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Don't get your chain in a knot just yet

The Anchorage Press: Don’t get your chain in a knot just yet

By Scott Christiansen
Published on Wednesday, December 16, 2009 6:08 PM AKST

City hall is working on new traffic laws for Anchorage. In guv’mint-ese, it’s called the “Title Nine rewrite” and one slice of the proposed code will likely ruffle feathers among bicycle riders. The new language requires cyclists on a sidewalk or separated path to yield to motor vehicles anytime the path crosses a street or driveway and a motor vehicle is present.

Here’s the proposed language: “Persons operating a bicycle upon a sidewalk, recreational trail or bike trail must yield the right of way to traffic before crossing a roadway, street, or driveway.”

Shane Locke, a city traffic engineer compiling suggestions for Title Nine says the mandatory yield comes at the request of the Anchorage Police Department. Cops want an enforceable right-of-way code that would reduce accidents, Locke says.

Not everyone agrees that proposal is a good idea. (And if everyone agreed, what kind of government would we have?)

“I was disappointed,” says Brian Litmans, president of Bicycle Commuters of Anchorage.

Litmans says he was particularly disappointed because of timing—the right-of-way proposal comes at the end of a big year for cyclist. Anchorage adopted a bicycle plan this year that treats cycling as transportation. This fall, the city earned bronze-level status from the League of American Bicyclists in the LAB’s “Bicycle Friendly City” ratings. (The LAB’s bicycle friendly city program allows towns to be evaluated every few years and move up a chain from “honorable mention” to bronze, silver, gold and platinum status. About half the towns that apply don’t even make honorable mention.)

A status report on the Title Nine rewrite is available at the city web site. It says the bikes-must-yield rule is meant to resolve a “major cause of accidents involving bikes” and that a similar rule, since removed from the code, was even stricter: It required bicycles to stop for every driveway crossing. The new language only applies if a car is present.

Litmans says he doesn’t think the proposal is an attack on cyclists from automobile-centric planners or police force.

“I don’t view this as intentional. I don’t think that APD is intentionally prioritizing for cars,” Litmans says. “They want it to be safer for bicycles and they want something that can be enforced. But their reasoning is problematic, and they could have addressed this problem by addressing bicycle speed.” The report at one point assigns an estimated speed of 20 to 30 mph to cyclists on paths and sidewalks.

He didn’t say this, but Flashlight will: Anyone pedaling on a sidewalk or path and crossing driveways at 20 to 30 mph ought to consider slowing the eff down (and should try out for Team USA).

Bicycle speed doesn’t seem like something easy to regulate or enforce, but Litmans says cities often do just that. They do it by adopting laws that require cyclists who ride sidewalks, trails and crosswalks to use them at safe speeds. Traffic codes can use language such as “ride at walking speed” or ride “at reasonable and safe speed” which means slow enough to stop.

“They can mandate [slower speed], by requiring bicyclists to travel safely,” Litmans says. “I don’t support bicyclists flying through intersections at speeds that are unsafe. They present a problem; they present a problem for themselves.”

Litmans says slower speeds at intersections increase a cyclist’s visibility to drivers, who sometimes only look one direction when entering a road. “If [a rider is] going five miles per hour, there’s an opportunity for the motorist to see them,” he says.

What cyclists don’t want is a code that assumes the cyclist is in the wrong anytime a motorist drives over a sidewalk or path and collides with someone they did not see.

“This is the wrong answer to the problem,” Litmans says. “It flies in the face of what most motorists expect. When they see a pedestrian or a bicycle, they expect to yield.”

New traffic codes are a few months off, so cyclists shouldn’t get their chains derailed just yet. The traffic department compiled suggestions in a series of meetings that began in March. The suggestions were forwarded to the city legal department for review. Assistant Municipal Attorney Dean Gates says in an email that a legal review will be returned to the traffic department and distributed to community councils for public review. Gates says the target for getting a traffic code ordinance on the assembly agenda is mid-February.