Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 20, 2012

Guest Opinion: With rules, we can squeeze bikes into car territory

by Mac Clayton

When my son Nick was in Jordan Middle School, he got a traffic ticket while riding his bike. Approaching an intersection he crossed to the left side of the street to use a crosswalk on that side. The policeman told him he was supposed to ride on the right side of the road and wasn't supposed to bike in a crosswalk. To "pay" his ticket, Nick had to take a bike safety course. I think he had to do community service, too.

I was stunned, and, I admit, a little incensed. For one thing, he was taking the route I had suggested would be the safest. But I was wrong. We had just moved to town and all started biking and I didn't understand the rules as well as I thought I did. I didn't even understand what was best for Nick's safety.

Now, 10 years later, we all bike more than we drive. I had to threaten the boys to get them to take the automobile driver's test before they went to college. I use my car so little I bought a trickle charger for the battery. We've had slips and bangs on our bikes, but about a month ago I took a more serious dive off mine (solo, all my fault) that gave me a renewed appreciation for how fragile our connection is to that narrow corridor of air we ride. When you come down off a bike, even at relatively slow speeds, it's pretty easy to do some serious damage. No bumpers. No airbags. No steel cage.

In early March of this year there were two serious bike/car collisions in Palo Alto. Town Square lit up with comments: "Those reckless cyclists need to obey the rules of the road." "Those speeding drivers need to slow down and look up from their smart phones." "Can't we all just be more careful?"

Palo Alto is a good city for bicyclists. The City Council has recently adopted a new plan to improve bike safety in major corridors. But the danger continues on ordinary streets, where kids on every block come out of their homes to bike to school during the morning commute, and where those of us long past school age bike for health, ecology and serenity and share the road with construction workers, gardeners and moms and dads running errands.

Bikes and cars alike are obligated to obey the rules of the road. The street is not a level playing field, though. Cars have big lanes all to themselves. More often than not, bikes have to scurry along between parked cars and vehicles overtaking them from behind, choosing between the risk of being "doored" and the hazard of being clipped (or worse) from the rear.

It would be great, for bikers and drivers, if we could ban all on-street parking to open up more space for bikes and cars to travel together safely. Or perhaps widely restrict parking to one side of the street during the day, as we now do on some streets. People have to have places to park cars, though, so that dream is not practical. But there are a few things we can do that are both economical and easy to implement:

• Prohibit parking at intersections within 20 or 30 feet of the corner. Paint the curbs red and enforce the rule. This would open up visibility for bikers and drivers alike. It's called "daylighting," and it would be a good idea even if no one biked. I remember teaching my sons to drive. They would stop at the white stripe at stop signs. From there, because of parked cars they wouldn't be able to see cross traffic, so the game was creep, creep, creep, sprint. It never felt very safe, even in a car.

• Aggressively ticket cyclists who break the rules. Not only is it dangerous to blow through stop signs, it annoys the heck out of drivers. Provoking driver animosity is not bright. It's a little like throwing stones at a rhino. More careful compliance with traffic laws by cyclists would keep them safer and result in their being better respected by those with whom they share the road.

• Set the speed limit on residential streets at 20 miles per hour and enforce it. In addition to cars, our streets are teeming with bikers, walkers and kids doing all manner of things. Twenty miles per hour gives us all a bigger margin for error, a better opportunity to avoid the careless child biking home from school, and a better chance to get out of the way of an inattentive driver. What's the hurry? You're just going to have to stop in a block or two anyway.

We're long past the point of debating whether cycling is a good thing for the community and its residents. Bikes are quiet and burn no hydrocarbons. They take up no parking spaces. They give our children (and their parents) independence. In addition to providing exercise for the body, they are good for the soul. Anyone who has been out on a bike on a sunny day with the wind blowing in your face has felt the exhilarating rush of flying with ET in your basket across the face of the moon.

Our community was built for cars. Safely squeezing an increasingly large bicycling crowd onto the roads is tough. To make it work, we need the good will of drivers and cyclists alike. A bucket of red paint for curbs at intersections, lower speed limits and active traffic enforcement for both bikers and drivers would be a big help too.

Mac Clayton is a former lawyer and businessman turned writer. He has published fiction and is writing a novel.

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