COLUMBIA – Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade says public discourse is the answer to the growing split between bicyclists and motorists in Columbia.
At the July 6 meeting, Wade said the City Council may have acted too hastily in its decision to pass the bicycle harassment ordinance and recommended the council suspend it.
"My goal is not to repeal the ordinance, but to put it on hold, pause a bit and start listening and thinking," he said in an interview.
Wade said he's heard comments about the building of a backlash against cyclists in Columbia. He said some citizens were upset about how "one small, specific group has gotten an undue amount of council support." Wade was referring to Columbia's recent promotion of infrastructure that facilitates nonmotorized transportation, specifically GetAbout Columbia.
He said he thought the passing of the ordinance was the last straw in the brewing dispute and acted as a catalyst, evoking strong public disapproval of the council's supposed catering to cyclists.
Ian Thomas, executive director of the PedNet Coalition, said his group never foresaw the council potentially reversing the ordinance.
"We've been upset at Councilman Wade's decision to suspend the ordinance," Thomas said. "We're not making this into a contest between cyclists and motorists, but there's nothing in the ordinance that any reasonable person would object to."
Thomas said that this was a very specific ordinance with a very specific purpose.
"If a person in a vehicle taps their horn to alert a bicyclist that they're going to pass them, that's OK," he said. "If a person chooses to ride the cyclist closely while laying on the horn, that's not. There's a huge difference."
He said the ordinance addresses this kind of behavior and that education would help immensely. He urges those who are outspoken against it to read it for what it is.
Thomas said that the ordinance was a good step forward to achieving PedNet's vision of a multi-mobile community, as well as providing police with a more fitting punishment for violators.
"The police aren't going to charge a person with third-degree assault if a car swipes a bicyclist and he or she falls ... they're just not," he said.
Although Thomas agrees that tension has been brewing over the last few weeks between cyclists and motorists, he said it sends a bad message for the council to second-guess itself.
Wade wasn't the only one to have second thoughts after the ordinance's passing. At the July 6 meeting, Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill said he felt a little hesitant about voicing his own unease with the ordinance.
"Jerry and I both had similar feelings about the ordinance in general, but he addressed it first and put it in the best light," Thornhill said.
Prior to the meeting, he experienced similar static in the community, especially from his constituents.
"I started receiving numerous phone calls and e-mails about this," Thornhill said. "People who recognized me were stopping me and asking, 'Why are you doing this?'"
Thornhill admitted that he would have voted differently had it not been for the overwhelming amount of supporters of the ordinance showing up to the June 15 public hearing.
"The general feeling at the public hearing swayed me, and I voted with the momentum of the movement," he said.
Thornhill said that had there been a representative number of people at the public hearing who opposed the ordinance, he would have voted differently.
Jill Mackey, current secretary for the Columbia Bicycle Club, said she's been to other communities that have done much better than Columbia to protect cyclists by enacting ordinances similar to the one that is up for suspension.
"I support the ordinance," Mackey said. "Some people are aggravated if it takes 10 seconds out of their life to pass you, and then they deliberately swipe by you with their vehicle. It's assault, that's the only word for it."
Bob Smith, also of the Columbia Bicycle Club, said this certainly proves that Columbia is not a "bike-friendly" town.
"If the good councilman wants to declare war on bikers, then maybe we need to organize together to fight back," Smith said.
Avid cyclist Rick Meridith said the whole ordeal is "just a misunderstanding."
Meridith, who's been cycling for 15 years and supports the ordinance, said "bicyclists have to be more responsible than automobiles, respectfully."
Karen Bataille, president of the Columbia Bicycle Club, doesn't know if the ordinance will do any good. She mentioned that laws don't stop people from running red lights.
"All communities have bad players, motorists and cyclists," she said. "Bottom line: we need to either educate more, or expand the ordinance to include those outside of cyclists, like pedestrians and people in wheelchairs."