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Biking in Whatcom County: On Two Wheels: We Are Traffic

October-November 2007

Biking in Whatcom County: On Two Wheels: We Are Traffic

by Jennifer Karchmer

Jennifer Karchmer is a freelance writer in Bellingham. She teaches bike education clinics through Whatcom Smart Trips. For more information about bike education and other bike-related news in Bellingham, go to Contact Jennifer at

Part 2

Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose.
— Kris Kristofferson

I circled outside the restaurant three times searching for a place to park. Every single space was filled. The place was packed. People were parking up alongside one another. I couldn’t imagine where I could land my wheels. My partner and I idled, pondering this scene on a warm September evening in Bellingham.

Never mind parallel parking, deftl moves of the clutch or glancing in a rear view mirror.

We were on bikes.

Planning to take in the final film of the season in The Pickford Cinema’s outdoor movie run at Boundary Bay, we scratched our heads wondering where to stash our bikes and wrap a U-lock around them for a few hours. The bike rack in front of Boundary Bay overflowed with bikes. Bikes lined the chain-link fence adjoining the next bar on Railroad Avenue. Bikes were parked in front of the Depot Market. Bikes were everywhere.

A woman beaming brighter than her neon jacket caught me shaking my head in disbelief.

“Fifty-nine bikes,” she said, unclasping her helmet. “Three are tandems. I counted,” she added proudly. “Isn’t it great, all these bikes?” She too was sans car and euphoric about the display of community camaraderie on two wheels.

Witnessing that throng of bikes reminded me that Bellingham is a bike friendly town. Despite complaints by motorists to keep bicyclists on the paths and Interurban Trail, bicyclists are exercising their right to be on the roadway and to use their environmentally friendly mode of transportation to get to the store, to the library, to work. I had chosen Bellingham as my new home because of its bike friendly nature. After years in New York, I had heard good things about Bellingham, mostly that it was cool to have a bike.

On an official level, Bellingham received “Bicycle Friendly Community” recognition in 2006. The League of American Bicyclists, a major bike advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., noticed that Bellingham is stepping up its efforts to accommodate bicyclists. That puts us in close company with cities like Portland, Oregon and Madison, Wisconsin, which have been cited for years as “Bike Friendly.”

With Bellingham deemed a “bike friendly’ town and swarms of bikes appearing in all the right places, why is there still confusion on the roadway between bicyclists, motorists and even pedestrians? Of course, we all just want to “get along,” but who’s right when a bicyclist seems to be hogging the roadway? Is it okay for bikers to go through red lights and do motorists have a right to yell at bikers who are on the road instead of the bike lane?

With so many bikes on the roadways these days it’s even more important that bicyclists and motorists and pedestrians have a way of communicating and speaking the same language. If you’re driving a car, presumably you took a driver’s education course in high school. That course probably did not have a lesson on bicyclists and bike safety.

A push is on to incorporate bike education into the driver’s education course, whether or not you ride a bike. Some states include such a lesson. Unfortunately, without it, bicyclists and motorists alike are in the dark about where bikes are supposed to be when they’re on the roadway.

Follow Rules for Automobiles

The bottom line for bikes is to follow the same rules as if you’re driving a car. Motorists, of course, should be aware of bicyclists on the roadway and realize that they have the right to be there and may do things that may seem annoying or inconvenient but are done for safety.

For example, according to Washington state law, bicyclists have the right to ride on the roadway and if a bike lane exists, bicyclists can choose to ride there but are not required to do so (see Washington state law, RCW 46.61.770: Cyclists may choose to ride on the path, bike lane, shoulder or travel lane as suits their safety needs). Sidewalk riding is permissible in some areas, but be aware that on downtown Bellingham sidewalks, bikes are prohibited. If you’re not sure, look on the sidewalk for the big red circle with the line through it indicating “No Bikes.”

As we stated, the plain and simple guideline for bicyclists is that they are required to follow the rules of the road as if they were cars. For example, bicyclists must make a full stop at a “Stop” sign. Hand signals are also required by law and common sense dictates that you use hand signals as a courtesy to others to indicate where you’re going.

Bicyclist hand signals are simple and resemble the hand signals motorists use. For a left turn, extend your left arm at a 90-degree angle from your body. It’s always important to first look over your left shoulder to see if there is oncoming traffic and to gain eye contact with an approaching motorist to indicate your intentions. Just think about how you do this in your car when you change lanes or make a turn. It’s about awareness around you. Typically, you look over your shoulder or glance in the rear-view mirror for other cars or bicyclists or pedestrians.

For a right turn, bicyclists have two options: extend your left arm and bend up at the elbow (like you’re taking an oath). The other option is to use your right arm and extend it at a 90-degree angle from your body. Either hand signal is acceptable for indicating a turn or to change lanes on the roadway. Use whichever one is more comfortable.

Again, look over your shoulder first before changing lanes or making the turn to be sure a car isn’t approaching that may inadvertently cut you off. Too often, bicyclists assume they’re immune to hazards on the roadway and that they’re not responsible for following rules like cars do.

Police officers will stop bicyclists who aren’t following the rules of the road. In fact, during a downtown ride last summer, I learned this firsthand. I was caught going straight through a “Stop” sign. I admit it. The police officer pulled up alongside me heading east on Alabama Street. With his passenger side window down, he informed me, “Bicyclists must stop at ‘Stop’ signs. Be sure to do that in the future.” He nodded and sped ahead. I appreciated the friendly reminder.

Bike Education Courses

Whatcom Smart Trips offers bike education courses for the public, teaching bicyclists and those who don’t bike but who want to be informed where to be on the road, the rights of bicyclists and also the responsibilities of driving on two wheels.

If you haven’t already heard, a “Smart Trip” is any trip you take by walking, biking, riding the bus or sharing a ride if it would replace a driving alone ride. If you’re tooling around on your bike for exercise or go for a walk to get fresh air, sorry, that doesn’t count. Carpooling to work or grabbing a ride with a classmate to WWU are considered Smart Trips. You can learn about earning prizes by logging your Smart Trips here:

Did you know that bicyclists who are traveling the same speed as traffic or the posted speed limit have the right to “take the lane” and ride down the center? Washington state law says bicyclists who believe they are safer in the center of the lane due to a narrow roadway or other hazards, like parked cars, can ride in the center. Of course, as a matter of courtesy, bikers can pull over if they’re holding up traffic, but only when it’s considered safe to do so.

People like bike advocate John Forester argue that bicyclists “fare best when they act, and are treated as drivers of vehicles.” This means that bicyclists have the same rights, and also the same responsibilities, that motorists have. Forester, a long-time cyclist and author of “Effective Cycling,” says the theory stems from the idea that bicyclists will be most safe if they conduct themselves and follow the rules as if they were driving a car.

So the next time you approach an intersection on bike and are not sure which lane to be in, consider what you would do if you were driving your car. Then be sure to use your hand signals, look over your shoulder as you change lanes and seek eye contact from drivers. A smile goes a long way too.

Apparently, in the bike advocacy world, several camps of thought exist. Unfortunately, many are campaigning for the same thing but from different viewpoints. Along the lines of Forester’s argument is the notion that bicyclists have a right to be on the roadway along with cars, so creating lanes specifically for bicyclists separates them from other motor vehicles.

In fact, Forester says that bike lanes set bicyclists back since they reinforce the “superstition” that cyclists shouldn’t be on the roadway in the first place. These advocates would like to see more education for bicyclists and motorists alike on how to share the roadway safely.

Others though, push for more infrastructure in the form of bike lanes and trails. The belief here is that bicyclists are safer when they are separated from faster-moving vehicles.

Sharrows and Safe Co-Existence

To encourage a “safe co-existence” of motorists and bicyclists, some towns are using a “sharrow,” a picture of a bike with a double chevron symbol above it. Sharrows, which comes from combining “shared” and “arrow,” are being used in Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco.

In a 2006 National Cooperative Highway Research Program Report, author Kevin Krizek explains the use of sharrows, among other road markings, which help bicyclists and motorists communicate. Krizek, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, studies travel behavior analysis from the perspective of cycling, walking and transit.

The goal of the sharrow, he said, is to indicate to bicyclists the suggested positioning on the road to keep them far enough away from parked cars alongside the shoulder while promoting awareness of their right to use the road. These markings typically are placed on stretches of road that are too narrow to create a regular bike lane. Holly Street in Bellingham would be a good candidate for such markings since no bike lanes exist.

Other cities, like Cambridge, Mass., have markings on the roadway similar to bike lanes but a little more ambiguous. Some roadways there have a single white line with a picture of bicyclist every block or so. This indicates a suggested place on the roadway for bicyclists to follow, rather than a lane. Apparently, some bicyclists tend to follow the line so they stay safe out of the door zone (the dangerous area close to parked cars where a driver may whip open the door). Some motorists don’t get so mad if a biker deviates from the line.

Double-Stripe Bike Lanes

Meantime, the traditional double-stripe bike lanes, like those often seen in Bellingham, raise the ire of some motorists when bikers come out of the lane to use the roadway. These bike lanes sometimes abut parked cars (N. State Street, for example) creating an unsafe zone for bicyclists. Again, it’s the responsibility, and right, of the bicyclist to determine where he or she feels safe, within the confines of the law. Biking the wrong way opposite the traffic flow on a roadway is illegal, for example, not to mention dangerous.

“Yield to bike” signs are also located at intersections and on-ramps in Portland, Oregon. The city is installing about 350 signs and pavement markers around town that note distances and estimated bicycling times to major points of interest.

Some bike paths even have their own traffic signals, and in certain places around Portland, for example, where bikes and cars mingle, the bike lane is painted solid blue where it crosses traffic. The markings help cyclists know where to cross dangerous exit ramps and let motorists know that bikes have a right to be there. I witnessed the blue marking in Eugene, Oregon, a few weeks ago. While visiting friends, I took a bike out for the afternoon to check out this bike-friendly community frequently cited by the League of American Bicyclists. The blue markings were new for me, but I figured out where to be on a busy roadway.

So with hand signals, road markings and signage, doesn’t it seem easy to get on the road and travel by bike?

From a practical standpoint, bikes and fast moving vehicles heading uptown on Meridian Street mix about as well as a martini and a peanut butter sandwich. Jeff Hiles, a bike advocate in Ohio, writes in a 1996 essay, “integrating bicycles into an environment dominated by fast and powerful motor vehicles is complicated business.” He added, “We’re discussing integrating bikes into the traffic environment when bicycles were here first.”

Good point. §

Sources for this article:

• “Bicycling renaissance in North America? Recent trends and alternative policies to promote bicycling,” by John Pucher, Charles Komanoff and Paul Schimek. Transportation Research, September 1999.

• “Effective Cycling,” 6th edition, by John Forester, 1993.

• EverybodyBIKE (Whatcom County, WA),

• “Guidelines for Analysis of Investments in Bicycle Facilities Transportation Research Board of the National Academies,” by Kevin J. Krizek.

• League of American Bicyclists:

• “Listening to Bike Lanes: Moving Beyond the Feud,” by Jeffrey A. Hiles, 1996:

• Washington State Department of Transportation, Bicycling in Washington:

• Whatcom Smart Trips:

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