BLOOMINGTON-NORMAL — As more Bloomington-Normal residents opt to commute via bike, close calls with vehicle traffic are a scary, yet nearly unavoidable rite of passage for many cyclists.
Michael Gorman, a member of local bike advocacy group Bike BloNo, recalled an unsettling near miss earlier this year while riding his bike on East Washington Street. A Connect Transit city bus came up from behind, he said, but didn’t allow enough room when passing him.
"…for nearly every cyclist on the road, there is a story like this one of a near miss or close call."
“The bus driver decided to go as little into the left lane as needed in order to avoid me,” remembered Gorman. “The back corner of the bus almost hit me.”
Incidents like this are traded like war stories among bike commuters.
In the foreword to the McLean County Bike Safety Report, published last year by Bike BloNo, Mike Bernico writes, “One day, in my first year of cycling, I was riding down the road. I felt a ‘thud’ on my shoulder, and the next thing I knew, I was admiring one of McLean’s many fine ditches.
“I had been hit by a mirror, from a car passing too close,” writes Bernico.
“Unfortunately, my story isn’t unique; for nearly every cyclist on the road, there is a story like this one of a near miss or close call.”
Local businesses and city planners have been playing a game of catch up to meet the growing demand of more cyclists on the road.
“All three local bike shops since Bike BloNo was founded have either expanded or done a major renovation on their space,” noted Gorman. “The WBRP [West Bloomington Revitalization Project] has opened up a bike co-op. Wesleyan and ISU both have university bike share programs. The town of Normal has a municipal bike share program.
“You can definitely see that the local bike scene is expanding at a pretty rapid pace.”
This noticeable increase in bike ridership in the twin cities follows national trends of more Americans opting to leave their cars parked and bike to work or school instead.
With more cyclists sharing the road with vehicle traffic, designated bike lanes are becoming a more common sight across America too.
"Just making people more visible and more predictable; that improves safety for everyone."
Bike lanes add predictability, providing a net benefit to everyone on the road, not just bikes, argued Gorman. “Just making people more visible and more predictable; that improves safety for everyone.”
“All of the projects that we’ll probably ever do here will maintain a level of service for vehicles and also bring cyclists out of the vehicle lane so that drivers don’t have to follow bikes.”
In its McLean County Bike Safety Report, Bike BloNo makes a case that bike lanes are the safest place for cyclists, out of the way of vehicle traffic, and also off sidewalks.
Bike BloNo compiled data from across McLean County showing that cyclists using the sidewalks were the largest contributing factor to bicycle-involved motor vehicle accidents between 2014 and 2015. Bike lanes are a safer option, the report argued.
The study cites research from Palo Alto, CA, which estimated that cyclists using the sidewalk had an 80 percent higher risk of a crash than those using the roadway.
Bike BloNo’s report noted, “… the data suggests that riding on the sidewalk creates an opportunity for cyclists to enter and leave the road in unexpected ways.”
Gorman, who contributed to the report, expanded upon the report’s findings. “When you encourage people not to ride their bike on the sidewalk, the really common crash type of a cyclists pulling off a sidewalk into the crosswalk and being hit by a car that becomes less prevalent.”
Researchers at Columbia University have revealed strong evidence suggesting that construction of bike lanes have a material benefit to entire cities, not just the cyclists who use them.
the average non-bike rider experienced a greater benefit to their quality of life once bike lanes were installed.
Compiling data from New York City, the researchers found that bike ridership increased by 0.4 percent for every mile of bike lanes contracted. By 2015, ridership prompted by bike lanes was estimated at 9.32 percent city wide, leading to decreased traffic congestion and pollution.
Factoring in the increased chance of accidents from riding bikes, the average non-bike rider experienced a greater benefit to their quality of life once bike lanes were installed in New York, according to the study.
With a community in transition, many efforts across Bloomington-Normal have focused on educating bicyclists and drivers alike of the rules of the road. Local advocacy groups, such as Bike BloNo, have partnered with local government to address transportation needs and receive input from community members.
Earlier this year, the formation of the Staff Traffic Advisory Committee within the City of Bloomington was one such effort to bring various members of local government to the table to hear and address community members’ transportation concerns.
Facebook or Twitter users who have followed the Bloomington Police Department may have noticed increased attention placed on bike safety on the department’s social media, noted BPD spokesperson Elias Mendiola. Police have partnered with groups like Bike BloNo to educate the public about proper cycling attire and the rules of the road. BPD even offers free lights to cyclists who need them, said Mendiola.
Much of Bike BloNo’s work centers around improving public perception of cyclists. “There is very much a perception that cyclists break the rules of the road a lot,” noted Gorman.
Vehicle drivers and cyclists break the rules of the road at roughly the same rate.
But Gorman is quick to say that what may seem on the surface as disregard for the law can sometimes be more complicated than that.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand why cyclists break the rules of the road.
“If you see a cyclist who pulls through a red light, that isn’t necessarily because they are unaware they have to legally stop at the red light,” he said. “It might be because the light just can’t sense them, because it’s only meant to sense huge metallic objects.”
A recent study from the University of Colorado found that despite public perception of cyclists as rule breakers, vehicle drivers and cyclists break the rules of the road at roughly the same rate. “Bicyclists who break the law, however, seem to attract a higher level of scorn and scrutiny,” noted the study.
The study, one of the largest of its kind, surveyed 18,000 people about their driving or cycling habits. “When it comes to rule-breaking bicyclists, one popular opinion is that if bicyclists want to be taken seriously as road users, they need to obey the rules of the road like everyone else.
“Our survey results … suggest that drivers break the rules of the road just as much, if not more, than bicyclists.”
Echoing the study’s findings, Gorman said that while drivers and cyclists may break the law at similar rates, they nonetheless do so for different reasons. Drivers tend to break the law to speed their commute, said Gorman, whereas rule-breakers on bikes to do so out of a sense of their own safety.
After almost being hit on his bike by a city bus, a rattled Michael Gorman contacted Connect Transit later that day to inform them about the incident.
The bus service apologized, he said, after seeing the near miss recorded on the bus’s security camera footage. According to Gorman, Connect Transit then asked what they could do to help make up for it.
That’s when something unexpected happened.
Gorman worked with Connect Transit to turn the incident into a learning opportunity.
Gorman now has an open invite to Connect Transit whenever new bus drivers are hired. “I go and speak at their orientation and tell them about the incident,” he said.
The first such orientation took place earlier this year, according to Gorman, with another orientation scheduled for just a couple weeks from now.
Gorman’s close call seems to have sparked a genuine interest from the Connect Transit drivers hoping to learn more about sharing the road with all vehicle types, including bikes. During his first visit, what was scheduled as a ten-minute presentation took twice as long.
Gorman was encouraged that the drivers had plenty of questions and seemed eager to learn from the mistake, helping to make Bloomington-Normal’s roadways a safer place for all.