Column: Public misunderstands bicyclists

It's Bike Month is in Prescott.

Warmer weather and major events like the Whiskey Off-Road mountain bike race help promote the events taking place right now and continuing through May 21. Visit www.PrescottAlternativeTransportation.org for details.

Prescott Alternative Transportation (PAT) organizes this Bike Month celebration each year to encourage more people to consider riding a bike, and to show the community all the benefits of bicycling (reduced pollution, excellent exercise, cost savings on gas, to name a few).

But we can't ignore that, unfortunately, Prescott is not the safest nor most convenient place to ride a bike.

Bicyclists are extremely vulnerable on the roads, and yet many motorists consider them a nuisance. Bicyclists enjoy all the legal rights of vehicles, yet too often they don't have dedicated space (i.e., bike lanes). Without bike lanes, the law allows cyclists (and encourages them) to ride in the main traffic lane - where they suffer verbal abuse, drivers who pass too closely, items thrown out windows, and, sometimes, collisions.

Because I know many Courier readers will want to relate all the times they have seen bicyclists not follow the rules of the road, I have to say that some people, of course, will do what they want rather than what they should. But I also point out that the design of many of our streets does not make it easy to always ride a bike the way one is supposed to.

The "culture" in our community is not bike-friendly. Let me describe some incidents that make this point.

A man was riding on Gurley when a motorist swerved, seemingly deliberately, very close to him. The cyclist yelled something and continued on his way. The driver followed the cyclist, ending up behind him at a stoplight. The driver then acted like he was going to ram into the back of the cyclist. The cyclist spit on the car, after which the driver yelled and sped off. The cyclist contacted the police and was told he would be considered both a victim and a suspect (because he spit on the car). The cyclist decided against filing charges.

A woman was hit on her bike at the intersection of Grove and Sheldon, receiving severe enough injuries to be airlifted to Phoenix. According to her family, police tracked her down to give her a ticket - apparently while she was still under pain medication. Ultimately, the charges against her (as I understand it, for riding in a crosswalk) were dropped.

Another woman was riding in the bike lane on Willow Creek Road when an SUV turned directly in front of her - so closely that she had to make a sudden maneuver to avoid being hit, causing her to crash into the curb. Initially, the police report said the driver did nothing wrong; but, as another witness came forward, the police changed the report and now it states that the driver "failed to yield."

Let me firmly state right now that PAT and Prescott's police department enjoy a good relationship. I do not want to paint local police officers as anti-bike. It is more accurate to say that most residents of Prescott are "bike-unaware." They have no idea what it is like to be a vulnerable roadway user. Some - not all - police officers fall into this group.

These cases, in my mind, illustrate a couple of tendencies in our community: one, to assume first that the cyclist may be in the wrong in car-bike encounters, or two, to assume that the driver wasn't doing anything wrong - that perhaps the cyclist was just "overreacting." These tendencies help define this bike-unfriendly culture.

When people don't understand bicyclists as vulnerable - yet legal - roadway users, or treat them as such, it fosters an "us vs. them" mindset. This is why some say that bicyclists are a "special-interest group," rather than acknowledge we are simply exercising our freedom to choose how we transport ourselves (not to mention there are many who have no choice but to ride a bike).

I challenge anyone who has not ridden a bike on our streets to "ride a mile in our shoes," so to speak; perhaps you will think twice about honking at a bicyclist (it's really loud!) or passing so closely so quickly. I believe it may make you a better driver.

One more story: A young couple, apparently off to the prom, judging by their finery, nearly drove in front of me and my nine-year-old daughter as we rode our bikes through an intersection. I said "hello" loudly to alert the driver to stop. He did stop, but when we were directly in front of his car he honked. I looked at him and he was laughing; then his date flipped us off. What would make someone do that? Especially to a mother and young girl?

Well, when the adults in our community treat bicyclists with an air of disdain, I guess we can't expect any better of our young people.

Lisa Barnes is executive director of Prescott Alternative Transportation.