hated the world for being so obstinately arranged not in my favor.  I’ve cursed at motorists.  I’ve punched drivers’ windows.  I’ve flipped people off.  I’ve heard all of the stupid angry unenlightened rhetoric spouted by ignorant motorists who really don’t understand the issues but who are too selfish to look beyond their own whims and wishes to see the validity of the viewpoint of the cyclist.  I’ve seen hatred in people’s eyes toward cyclists.  I’ve tasted the venom they’ve spouted and I’ve done my best not to spout venom back.

In the final analysis there is one truth: on a bicycle you will always lose.  Even if you escape a crash unscathed you lose.  Even if you beat the citations…you lose.  Even if you get three foot passing laws, more vulnerable user laws, and platinum level bicycle friendly community status for your community…you will still lose.

The vast majority of people do not ride bicycles and therefore cyclists will always be marginalized.  Until that fact changes the best tactics is one of sheer self-preservation.

I came up with a motto once.  Be visible, be vigilant, and be consistent.  I abide by this as a cyclist and a motorist.  Visibility and consistency are for the other users, but being vigilant is for me.  As long as I maintain 100% awareness of my surroundings I retain the power to avoid potentially harmful conflicts.  And riding in traffic you can never let your guard down.\

My philosophy is one of avoidance as well.  I take the less busy routes.  I travel at off-peak times whenever possible.  I minimize my exposure to high speed traffic and overly congested areas.  I take sneaky short cuts.  I take wide side streets.  I jump on the sidewalk if it benefits me.

That’s the beauty of the bike.  If I only behave as a vehicular cyclist then I betray the freedom of the bicycle.  If I obstinately carve out a slow moving hole in traffic I’m a terrorist and not a diplomat for my cause.

When I need to take the direct route I take it.  I take it with confidence and with the experience and knowledge of decades of riding in every kind of condition imaginable.  I control the space around me on the road with subtle lane placement, hand signals, speed and deliberate eye contact.  I’m good at it.  I wouldn’t try to teach my riding style to anyone else, and I wouldn’t advocate my tactics for anyone but the most confident of cyclists.

I don’t truly know what Cherokee Schill should do or how the local cycling community should react.  There’s part of me that thinks I could only know if I were to ride her commute myself in the same conditions.  And since there is already a lot of negative press surrounding Ms. Schill’s actions I don’t think I’m going to exacerbate the problem with an experiment.  I do know there are a lot of local cyclists who think she could easily make different decisions and reap the same benefits from cycling to and from work.

I feel like she is making the right stand in the wrong place.  And that is really the crux of the matter.  As a cyclist I want to rally round the flag and lend my voice to the conversation.  But as a cyclist I don’t want to undo any gains that have been made in the region for cyclists' rights and enjoyment of the road.  This area does not suffer from widespread animosity toward cyclists, and I would hate to see this ferment into that.

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