There are times and places in Columbia when riding a bicycle can be like swimming with sharks. Traffic hums along a four-lane thoroughfare. You’re on two wheels. Pedals serve as your motor. There are no sidewalks, no turn lanes. The shoulder is littered with gravel, glass and chunks of broken concrete.
By the end of September, Columbia bicyclists had been involved in 17 accidents this year, compared with 10 in 2002. With an overall average of about 10 traffic accidents a day, and more bicyclists taking to the streets, the likelihood for more cycling-related mishaps is strong.
Some cyclists spare the city no blame.
“Columbia hasn’t been good to me,” bicyclist John Petrocik said.
City doesn't live up to bike-friendly claim, Petrocik said.
Petrocik was riding on Green Meadows Road several years ago when he was knocked from his bike by a truck making an abrupt left turn. He was in a bike lane, but the truck never signaled. Petrocik remembers trying to make eye contact with the driver, but he ended up on the ground. The crash dislocated Petrocik’s collarbone, cracked his helmet and twisted the wheels of his Litespeed titanium bike. Although Petrocik acknowledges Columbia has done a good job with bike paths, he doesn’t think the city lives up to its claim of being a bike-friendly town.
“The city doesn’t make it a priority,” Petrocik said. “The drivers are fairly aggressive toward bikers.”
One such driver was speeding around a right turn off Broadway in June when he struck Juan Gutierrez, who was on his usual commute. Gutierrez doesn’t think the driver saw him until he landed on the hood of the car and broke the windshield with his face.
Neither Gutierrez nor Petrocik hesitated to get back on their bikes once their injuries healed. Petrocik is a serious rider, averaging several rides of 12 to 15 miles during the week and rides of up to 40 miles on weekends.
Gutierrez is still biking daily.
“Of course I’m more scared than before,” he said. “I always remember the accident.”
Now, he pays more attention when cars are near him, and he takes advantage of sidewalks more often. Overall, he thinks most Columbia drivers are conscious of cyclists but that they drive too fast sometimes.
Many bicyclists rely on drivers’ cues by looking into their eyes and trying to anticipate a change in course. In many accidents, however, the driver never sees the bike until it’s too late.
Different sorts of cyclists take to Columbia’s streets and trails every day. Some are in it for recreation and the breeze. Some want to save gas. Others have no car. Some are committed to fitness and distance. Still others want a Sunday ride around the neighborhood with the kids.
Ron Walkenbach, a member of the safety committee for Columbia’s Multisport Club, wants drivers to know that bicyclists have a right to be on the road. But he doesn’t let riders off the hook, either. After all, Walkenbach also drives. He’s seen fellow cyclists weave, speed and fail to signal, watch or yield to cars.
Traffic doesn’t scare serious riders such as Petrocik and Walkenbach, as long as they can count on a bike lane or a freshly swept shoulder to guarantee a safe corridor. But aside from inclines, the roads carry other challenges for riders. Major thoroughfares out of downtown can lead cyclists to potential white-knuckle intersections.
Avid riders are quick to rattle off Columbia’s most treacherous areas: Nifong Boulevard, Route K, Scott Boulevard and Providence and Stewart roads. Mayor Darwin Hindman admits the intersection of Providence and Stewart, immediately north of the trailhead for the MKT Trail, is poorly designed. It is a particularly challenging spot for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers, he said. That’s one reason the city plans to extend the trail beneath Providence Road.
'Pinch points' help mark tight spots
The Columbia Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission marked these and other tight spots with pink diamonds, calling them “pinch points,” on a map made available to the public in May. The map is color-coded to indicate varying levels of traffic and difficulty for bicycle routes. Steve Kullman, chairman of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission, said the map is a guide for novices, families and riders new to the area.
Whether on the road or on the trail, Walkenbach said bicyclists must be aware of their own responsibilities.
“Like any vehicle operator, they are required to give signals,” he said.
Hindman, an avid bicyclist himself, said he has noticed riders disobeying the rules of the road.
“They lose respect by doing that,” he said.
While progress is often slower than members of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission would like, city officials are involving the group more than ever, Kullman said. One example is the group’s involvement in an effort to develop new street standards more accommodating to bicyclists.
Petrocik applauds the street-standards effort but sees the need for more immediate improvements. He’s biked in other parts of the country, such as Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and Denver, and says those areas have committed more resources to bicycle safety. Columbia’s effort to slow traffic by creating narrow, winding roads is dangerous for cyclists, he said.
Columbia spends more per person on bicycle and pedestrian facilities and safety than any other metro area in Missouri, according to a study by the Surface Transportation Policy Project in Washington, D.C. However, Walkenbach said better maintenance of bike lanes and shoulders is a top concern.
“More vigilance of street sweeping the bike lanes would be very helpful,” Walkenbach said. “At Forum Boulevard, between Woodrail and the golf course, there’s a nice big shoulder, usually full of debris. Going down the hill, bikers are really risking accidents if they go on the shoulder, when the shoulder could provide an excellent means of keeping the traffic flowing safely.”
The Columbia City Council recently agreed to buy a street sweeper specifically for bike lanes, road shoulders and pedestrian walkways.
“It’s a little thing, but it will make a big difference,” said Hindman, who would like to hear more about the issue from bicyclists and motorists.
More consistent demarcation of bike lanes could also help bikers and drivers, Walkenbach said. He also said he favors “Share the Road” signs to indicate that drivers should expect bikes on the road.
“There’s a lot of bike lanes that run for six blocks and just run out,” Walkenbach said. “It’s confusing for motorists because they think that bikers can be on this area of the street but maybe shouldn’t be on other areas.”
Serving all of Columbia’s transportation needs takes more than tweaking bike lanes or sweeping the shoulders, Kullman said.
“My personal vision is that it takes a mix of everything: sidewalks, pedways and on-street-space to make a network,” he said.
Kullman would like the city council to add bicycle and pedestrian concerns to its checklist when it considers new development plans.
Hindman has done that in his years as mayor. He is adamant about encouraging people to bike and walk to work.
“It’s a wonderful way to get around,” he said. “You’ll feel a whole lot better and have more fun.”
Walkenbach, however, urged people to be careful.
“Columbia’s in a learning curve,” he said. “For years, seeing a biker on the road was like seeing a deer in the road. Now, bikes are as plentiful as deer.”