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Sat., May 31, 2014

Heather Salo: More experience co-existing with cyclists would ease commute

Now that I have been bicycle commuting for a year, I kick myself for not starting sooner. Biking is an energizing start to the day and a simple way to decompress and unwind at the end. I can take in more of the city, find myself in areas of Spokane I otherwise wouldn’t experience, and I feel more connected to this grand location.

There are additional perks to bike commuting, as well as pitfalls, and a local organization is trying to help bikers and drivers co-exist peacefully.

The monetary and health benefits to accumulating city cycle-miles include the following: I no longer need a gym membership to get in an aerobic workout, and I’ve witnessed others needing fewer medications after becoming regular bike commuters. In a country where 60 percent of people don’t get enough exercise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, commuting by bike is one of many great solutions to obesity and other health problems.

Despite the benefits, bike commuting has its problems. I’ve repaired two flats in two months caused by glass in Spokane’s bike lanes. By comparison, I rode for six months in England without a single flat. (Incidentally, this leads me to apologize to Spokanite drivers whose path I’ve swerved into as I instinctively steer clear of the broken-bottle land mines.)

The issue of co-existing with the cars is an ongoing battle. I’ve almost been run off the road when a car carelessly turned across my path from a parking lot without looking thoroughly. The driver seemed to not even notice me, despite my neon cycling top, until I pulled my brakes and narrowly missed being brushed by the side of the car.

Unfortunately, it is not just inconsiderate or unaware people who cause problems for cyclists. Even the kind and courteous drivers can cause confusion for both cyclists and other drivers. Numerous times, while waiting on a side street for traffic to pass in both directions of an intersection, a thoughtful driver on a double-lane road stops to let me cross. This is a nice gesture (and, admittedly, appreciated when the traffic is terrible), but the problem is that cars behind are not expecting the stop, nor do cars in the other three lanes know what to do. Some stop, some don’t. It causes a high potential for accidents.

The solution for both considerate and unaware drivers is more experience co-existing with cyclists. I just wish there were more people willing to bicycle commute here in Spokane – closer to the 16,000 cyclists that commute every day in Bristol, England – to help drivers get used to and know how to interact with their leg-powered counterparts on the shared road.

Commute of the Century is making a step to get pedal-powered people comfortable on the roads. The first organized ride on Monday, May 12, during Bike to Work Week, started at the Rotary Fountains by the Carrousel and headed north on Howard. In order to gather more information and make improvements, the group of cyclists was asked to pay particular attention to how safe each person felt on Spokane roads.

The larger group of close to 40 headed out in queues of 10 taking to the pavement, pedaling on bike lanes on various streets and on some general roads before ending back at the Rotary Fountain two hours later. The rides continued all week from the same starting point each day around lunchtime and toured Spokane on six routes.

Participants included retired workers, casual commuters, road racers and the mayor. There was even a toddler being pulled by a parent in a bike trailer, and I brought my 10-year-old niece on a tag-along, third wheel attached to my bike.

I feel more comfortable tagging my niece along for a ride on Spokane’s roads in a large group; it’s easier for drivers to notice a swarm of 30-plus cyclists. Perhaps someday, with more bike commuters on the road, she and I, as well as others, can feel safer on our streets.

If you would like to help rate Spokane’s bike routes and have your voice heard, the city’s cyclists would be grateful, including my niece, who recently announced, “I think I’ll bike or walk to work every day when I’m older.”

Why not create a city where she and families can safely bike to schools and parks now? This could help decrease childhood obesity and start building long-term healthy habits.

Freelance writer Heather Salo is a participant in the Commute of the Century.

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