Being from middle-America suburbia, when I moved to Denver I was completely unprepared to “hit the road” by bicycle. Weeks before the commencement of the spring semester, I spent my days planning a commuter route and worrying about upsetting Denver drivers. While my dad had taught me to ride a bike, no one ever taught me proper road cycling etiquette (well that’s not entirely true, I did receive a cycling merit badge while in Boy Scouts and did learn a few hand signals…funny though, we never actually road on streets—just sidewalks).
My learning curve began by Googleing “Denver bike laws” which brought me to the city’s official website and provided some helpful information. Still, reading about cycling and physically doing this are two different things which is why I also devoted time to studying passing-by cyclists. Unfortunately for me, while Denver has a substantial amount of bike lanes (compared to Omaha), there weren’t too many cyclists to observe…I think weather may have been a slight factor. Despite this setback, I was still determined to commute by bicycle and devised a route that combined Denver’s light rail system and bicycle lanes. This combination was partly done because I was fresh to the city, unfamiliar with the territory, and the weather…oh the cold, snowy, rainy, windy, sleet filled winter weather….
My original commute began by biking little over a mile to a downtown light rail station which would haul me to a station located near DU’s campus. This commute was ideal for avoiding Denver’s winter elements but not so much when trying to get to an early morning class (the commute was almost an hour long). After planning out my route, I slowly worked my way to riding on roads by first riding sidewalks—this was done so that I could learn my route and monitor what kind of traffic conditions I would be dealing with once I was comfortable. Doing this was substantially beneficial and also helped when I later devised a new route after weather conditions improved—but, surprisingly, my closest calls with automobiles occurred while riding sidewalks.
First off—sidewalks are filled with bodies. In Omaha this isn’t too much of a problem because the city is so sprawled out, but in Denver, sidewalks are constantly filled with children, couples, runners, homeless, puppies/dogs and whatever else you can imagine. In fact, it is actually illegal to ride your bike on sidewalks because of the danger that is imposed to the rider and surrounding bodies (there are actually cases in which people/riders have been killed because of cyclists riding on sidewalks). My scares, however, do not stem from conflicts involving nearby walkers/runners.
When you ride a bike on a sidewalk, you become invisible to drivers—you’re not on their road or “in their way,” therefore you are “out of sight and out of mind” and simply do not exist. You might think this isn’t an issue because the driver has their road and the cyclist is on a separate path—therefore both should be safe from each other, but conflicts emerge soon as these two worlds collide. How so? Think about it. Every sidewalk eventually ends and forces a person to cross a street in order to get to a connecting sidewalk. On one commute, I was riding towards an intersection where I had the WALK sign to cross, but as soon as I started to do this, a right turning vehicle failed to pay attention to the sign and, since I am invisible, nearly clipped the front end of my bike. Fortunately I saw the car at the last minute and came to a skidding stop where I ended up parallel to the vehicle and able to see through the passenger window—my culprit was a woman on her cell phone. In a second case, almost the exact same event occurred where, again, I had the sign to cross but this time I was biking to the intersection at a much faster pace—a bit overly confident because of the sign—when a man on a cellphone rolled up to the intersection and proceeded to perform the notorious California Stop. I’m quite sure he would have remained oblivious to me had my bike not skidded/crashed into the side of his car and after I saw him turn around to see what had happened… he floored it and took off without checking to see if I was okay—fortunately I received only minor injuries. Least to say, I quickly learned that sidewalks are not always as safe as they seem.
Clearly there are some issues that need to be addressed here. Drivers simply need to refrain from phone use while driving. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve committed this sin, but nowadays, if I’m driving, I make sure I’m not using my phone (same rule also applies while biking). Secondly, one thing that irks me most about motorists (and is something I will discuss later in posts) is the fact that drivers are quick to complain about cyclists who do not obey traffic laws but, most of the time, these drivers are hypocritical and also fail to obey the same traffic laws…like coming to a complete stop. As I prepare to travel to Amsterdam, I’ll be interested in discovering just how this city was able to shift its automobile drivers to adopt a bike friendly consciousness. Could it possibly be because there is such a high volume of cyclists in Amsterdam?—a safety in numbers theory perhaps? Or is it because Amsterdam has laws that punish drivers in accidents—even when the cyclist is mainly the one at fault? And, are such laws applicable to cities in the United States? I suppose I’ll find out in good time.