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Going the extra yard for cyclists

The Austin American Statesman: Getting There: Ben Wear: Going the extra yard for cyclists

New ’safe-passing’ ordinance by Austin City Council has stirred up drivers

Monday, November 02, 2009

I don’t own a bike. Haven’t had one since about 1970.

And, yes, I’ve been irritated by cyclists who break the law by riding past queues of cars at stoplights and then treating the red light like a yield sign. I’ve been delayed downtown by a cyclist in the middle of my lane going half the speed limit. And I’ve come up behind mini-pelotons of weekend cyclists and had to veer left to pass them.

But unlike the large knot of people who last week called the "Bucky and Bob" radio program on KVET-FM and deluged the Statesman’s Fit City blog, none of this makes me angry. Nor does the new City of Austin ordinance, taking effect today, that requires that cars give cyclists a three-foot berth when passing (and six feet for trucks).

I haven’t needed a city ordinance to tell me that passing too close is a very bad idea. A cyclist could momentarily lose his or her bearings and veer left toward me, causing a collision that could end the cyclist’s life and ruin mine. And it’s just the kindly thing to do to pass far enough away that the cyclist isn’t frightened by my passing car.

So it’s been interesting to observe the emotion and ponder the arguments drummed up by the ordinance passed by City Council on Oct. 22 on a 6-0 vote.

Start with this one: The passing ordinance is just that oh-so-liberal City Council in the thrall of the all-powerful bike lobby.

Senate Bill 488, with nearly identical language to the new Austin ordinance, passed the Texas House 142-0 and the Texas Senate 25-6, before it was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry in June. Republicans have a majority in both of those bodies, and the "yes" votes included some of the most conservative politicians currently breathing Texas air.

Another argument: Cyclists don’t pay for the roads.

Well, yes, they do. Austinites pay a monthly "transportation user fee" of $4.26 to $6.63 in their utility bills and that money goes to repair city streets. So cyclists pay at least $51 a year for the minimal wear and tear a bike causes. Most recreational cyclists also have cars and pay gas taxes, which go to TxDOT for the state highway system.

Some complained that yielding 3-6 feet to cyclists on Texas 71, a highway with tiny shoulders, could cause an accident. Two things: Most of Texas 71 is outside the Austin city limit, so the ordinance wouldn’t apply. Beyond that, Texas 71 is generally uncrowded enough, especially on weekends when the cyclists are out in force, that moving to the left is no problem.

The folks complaining make it clear they don’t want the cyclists there at all. Here’s the deal though: State law allows them to be there. Unless and until that changes, seems like taking a little trouble to avoid hitting cyclists and giving them some peace of mind is just good sense, and good manners.

Getting There appears Mondays. For questions, tips or story ideas, contact Getting There at 445-3698 or bwear@statesman.com.