Friday, May 27, 2011

Part II: From Omaha to Denver

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.

From Omaha to Denver

January 2011 I moved from Omaha, Nebraska to Denver, Colorado to pursue a Master’s degree from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Upon my move to a city that offers  various forms of public transportation (i.e. Light Rail, Bus & Bicycle Systems) I have chosen to live a carless (note CARless—not CAREless) lifestyle after my 2000 Chevy Blazer committed suicide this past fall. It is almost impossible to live in Omaha without relying on automobile transport as this city is the epitome of urban sprawl but this is not to say I’m a hater of the “Good Life” O-town city, I admire Omaha and think anyone would be fortunate to live here…so long as you have a car that is.
Omaha is however undergoing a transformation (well a NEW transformation—Omaha is constantly under construction), particularly with regard to its bicycle transportation system. In 2010, Carlos Morales was hired by the city to fulfill the position of bike coordinator and tasked with improving Omaha’s bicycle network. This is partly why I have chosen to study at DU and travel to Amsterdam this summer as it is my dream to someday return to Omaha and help it become a more sustainable city—particularly aiding in its transportation sector. It is my intention to observe and learn from Denver’s and Amsterdam’s use of alternate forms of transportation so that I may someday be able to apply these to my hometown city.
Last week, DU’s spring semester officially ended and I am proud to say that I successfully commuted from my apartment to campus (a round-trip total of 10 miles) every single day of class (Monday-Thursday). You’re right, this admission is slightly self-indulgent--but so what? This is a goal I set out for myself and was one not easily achieved—if you think it is, I recommend you trying it out for yourself…actually that’s kind of my point. I hope you will all try commuting by bicycle, at least once, some point in your life—it’s not the easiest but is truly an enriching experience. Now, admittedly, I did not ride my bicycle, all 10 miles, every day I commuted to school—but, before you roll your eyes at me, hear me out.
I moved from Omaha, Nebraska—the Westside of Omaha where parents move as far away from the city in order to ensure a bubble like safety barrier for their families. On the Westside (well in most of Omaha I suppose for that matter) you will rarely see cyclists in the streets—the odds of this are comparable to witnessing a Bigfoot crossing. Bikes remain on sidewalks and Omaha has done a fairly good job at laying an extensive network of sidewalks that connect with various neighborhoods and city parks. The only problem is that these sidewalks do not provide the most efficient way of getting around town—especially if you’re looking to commute throughout the city by bicycle.
Before moving to Denver, I spent my summers commuting to work on bike (a fairly easy 4 mile round-trip commute—I say "fairly" because, contrary to what you might know about Nebraska, Omaha is quite hilly and its summer heat is known for getting the best of visiting Texans in town for the College World Series) and avoided riding in the street as much as possible—I think I road, at most, a 600 foot stretch of road that had no sidewalk in order to get to work—which, even then, I was self-conscious of angering drivers. Yes that’s right, you veteran cyclists—have your laughs, I was one of those “sissy” bikers who found security only when riding on a sidewalk (you should see me now though). I am not and will not be embarrassed if you think of me as a “sissy” for my former riding habits. Omaha drivers know very little about biking laws—or the fact that riders are supposed to be treated like motor vehicles—and it has very few biking lanes (out west). The lack of public knowledge and bike lanes has made Omaha into a very unfriendly biking city—though, as I pointed out, it is on its way to improving—and is why I thought sidewalks provided the safest routes for bicycles. But, after living in Denver for 5 months, I have come to learn that this opinion is utterly wrong. SIDEWALKS ARE DANGEROUS!! You should avoid riding your bike on a sidewalk as much as possible and here's why... (continued in Part II from Omaha to Denver)