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Biking Advocates Push Five-Point Safety Plan

Local Matters


Published September 24, 2008 at 5:00 a.m.

Spencer Chapin, center, with Local Motion Staff - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Spencer Chapin, center, with Local Motion Staff

Only 1 percent of the state's highway-safety budget goes to help protect walkers and cyclists, even though they have accounted for nearly 6 percent of Vermont's road fatalities since 2001.

Moreover, just two of the 1400 jobs at the Vermont Agency of Transportation are centered on pedestrian and biking projects, according to the department. And one of the two positions - a staffer for the Safe Routes to School Program - is currently vacant.

In the wake of last week's rally in Burlington to support two cyclists injured in hit-and-run collisions with motorists, Vermont biking advocates hope to implement a five-point plan that includes a "fair share" of funding for safety initiatives.

Chapin Spencer, director of Local Motion, a Burlington group that promotes human-powered transportation, said concern engendered by the two accidents offers an opportunity to convince lawmakers to take bike and pedestrian safety issues seriously.

In addition to increased funding for safety education, the group urges reduced speed limits in downtown areas, targeted police enforcement and establishment of a reporting system for drivers who endanger bikers and walkers.

A greater degree of personal responsibility is the fifth piece in the group's package. Acknowledging that some bikers are themselves reckless, Spencer said, "We're willing to have enforcement against us in return for increased safety."

Even prior to the September 17 show of strength by more than 100 bikers in City Hall Park, the balance of power had already begun to shift, Spencer suggested. He notes that voters in both Shelburne and Williston approved bonds earlier this year to build non-vehicular paths. And the state Legislature appropriated $50,000 last year for the purchase of five "shoulder sweepers" - machines that regularly clear away rocks and debris that can cause bikers to wipe out or to swerve into traffic.

But lawmakers and the governor did little for pedestrians and cyclists last session, despite the growing public interest in alternate forms of transportation. The only major bike-related bill, which would have required motorists to give cyclists and walkers more room, died in the House after passage by the Senate.

Nancy Schulz, head of the statewide Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition, expressed hope that the uptick in gas prices over the summer will "grease the skids" for legislative action in the coming session. However, she added, it could prove more difficult to persuade Gov. James Douglas to take action.

"We hear a lot from Gov. Douglas about how important it is to be physically active," Schulz said. "But I'd say the biking and pedestrian community is disappointed by his response to our concerns."

State Sen. Phil Scott, who rides 100 recreational miles per week in the summer, said most lawmakers don't understand the importance of bike safety.

"It's hard for them to know how vulnerable you are when they're not out on a bike on the road," he noted.

Jon Kaplan, VTrans' sole biking specialist, said that, despite the perception that the state favors automotive interests, "For a small state, we actually do quite a lot for bikers and pedestrians. We could do more, but we do a lot."

A former city councilor, Spencer said biking is generally perceived as a "fringe issue." Advocates hope to broaden support for their plan by trying to appeal to motorists' shared interests in safety. Drivers are also pedestrians some of the time, Spencer points out, and can therefore be encouraged to look at transportation issues from perspectives other than behind the wheel.

"In promoting our vision of alternatives, if we vilify people who drive in a rural state with bad weather," he said, "we're never going to become mainstream."