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Does More Two-Wheel Traffic Mean Less Safety?

Local Matters


Published August 9, 2006 at 12:13 p.m.

BURLINGTON - A spin around Burlington strongly suggests that more people are pedaling the city's streets and pathways. "It certainly seems that more and more people are biking," says Todd Taylor, marketing manager for Local Motion, a Burlington-area group promoting alternatives to automobiles. "Gas prices, the emphasis on living healthier and concern over pollution are all contributing to biking's growing popularity."

The 10-percent rise recorded this summer in the number of bike rentals from Local Motion's waterfront shop represents one of the few hard statistics compiled on bicycle use in the Queen City. The city itself does not gather such information, says Nicole Losch, head of the Burlington Bicycle Council, an arm of the Department of Public Works.

Will more bikes lead to more accidents? Bicycling advocates such as Chapin Spencer of Local Motion fault police for doing little to "tame the streets." Motorists make the streets of Burlington and its suburbs "feel a bit like the Wild West," says the former city councilor who pushed to extend the bike ferry into Colchester and, more recently, the Champlain Islands. "The police need to enforce laws making the roads safer for bikers, and the police aren't doing that."

But what about all those lawless bikers - the ones who pedal against traffic on one-way streets, run red lights and streak down the sidewalk, startling pedestrians and unsuspecting motorists? No one's forcing renegade riders to abide by the rules that regulate bike safety in Vermont. Outside the pedestrian-only Church Street Marketplace, tickets are not regularly issued to bikers, says Deputy Police Chief Walt Decker. He adds that Burlington does not experience "a high degree of motor vehicle accidents or problematic activity with bicyclists."

But, Spencer says, city police could do more to promote bike safety if they kept detailed records of crashes involving bikers, including ones that involve only moderate loss of blood but still result in police assistance. "Unless there's severe personal or property damage, incidents won't show up in police data," Spencer notes.

He acknowledges that cyclists may be responsible for many of the accidents that do occur. A significant number of bikers routinely flout the rules of the road - and of the sidewalks, Spencer concedes. "Respect is a two-way street," he says. "As much as there are motorists who drive aggressively, there are cyclists who break traffic laws."

Local Motion and some area bike shops do try to educate cyclists on safety issues. A statewide bike and pedestrian organization is sponsoring radio announcements and ads on the sides of buses urging bikers and drivers to "share the road" in a safety-conscious manner. Local Motion offers $6 coupons toward the purchase of bike-safety gear at Burlington-area shops. In addition, Spencer dons a "Super Biker" costume for his regular presentations on safe biking practices at local schools.

For the moment, biking fatalities are rare in Vermont. Of 410 roadway deaths reported in the state during the past five years, only 8 percent involved cyclists or pedestrians, according to Steve Reckers, an official with the Governor's Highway Safety Program. Reckers also confirms that not a penny of the safety program's $1 million budget goes to initiatives focused on biking.

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