Rogue Bicyclists Loose in Bellingham
by Bob Keller
Bob Keller is a retired history professor who has worked on local Greenways campaigns. He currently serves on the boards of Whatcom Land Trust and the Dudley Foundation. His opinions here in no manner reflect policies and beliefs of those organizations.
On a Monday at 6:20 a.m. a driver obeyed the Fairhaven District stop sign. As he began his left-turn onto Harris Street, a bike coming from the other direction sped through the opposite stop sign. The irritated driver honked and the biker yelled back. What the car driver did not realize is that some bicyclists live above or beyond the law: stop signs, red lights, turn signals, crosswalks, and other traffic controls do not apply to them.
Before developing this topic, a few disclaims are due. Some of my best friends are bikers. Chuck Robinson of Village Books has completed the Seattle to Portland bike marathon. Bravo! Jeff Arvin of the Cascade Joinery takes long day-trips around the county, pedaling with new steel knees. Like Jeff and Chuck, most bikers are sane and polite. So are most drivers. But it only requires a small fraction of scofflaws to create large problems and give a bad name to a good activity. A further disclaimer arises from 2005 when I was hit at night by a bike with no lights, then taken by ambulance to hospital in Freiburg, Germany. Such experiences tend to foster negative attitudes.
Axiom: bicycles are to pedestrians as cars are to bikes. If we observe cyclists in traffic we may see them sailing through red lights, ignoring stop signs, passing cars on the blind side, being invisible at night, riding on sidewalks, zipping through occupied crosswalks, and giving no warning as they approach walkers from the rear. Many riders are ill-equipped, as was the bike that hit me head-on in Germany. I have talked with the Bellingham police about enforcement but they claim lack of manpower.
On a Saturday I walked along the trail from Boulevard Park to downtown. At least 30 bikes passed in both directions, not once giving a warning signal and no one uttering “thanks” after I stepped aside. When two bikers came at me riding side-by-side, they did not fall back into single file but continued to occupy most of the path.
Several positive remedies exist. One is to at least minimally enforce the law. In Germany, the police ticket illegal bikes in parking lots and conduct bike inspections at schools, with the result that virtually all are equipped with proper lights, reflectors, and warning devices. If two Bellingham police officers did a “bikes only” day once a month, the message would rapidly sink in that even “green” bicyclists do not live beyond the law. Another improvement is to follow the example of Blackstone River State Park in Rhode Island where pedestrians are instructed to walk on the left side of the trail and bikers keep to the right, which means that the walkers and cyclists approach each other facing rather than from behind (just as we are supposed to do when walking alongside roads).
Bikers are not the sole offenders. Sometimes they perform gliding “Idaho stops,” like car drivers’ rolling “California stops.” Walkers too have responsibility — I was partly to blame for my injury in the Black Forest.
In the end, this all comes down to the age-old problem of humans and the Machine. Technology has many benefits, but it also changes us as much as we exploit it — automobiles being a prime example. Bicycles provide intelligent, clean, and healthy transportation, but they still place a machine between us and the Earth — and between us and other people.
We need to pay attention to the consequences.