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Eugene Weekly : News : 3.25.10

Bike to the Future

Enviros chew on political hot potatoes

By Alan Pittman

With bikes offering a simple solution to many of the world’s environmental, global warming and livability challenges, they’ve become a major focus of environmentalists. 

Winter rains are no deterrent to many Eugene cyclists. Photo by Ted Taylor.

The Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) at the UO last month, one of the largest environmental conferences in the world, included a panel on bicycle advocacy with discussion of such hot potato issues as critical mass protests, the Idaho stop and “sharrows.”

Panelists included Daniel Gregor, an attorney and bike advocate from Atlanta; Christopher Larsen, a cyclist and Multnomah County Circuit Court judge; Ray Thomas, a Portland bike law attorney; and Jim Wilcox, director of the local BikeLane Coalition.

Critical Mass

Gregor said he’s participated in the controversial bike protest rides. “It’s useful for people to see cyclists do have a right to the road.” Gregor said he’s also participated in “Courteous Mass” rides which obey all laws meticulously, often creating greater delays for cars. 

Judge Larsen argued the rides do more harm than good for promoting biking. “When you’re being seen and you’re blowing through multiple lights, you’re also going to be seen by the police,” he said. 

In Eugene, Wilcox said he’s seen six police officers writing a single peaceful Critical Mass rider a ticket. “This was a result of the [years] earlier Critical Mass that was so in your face,” he said.

Thomas said he witnessed the original inspiration for Critical Mass when he was in China years ago. “It was terrifying,” he said. Hundreds of cyclists would build up at an intersection before they dared to push their way through traffic. “There was really no sense other than desperation.”

Thomas said he did criminal defense work for Critical Mass riders in Portland in the 1980s and ’90s. “While it does bring out the stark brutality of the police state,” Thomas said, “most people don’t get it.” 

Thomas said the rides create animosity and bias against all cyclists while diverting activist resources. “I don’t believe Critical Mass takes us anywhere; in fact it takes us in reverse.”

Idaho Stop

Last year, bike advocates tried and failed to pass a law in Oregon modeled after a successful Idaho law allowing cyclists to carefully treat stop signs as yield signs. 

“I was against it for a long time,” said Thomas of the Idaho stop law. He thought the special treatment for cyclists would anger motorists. But Thomas said he was convinced when he saw data indicating that the three-decade-old Idaho law had not resulted in increased injuries. 

Larsen said he was also convinced by the accident numbers and wrote a letter as an individual supporting the legal change. 

“It’s just ridiculous,” said Thomas of the current law. “Why should I expend the aluminum, the break pads and the calories, if there is no one around. It’s just stupid.” He said it’s not like a cyclist is going to run a stop sign and “blast a hole in a school bus ... we don’t want to die.”

Thomas said the Idaho stop law was moving with a coalition of lawmakers behind it but it “became a political hot potato.” One key turning point was when the city of Eugene “totally blindsided us” by sending a staffer to testify against the bike law.

Wilcox said local cycling advocates made a mistake in trusting that city staff who ride bikes would be in favor of the pro-bike reform. “There was a certain sense of, I think, self delusion.”

City staff did not discuss their plan to lobby against the bill with local bike advocates or the city’s bicycling advisory committee, Wilcox said. “There was no warning about this, there was no discussion.”

Wilcox said the city lobbying resulted in a “huge outcry” from bike advocates. “We actually got the [city] council to go from against it to neutral,” he said. But “it was too late by then.”

Wilcox said part of the public perception problem is that motorists see a few people on bikes dangerously blowing through stop signs and unfairly equate that to all cyclists. Some people are on bikes because they lost their license for drunk driving, he said, but “they lump them all together.” 

Wilcox compares it to seeing someone with shoes breaking the law. “I don’t say, what are all these people that wear shoes doing?”

Sharrows

Larsen said European cities have demonstrated that safe separated cycling facilities rather than some painted “sharrows” indicating bikes share space with cars are the way to increase biking. 

“The more safe the passage is for cyclists, the more inclined people are to ride,” Larsen said. “I’d love it if we had bike freeways to insulate us from the thousands of pounds of metal,” he said. “We won’t increase our numbers and our political clout until we increase our safety.”

Wilcox points to a Portland survey indicating that 60 percent of respondents were interested in cycling but not riding in large part due to safety concerns. “We have to make it more safe.” 

But separated cycletracks and bikeways to increase safety will cost money. “We don’t have enough resources because we spend so much on the car,” Wilcox said. 

Wilcox said bike advocates have tried and failed in the past to get small increases in the roughly 1 percent of transportation funding spent on bikes. “I’m not very optimistic,” he said.

Part of winning funding will be pointing out the big benefits of cycling to motorists and the community, Wilcox said. Money spent on gas in Lane County is $800 million a year that’s sent out of the local economy rather than spent locally, he argued. More bikes also mean fewer cars, which means less traffic and safer roads, according to Wilcox. Drivers should realize that if more people bike, “I can actually get to work quicker.”

Cyclists may have a tough long road ahead when it comes to bike advocacy, but they appear to have the energy and determination for the challenge. One group of 13 bikers from Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland rose at 5:30 am for a 135-mile, soggy bike ride to Eugene to attend the PIELC and demonstrate their support for sustainable transportation. 

This story first appeared at Eugenecycles.com.