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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Highway 40 and bicycles

Come Jan. 2, there will be plenty of fear and loathing in the St. Louis metropolitan area. That's the day when Highway 40 -- that's what the locals call Interstate 64-U.S. 40 -- closes for a major construction project. The highway will not be completely open again until Dec. 31, 2009.

Since Highway 40 is a major traffic artery for the St. Louis region, there is much concern about how people are going to get around. Traffic experts hope that people will turn to Metro, the St. Louis area's mass transit system, hope that employers offer work-at-home or flexible schedules or use alternative means of transportation, including the bicycle.

But they also suspect most people will simply find different routes to drive their cars. Highway officials already have or are making plans to create more lanes for vehicles.

And that's what concerns many members of the cycling community. An article in this week's Suburban Journals addresses that issue. One cyclist who regularly commutes in St. Louis County already reports more difficulties in riding his bike on Clayton Road, one of the roads that will be carrying part of the load from Highway 40.

Stephanie Leon Streeter, manager of the highway planning division of the St. Louis County Highways and Traffic Department, said roads the are being remarked to add lanes will remain available to bicyclists because they have a legal right to be on road because of state statutes.

"These roads are certainly open to bicyclists, but this does not mean these routes are ideal, especially with the amount of traffic, which will be historic, when Highway 40 closes," Streeter told the Suburban Journals.

Trailnet is working with St. Louis County officials to develop alternative bicycle routes between Spoede Road and Forest Park in St. Louis that are safer than the roads that are being remarked.

The increase of motorists on roads that are now popular with cyclists, and the possibility there will be more people riding their bikes as a means of transportation, raises concerns about conflicts between motorists and cyclists.

A recent letter to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Along for the Ride column shows the conflict. One writer, Jerry F., wrote this:
Conway Road seems to have become the exclusive path of bicyclists on weekends and many late afternoons. Many times they refuse to move to the right of a very narrow two-lane road so cars can get by. When Highway 40 shuts down, putting more automobiles on Conway, I am quite concerned about the safety of both bicyclists and drivers. Is there anything that can be done to restrict the bicycles to certain times on Conway, or restrict bicyclists to parts of Conway that might be a little wider?
It's clear from this letter that motorists need to learn to know that Missouri allows bicycles on most roads in the state. The Missouri Bicycle Federation has plenty of resources that explains state bicycle laws and how they pertain to cyclists and motorists alike.

A recent case in Webster Groves, Mo., has raised some doubts whether law enforcement officials in St. Louis County are aware of the laws. The case was bantered over in the STLBiking.com forum, and the Suburban Journals took a look at it:
Rachel Abbott of Glendale had an experience all her own that she thinks went against state statutes that allow her to be on the road with motorists.

She said that on Dec. 3 she was cycling home from work on Kirkham Road, just East of Elm Avenue in Webster Groves.

"At 5:40 p.m. a police officer turned on his lights and pulled me over," Abbott said. "When I questioned about my offense, he said I can't be riding on the street 10 miles per hour impeding traffic, and that I had to ride on the sidewalk. This was confusing to me because I was riding all the way to the right, and there are two lanes of traffic flowing in each direction."

She told the officer her understanding of what he was saying was that she could not ride on the road.

Abbott told the officer she had been commuting for years and had never been informed of this law.

"When I questioned him, he threatened me with a ticket. He asked for my identification and in a controlling manner said, 'Now, are you going to ride on the sidewalk?'"

She just shook her head yes and got out of there, she said.

Abbott did not obtain the name of the officer.

Webster Groves Police Chief Dale Curtis said Abbott's complaint is legitimate if the officer suggested that she ride her bicycle on the sidewalk.

"Telling someone to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk is not correct," he said.

Curtis said the police officer does have the right to instruct bicyclists to get off the road if they are impeding traffic.

He said after hearing about this incident, the supervisory staff is reviewing the state statutes on bicycle use with officers during briefing sessions.
My take on that and other similar situations is that the police officers in question may simply be ignorant of traffic laws and how they apply to cyclists. I'm sure there are a few officers who don't like bicyclists and would rather see us stay off the road, but I'm inclined to cut the vast majority of officers slack. They have an awful lot they have to remember, and cycling traffic laws likely are a low priority for them.

Patty Vinyard, the acting executive director of the St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation, agrees.

"Individual police officers, like the public at large, may or may not be fully aware of the law as it pertains to bicycling on the roadways," she said in a recent e-mail statement to me. "Training materials and courses for law enforcement are available from NHTSA and other sources, and we would be happy to assist local police departments in making bike safety training available to their officers."

She pointed out resources for police officers that are available through the League of Illinois Bicyclists. I wrote about those recently. While they are written especially for Illinois law enforcement officials, there are enough similarities between Illinois and Missouri law that the principles could benefit officers in Missouri.

Patty and I are in full agreement that more, and more effective, bike education is needed for bicyclists, motorists and police.

I also would add in closing that is if we cyclists expect motorists and police officers to accept that we have a right to the road, we in turn must be responsible cyclists and follow the law as well.

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Roger 3 comments links to this post 12:09 AM

Eep, that sounds like a big mess waiting to happen, especially if people are writing letters to editors suggesting that bicyclists' rights should be restricted for the motorists' safety convenience. I hope all goes well without any horrific incidents.

Is there a lot of bike traffic across the state line in the St. Louis metro area? I'm curious now that you've mentioned the that the LIB's materials could be used in Missouri.
One of the main problems in this developing scenario is the fact that StL County and MoDOT has made traveling easier on alternative roads for autos-trucks while making it more dangerous for cyclists.

As you mentioned, Clayton Rd parallels 40 and serves as the main alternative for most travelers. Clayton has ben used for decades by cyclists as it is a favored east-west route and because it had wide shoulders (but no bike lanes). But no more as these shoulders have been eliminated by the County in order to add a center lane for autos.

Neither MoDOT or the County has built or plans to offer an attractive/practical alternative route for cyclists. In fact this large and most expensive road expenditure in the state's history ($535 million) doesn't offer a parallel bike lane (or path) when built.

This is only one example of many problems for all commuters that local leadership has failed to address. Law enforcement training is another serious shortcoming as is the lack of STR signs and bike lanes in the areas where the greatest amount of additional traffic will be created.

Planning for this began over 10 years ago and just now, less than 30 days before this central corridor is closed, the public, law enforcement and leadership leadership are starting to have the type of discussion that was needed years ago.
Has the County or MoDOT done *any* transportation demand management work besides telling cyclists to keep out? Any carrot-and-stick measures for large employers, for example, to provide commuter shuttles? This apparent lack of planning is almost criminal.
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