A shared responsibility

Local bicyclists need to realize they are not immune to the rules of the road

ONE-WAY THE WRONG WAY <br>Bikes aren’t allowed to be ridden on the sidewalks anywhere in Chico.

Bikes aren’t allowed to be ridden on the sidewalks anywhere in Chico.

Photo By Tom Angel

Craig Matthews teaches English at Chico High School

I’d wanted to write about the state of bicycle riding in Chico for some time, but larger issues such as the recall election and our forays in Iraq made me think that my views on two-wheeled transportation were not important enough to warrant anybody’s time. But John Bilinsky’s “Don’t run me down” [Guest comment, Sept. 11] has changed my mind, so here I am.

While Mr. Bilinsky’s open letter is ultimately a plea to motorists, asking them to respect his right to ride on the road, my plea goes to those who ride bicycles. As a cyclist with 16 years of experience, I have learned one thing well: Motorists don’t really like us. And while cyclists rail against the selfishness and insensitivity of road-hogging drivers addicted to their cars, the sad truth of the matter is that motorists don’t like bicycle riders because bicycle riders give them so much to dislike.

While I commute by bike and ride recreationally as much as having a job and a family allows, I also drive my car through the increasingly crowded Chico streets. I bring to this the dual perspective of cyclist and motorist.

AGAINST THE GRAIN <br>Heading the wrong way down Fourth Street.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

By all appearances, those who ride bicycles in Chico represent a mass of people who share the streets with motorists but don’t seem to think that the rules that we ask motorists to follow apply to them when they ride their bikes. When I drive I frequently have to navigate around bicycle riders riding the wrong way, against the flow of traffic. When I need to make a simple right turn, a bicyclist coming the wrong way suddenly makes the easy maneuver of turning right more difficult and dangerous. Of course, some bicyclists fix this problem by riding on the sidewalks, becoming a hazard to pedestrians.

Many bicyclists also seem to view stop signs and traffic lights as suggestions, rather than mandates. If I were a gambler, I would always lay my money down that the next bicyclist I see approaching a red-lighted intersection will slow down, take a peek each way, and then squirt through while a line of motorists wait for the light to turn green. And dedicated cyclists are not much better. There have been many rides during which I have waited at a red light, only to have another cyclist zip past me as if the red light did not exist.

Let’s ignore the obvious fact that these practices are dangerous. My point is that, when bicycle riders and cyclists share the road with motorists but make up their own rules as they go, they contribute to a growing resentment in motorists that occasionally emerges as hostile acts against me and other well-meaning cyclists who conscientiously follow the rules of the road.

Much of what makes bicycle riding in Chico look like a free-for-all stems from a lack of formal training on how to ride a bike. We are formally taught how to drive a car, but our societal view of bike riding has not progressed much beyond the idea that bikes are basically toys used by kids.

Even so, this is not the place to launch into a list of dos and don’ts. But I will offer two bits of advice: First, when on a bike, you are much more like a car than a pedestrian. Behave as you would when driving a car and you will save a lot of people a lot of grief. This idea even suggests that it is OK to ride right down the middle of The Esplanade (the section between Downtown and East Avenue), but only if you have the fitness to ride it at the speed of traffic as established by the timed traffic lights—about 28 mph.

Otherwise, Mr. Bilinsky is right. Stick to the side streets, but do so as if driving a car. Second, look behind you every now and then. There is a whole world coming up from behind, and many bicyclists are seemingly clueless to this fact, forcing motorists and other cyclists to adjust as bicyclists swerve and weave merrily along.

In fact, I have lately taken to avoiding the jewel of Chico, Lower Bidwell Park, where I often encounter solo bicyclists wearing headphones and wobbling slowly back and forth across the whole lane, or groups of two or three ambling along in a line that stretches across the entire path. After slowing down, I call out, “On your left,” which often startles these people who ride in their own worlds. When they hear me call out, more than half of them, knowing nothing of what is behind them, swerve left, forcing me to stop in a hurry in order to avoid a collision or a sudden off-road excursion. Sadly, I now sometimes take to the streets that run parallel to the park because they are safer.

We are fortunate to live in a tolerant, relatively cycling-friendly town, something I appreciate a great deal as my 6-year-old son learns not only how to ride a bike, but also how traffic functions and flows. It is my goal to offer up a well-trained bicycle rider who is not another yahoo on two wheels. A few years from now, when he starts to ride on his own, I can only hope that he will know enough not to add to the chaos. As for the rest of us, it is getting more crowded out there, and the bicycling free-for-all is going to lead to some pretty nasty accidents.

In the meantime, what I see bicyclists doing when I’m driving angers me. And when I see it while I ride, it leaves me feeling embarrassed. If we want to keep Chico a bicycling-friendly town, then those of us who ride bicycles, regardless of the reason why we do so, need to be friendly in return by respecting the rules that we ask motorists to obey.