Getting There: Bad-behaving bicyclists are problem, too

Those on two wheels need to abide by laws, protect pedestrians

November 01, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Bicyclists are accustomed to thinking of themselves as the good guys — and for the most part that's true.

They don't pollute the air, they don't take up much road space and they're getting off their backsides and exercising — something some of us slugs should do more often.

But after reading a recent column in which I defended a new law requiring motorists to give bicyclists a three-foot buffer while passing, Jack Walsh of Columbia had a question: whether that statute "allows a bicyclist to run over a person in a marked crosswalk."

Here's Walsh's story of woe:

On my walk this morning in Columbia, I cross at a four way stop intersection. As I have noticed in the past that some drivers do not stop at STOP signs, I always wait until I see the car stop before I walk into the marked crosswalk. I was doing just that this morning and was in the crosswalk when a bicyclist came around the stopped car, through the STOP sign and came within inches of running me over.

This was not a teenager on a three speed, but an adult dressed for an extended ride on a very expensive bike. As he passed by me, he made it obvious that he felt he had the right of way.

Your articles on this new bike law talked about cars giving the people on bicycles more consideration. How about an article about bicyclists giving those of us who walk some consideration?"

That complaint rang true, and since then I've been noticing or recalling various incidents in which bicyclists were anything but good guys.

The incidents include:

•Bicyclists using a Canton waterfront footpath that is explicitly marked as being for pedestrians only.

•Bicyclists jumping on and off the sidewalks of Baltimore at will.

•Bikers zipping by hikers on trails with no warning of their intent to pass.

•People on bikes zipping through red lights with impunity, weaving in and out of traffic and going down one-way streets in the wrong direction.

Carol Silldorff, executive director of Bike Maryland (formerly One Less Car) is an able spokeswoman for pro-bicycle causes and a 30-year bicyclist. So it seemed appropriate to ask her about these issues.

In the case Walsh described, Silldorff said the bicyclist was absolutely in the wrong.

"We need to abide by the laws and if there's a pedestrian crosswalk we need to give pedestrians the right of way," she said. Silldorff expressed confidence that such an occurrence was rare but added that the conduct of that bicyclist "reflects badly on the bicycle community."

She's right. Bicyclists are used to being the underdogs on the road, but in their interactions with pedestrians they're as capable of being bullies as any horsepower junkie on the road.

That path in Canton, not far from the Korean War monument, is right by the water, and a bike-pedestrian collision could easily put either in the cleansing waters of Baltimore harbor.

It's not much different on the sidewalks of Baltimore, where riding a bicycle is generally illegal — and for good reason. When you're walking down a city sidewalk, there isn't an expectation of a bicycle rushing up from behind. It would be very easy to change course only to find a bicyclist unable to stop before plowing into you.

Silldorff acknowledges the illegality of such actions but sought to explain them.

"Bicyclists typically only go on these paths if they feel unsafe on that road," she said. "I don't think a typical bicyclist would use a sidewalk unless they felt unsafe on the road."

Regarding the rarity of bikes using city sidewalks, I'd invite bicycle advocates to come downtown and open their eyes. It's an epidemic. And bicyclists who use sidewalks because they "feel" unsafe on the road should consider that motorcyclists have good reason to feel unsafe amid larger vehicles. We don't see many of them using the sidewalks.

Sorry to sound hard-hearted, but a bicyclist who feels unsafe on a road should bike somewhere else or park it. On-road biking is not for the timid.

Red light-running might as well be Maryland's state sport, but many have observed that bicyclists are among our most enthusiastic players. I'm not a purist. It doesn't bother me if a bicyclist slows for a stop sign and then continues without losing all momentum if it's clear, but stoplights deserve at least a pause for reflection.

Recently I came down Centre Street and there was a young woman coming at me in the opposite direction. Doesn't she know that's bad bicycling? Doesn't she know that new 3-foot buffer law doesn't apply to people going in the wrong direction? (No, it's not OK to hit her. There's still a general duty of motorists to avoid even misbehaving bicyclists.)

Many motorists are frustrated because they see these behaviors but seldom see police handing out tickets to bicyclists. That could be because bicyclists don't have to carry a license, complicating enforcement.

Many motorists have suggested there should be a licensing system for bicyclists. Silldorff opposes that, and I agree. The cost and bureaucracy would be disproportionate to the problem.

But occasional efforts to curb bad bike behavior would be welcome — if only to send a message. Perhaps city police lurk by pedestrian-only paths some weekend day and hand out real tickets to intruding bikers. Or pick one weekday for officers to crack down on sidewalk bikers and other two-wheeled violators. Invite the media along. We thrive on stuff like that.

Silldorff said she has no problem with the idea of ticketing aggressive and unsafe bikers.

"Those few people hurt the reputation of other bicyclists," she said.

Lest anyone feel that's a bad use of police resources, just think of the bicycle offenders as polluters. They're mucking up the environment for their peers.

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