Cruising down Jefferson Street on his bicycle Monday, 12-year-old Benjamin Fischer was forced to steer to the curb by a mechanical problem.
In previous years traffic on the Spokane street would make finding a safe spot to stop a challenge, but not this time. Fischer stopped safely inside a bike lane along the city’s recently completed downtown bike loop.
Fischer and his mother, Crystal Clark, joined about a half dozen other cyclists for free tours of the bike loop that circles the downtown core.
The city is hosting the rides through Friday, departing at noon from Howard Street and Riverside Avenue. The tour includes free lunch from a nearby hot dog stand.
“Drivers need to realize we have the same rights as they do,” said Chris Voges, a 61-year-old military veteran who joined the tour Monday. Voges said he planned to take the tour – south from Howard, west on Fourth Avenue, north on Jefferson, and east on Riverside and Main avenues – each day.
The downtown loop is part of the adopted Spokane Master Bike Plan to create a more bicycle-friendly region. A $600,000 federal grant paid for signs and pavement markings for dedicated bike lanes, and for the installation of eight bicycle racks in the downtown area – identifiable by their resemblance to the Monroe Street Bridge.
The loop also includes markings – new to the Spokane area – for shared bike/vehicle lanes on some portions of the loop. The white bicycle and double arrow markings called “sharrows” alert drivers that cyclists are on the road.
“(Bicycles) have a right to be here. This is really an awareness tool for motorists,” said Grant Wencel, Spokane’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.
A rash of fatal bicycle accidents in the city in last few years heightened the necessity for bicycle/vehicle safety measures, officials said.
One of those riders killed was Matthew R. Hardie, who was struck in October 2010 at Fourth Avenue and Lincoln Street – an intersection now part of the downtown bicycle loop.
The intersection was the most expensive improvement made along the route, Wencel said. The sidewalk on the north side of Fourth was expanded to include both pedestrians and bicycles, and a separate lane added for cyclists to stop and cross at Lincoln.
According to Spokane Regional Health District, about 70 percent of bicycle collisions happen in the downtown area.
The new loop emphasizes safety for motorists, and helps cyclists become “a little more familiar with the infrastructure downtown,” said Heleen Dewey, health district official. “Bikes and cars need to learn to travel together.”
While riding the streets can be dangerous, riding on the sidewalk within the downtown core is illegal and sometimes even more dangerous, Wencel said. Cyclists face a $103 fine for riding on sidewalks.
The new bike loop is intended to create safe spaces for cyclists to ride on the streets.
“There is a percentage of people who are going to ride anyway, and there are those who would like to ride but don’t feel safe,” said Drew Meuer, a member of the Spokane Bicycle Advisory Board. “Hopefully this helps. We want to see them riding.”