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4:06 AM Mon, Nov. 19th

Talk of the Town: Countering anti-bicyclist sentiments

In recent months, the community has had a chance to look together at two potential upgrades to Prescott's bicycle transportation system - Sixth Street and Grove Avenue.

In my jaunts around town I hear resounding support for bicycling from residents, business owners and people who can no longer afford to drive.

Letters to the editor on each of these projects generally favored improvements for bicyclists. The vast majority of those who spoke at City Council meetings for these projects supported bicycle improvements.

And yet each of these projects brought forth such anti-bicyclist sentiments from a few at the council meetings and in letters to the editor that I am compelled to question their origins.

To understand these sentiments, we need to define bicyclists. Does it include the child riding to school, the environmentally conscious commuter, or the person hoping to lose some weight by bicycling to the store? What about the worker who cannot afford to drive? What about the more than 30 percent of our population (children, college students, seniors, etc.) who do not drive?

Before the recent Grove Avenue discussions, I had begun to see the origins of these anti-bicyclist sentiments as a simple misunderstanding. The most venomous comments presumed bicyclists are special-interest space aliens who come into Prescott demanding public space to improve their own personal bicycling experience. They didn't seem to hear that restriping for bike lanes also would improve traffic flow and the safety of motorists.

But then the Grove Avenue hatred flowed. It was no longer aimed at science-fiction aliens called "bicyclists." The hatred turned against Prescott College and all of its 1,000 students. Once again I was stumped.

Some of the anti-bicyclist and anti-Prescott College pronouncements listed ultimatums that bicyclists must meet before they receive any safety provisions such as:

• Wearing certain things.

• Adherence to traffic laws even if the current street design prevents them from safely doing so.

• Proof of their need to bicycle.

• Proof that they can carry things on their bikes.

• Rigorous testing for bicycling ability.

• Paying for the road they want to ride on even though they are legal roadway users.

Critics cited accounts of cyclists misbehaving as reasons not to provide for them. When was the last time a roadway project for the safety of car drivers stopped because of driver behavior?

Though the vast majority of Prescott's voices beg for bike lanes and calmer traffic, they city has made no significant improvements to Prescott's bicycling environment.

While the anti-bicyclist sentiments come from only a few, the rest of us have allowed it to prevent our city from joining others that encourage bicycling. These cities celebrate bicycling as a solution to traffic congestion, air quality, healthy activity, and creating a place where people can linger without the threat of speeding cars. They see their public rights-of-way as public spaces to benefit all. They know that bike lanes show bicyclists how to ride safely and car drivers how to pass bicyclists safely. And they recognize the work of their local organizations that educate drivers and bicyclists on how to share their roads safely, just as Prescott Alternative Transportation does here.

Many of Prescott's residents have visited or lived in cities that honor bicycling. They know the charm of streets filled with bikes, where car drivers behave as if in a school zone on every street. They've stepped into those streets without fearing for their lives.

How did Prescott become anti-bicyclist and, by extension, anti-kid, anti-commuter, anti-student, anti-worker?

Residents, visitors and business owners who ask me this seem to expect a neat answer. Unfortunately I have none. I saw no answer in the Daily Courier's cartoon of a bicyclist killed by a truck as the driver laughed. I heard no answer as one zealot misrepresented Sixth Street business owners at council meetings. I heard no answer when Councilman Jim Lamerson suggested banning bicyclists from Sixth Street. And I saw no answer in the anonymous ultimatums on the Daily Courier's website.

So, how can we, as a community, counter these anti-bicyclist sentiments? How can we show that such hatred has no place here - that the people already riding bikes in Prescott, each representing one-less-car on our roads, are our fellow citizens, people we should applaud, not hate?

If you have positive, kind ideas for how we can dispel the fear and hatred of bicyclists, please e-mail me at sue@onestreet.org. Until we resolve this corrosive hatred, we will squander the benefits of bicycling for Prescott.

Sue Knaup is the executive director of One Street, an international bicycle advocacy organization. She volunteers for Prescott Alternative Transportation (PAT) and co-chairs the committee in charge of PAT's Bicycle Brilliance Campaign.