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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Paths proliferate for bicyclists, but fatalities haunt region

Eileen Hyatt rides north on Perry Street from the South Hill neighborhood last November. She is an advocate for safety and helping make Spokane more  bicycle friendly.  (Christopher Anderson)

The death last month of a Spokane bicycle commuter – the third bicycling fatality in the city in less than a year – underscores the stakes in the ongoing transformation of communities into more bicycle-friendly places.

A fourth bicyclist died in North Idaho last summer, making 2010 a particularly deadly year for Inland Northwest riders.

While the number of bicycle commuters in Spokane is relatively small – a study three years ago estimated the number at 0.8 percent of the public – the popularity of two major annual bike events shows the commitment and passion of bike riders in Spokane.

Bike to Work Week in the spring and SpokeFest in September draw nearly 2,000 riders each.

And the FBC bike club’s monthly full-moon ride in Spokane has been going for nearly four years and draws up to 150 riders.

At the same time, police statistics show that bicycle accidents are all too common in Spokane. In 2007, there were 63 accidents involving bicycles, while 2008 and 2009 each had 73 such accidents. In those three years, there were two fatalities of bicycle riders.

Grant Wencel, Spokane’s bicycle/pedestrian coordinator, said the rash of bicycle fatalities and injuries shows a need for education and compliance with laws by both bicyclists and motorists, especially as the city expands opportunities for bicycle riding and commuting.

Learning to share the road is a key concept for both riders and motorists.

“I really feel badly for those families,” Wencel said. “The educational component is something we are aware of.”

The latest victim, Matthew R. Hardie, was struck in October at Fourth Avenue and Lincoln Street at an intersection that is part of Spokane’s newly marked downtown bicycle loop route.

A motorist pulled out in front of Hardie as he was headed north down the Lincoln Street hill. Hardie had the right of way. The motorist was headed east from a stop sign parallel to the new loop.

A $600,000 federal grant last year made the loop possible – one in a series of big improvements for bicycling in the past two years – and the city extended its bike lane miles by 27 percent last year. More bike lanes are planned.

Inattention can have deadly results

Hardie’s death was the latest reminder of the dire consequences of a moment of inattention – either on the part of a driver or a bicycle rider.

“I ride that all the time,” said John Speare, a former member of the city’s Bicycle Advisory Board and a committed bicycle commuter who rides from the South Hill to his job on East Sprague Avenue.

He said Lincoln Street is dangerous at both Fourth and Fifth avenues, where traffic moves through busy intersections controlled only by stop signs.

“You can see how easily it could be anyone,” he said of the fatality. “It’s made me more cautious.”

Despite the risks, Speare and other riders are not about to give up riding. They are responding by paying attention to good bicycling habits such as riding with an array of safety equipment, including a helmet, mirrors, flashers and possibly a safety vest.

In Hardie’s death, police investigators said it appeared the motorist at Fourth and Lincoln committed no crime. The driver was not intoxicated and there was no sign of recklessness, but it will be up to the prosecuting attorney’s office to decide what charges, if any, might be sought.

In the other fatalities, Frank T. Redthunder, 47, was killed when he failed to stop and rode into the path of a driver at Scott Street and Second Avenue on Aug. 15.

In August, Patricia Lambie, 46, was hit on Idaho Highway 41 near Blanchard by a driver who had been drinking and who was given a year’s sentence. She was riding a bicycle in support of a relay race.

Last March, David Squires, 56, was hit while riding his bicycle through the crosswalk on Division at Sprague Avenue. The driver was arrested and charged with vehicular manslaughter and felony hit-and-run.

The four cases taken as a group underline the mix of circumstances involving both motorist and bicyclist error, and that violations as simple as failure to stop or yield can have deadly results.

Eileen Hyatt, a retired schoolteacher, has been educating riders about safe practices through the Bike Buddy Program of the Spokane Bicycle Club. Her best advice: Be visible and predictable.

Hyatt recommends flashers, reflectors and bright clothing. She wears a bright yellow outer jacket.

Riding too close to parked cars is dangerous because drivers don’t know what to expect from the bicyclist and the bicyclist can be injured by a vehicle door that opens suddenly.

Riders should not be afraid of traffic. “Once you’ve established yourself in a lane, you have a right to continue,” she said.

Approaching intersections with caution is another rule. Half of all crashes involving bicycles occur at intersections, she said.

Hyatt also said she would like police to write more tickets for violations by motorists who don’t yield to bicycle riders, and to bicyclists who disobey laws.

Goal to build facilities for different types of riders

The city has spent millions of dollars in recent years improving bicycle facilities, but it’s still just a fraction of about $20 million spent by the city on streets each year.

The new downtown loop on Howard, Fourth, Jefferson, Riverside and Main is just part of a long-range plan to enhance bicycle facilities.

A $600,000 grant paid for signs and pavement markings for dedicated bike lanes as well as markings for shared bike/vehicle lanes, called “sharrows.” It also went for installation of bicycle racks in the downtown area.

In addition to the loop, the city last year added a bike lane on 37th Avenue east of Grand Boulevard and bike lanes on Assembly Street adjacent to the new sports complex at Joe Albi Stadium.

The 4.9 miles of new bike lanes added in 2010 goes with the previously existing 18 miles of bike lanes, bringing the city’s total to 22.9 miles.

Bicycle improvements downtown and in the University District are being guided by a 2009 traffic study by DKS Associates. The study identified Fourth Avenue as an east-west link for bicycle riders downtown.

In addition, the route is proposed to continue east from Howard Street to Sherman Street using Fourth and Fifth avenues and eventually become part of a wider network of marked bicycle routes downtown.

The goal is to build facilities that cater to different types of riders, Wencel said: beginners, youths, commuters and adult recreational riders.

The Centennial Trail may be the best-known recreational trail in the region, but in Spokane the newly paved segment of the Fish Lake Trail southwest of downtown brought a $2 million grant to the city last year and opened miles of new riding opportunities.

Plans are under way to convert the old railway Iron Bridge adjacent to the Centennial Trail into a bike and pedestrian route east of Hamilton Street and north of Trent Avenue, using a $400,000 state recreation grant.

In addition, planning and design work are being done for a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the BNSF main line on the south side of Spokane’s University District.

Two years ago, Coeur d’Alene completed Prairie Trail as a complement to the Centennial Trail.

Bicycle advocates in North Idaho have their eye on a bigger proposal: connecting the Centennial Trail terminus at Higgens Point on Lake Coeur d’Alene to the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes near Rose Lake. The route would run near Interstate 90 and then ascend to Fourth of July Pass on forest roads, dropping down the pass along I-90.

If it seems like a lot is being done to benefit bicycle riders, consider the fact that cities such as Portland and Seattle are way ahead of the Inland Northwest in becoming bicycle friendly, Speare and other bike riders say.

To Speare, bike riding is more than a way to get around. Being bike friendly adds to a city’s identity as a place where people care about the environment and are willing to try new ways of living and working.

“To me, it’s not just a bike issue,” he said. “It goes back to the kind of city we want to live in.”