My Side of the Street column from 9.30.08 McKinkleyville Press
By Elizabeth Alves
The death of a local bicycle commuter on his way home from work last month shocked the North Coast. It would always have been a blow to his family and friends, but Greg Jennings was an example of the most careful kind of cyclist, one who should have been the safest. He was wearing a helmet and bright clothing, and riding to the far right edge of the paved shoulder on State Highway 299 near Blue Lake.
The accident happened in daylight when a motor vehicle ran off the edge of the roadway, striking and fatally injuring Jennings. The final accident report hasn’t been issued, so we don’t know why the driver left his lane. It was a scary reminder of how vulnerable people on bicycles are to motorized traffic.
To tell the truth, I’ve always believed mixing motor vehicles and bicycles in the same space is needlessly dangerous, and I’d be happy to have some of my gas taxes used to construct separate bike paths. But even if everyone agreed, which many don’t, it would take decades to complete them on just the main routes. So I started wondering what “feasible” measures might help.
It’s been a long time since I rode a bike on the street, so I turned to the Internet to begin my research, and backed it up by seeking e-mail interviews with three locals who do ride. McKinleyville Press Editor/Publisher Jack Durham regularly does long distances; fellow columnist Geoff Spenceley, who is in his eighth decade, rides about 10 miles on alternate days; Scott Kelly is an engineer as well as the president of the Humboldt Bay Bicycle Commuters Association.
They all agreed that many bicyclists are injured while not following safe riding practices. They all thought rumble strips between the motor vehicle lanes and shoulder would probably help, although Kelly noted that rumble strips require a five-foot shoulder, wider than many local roads have. Durham suggested cones, Spenceley wondered about reflective buttons, double striping or plastic stanchions. They all mentioned that trash in bike lanes or on the shoulder of a highway can create problems for bicyclists.
I was most surprised that they all regard Central Avenue as good cycling territory – at least between Airport and School roads. I’d think that all those turning opportunities would be a nightmare. Durham replied “The turning opportunities require diligence on behalf of the rider.”
According to Kelly, “Riding safely in an urban area requires an awareness of what the cars and trucks are doing around you. The slower speeds in town give everyone more time to react to conflicts, but there are also many turning points on each of these roads that create potential conflicts.” Spenceley wrote “(O)ver 20 years biking in McKinleyville I have found drivers to be amazingly courteous.”
Everyone faces risk-benefit issues regularly, but bicyclists have even more decisions to make than drivers. Just a week or so after the fatal accident on 299, Durham asked himself “Is a narrow rural road without a decent shoulder safer than a freeway with a big, wide shoulder?”
“On Labor Day I went from Mack Town to Kneeland, climbed over the top, dropped down to Butler Valley, went north and then popped out at Korbel and went to Blue Lake. From there, I needed to get back to McKinleyville. You can believe that I was thinking about the poor fellow who got killed.
“It’s my understanding that he got killed on 299 between Blue Lake and Glendale. For this stretch, I took Glendale Drive. There’s a long stretch that keeps you off the freeway.”
In this case he was weighing less traffic at slower speeds against a few more feet of space between his bike and motor vehicles. Stir in a generous dose of unease due to the fatality, and he opted for Glendale Drive. “But we mustn’t live in fear. I like to assess the risk and make choices. Sometimes I take more risks, sometimes less.”
Bicyclists run a greater risk of death from traffic-related injuries, but the exercise reduces their risk of other health problems. They may find biking less stressful than driving, and that has health benefits as well. For some, there’s an earth-friendly component that offsets some of the downside.
There are no easy answers and no magic solutions. Humboldt County is considered friendly to bikes, but it will take many years and many millions of dollars build a basic network of bike paths that allow commuters and long-distance cyclists to pedal in safety, separated from cars and trucks.
So what can we do in the meantime? Next week I’ll get down to the nuts and bolts.
(Elizabeth Alves knows a math teacher who says bicyclists should now be safe on State Highway 299 near Blue Lake for a very long time, but it’s human nature to feel the opposite. Comments and suggestions are welcome care of the Press or to firstname.lastname@example.org.)