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A Matter of Civility; Our Safety on Denver’s Roads and Trails is at Stake.

(By Piep van Heuven)  It’s been a great summer for biking in Denver.  Whether you ride a few times a year or ride to work every day, you know that biking is booming in Denver.

Bike commuting numbers rose to exceed 4 times the national average, and we also saw increases in the number of bike events and in participation in events like the Denver Century Ride, Tour de Fat, and USA Pro Challenge. From bike shops to B-cycle, every bike indicator in Denver is rising.

This summer also saw some growing pains and re-introduced us to existing challenges.  We heard a lot of frustration from people who walk, bike and drive about unsafe behaviors.  Complaints ran the gamut from bicyclists running red lights,  incidents of extreme harassment by motorists, pedestrians feeling threatened by bicyclists on sidewalks and trails, and just about everyone (bikes, cars, joggers and even scooters) using bike lanes improperly.

When Denver Police noted that bike-car collisions in June were nearly double from last June, they stepped up enforcement and called on the public to obey safety laws.  A growing number of policymakers and people who bike began to raise the question of whether traffic laws designed for cars discourage people from biking, and play a role in unsafe behaviors.  Concerns expressed about safety in relation to the pace of Denver’s improvements to bicycle infrastructure reached a new degree of frequency.  In addition to the rise in crashes and other areas of friction, the role of traffic law is a topic BikeDenver will explore in 2013.  Meantime, we’ve got some thoughts on what to do about the finger-pointing that’s happening on our public trails and roadways.

Let’s start by taking a look at the past. History tells us that when we identify behaviors with widespread negative impacts, we can envision new ways of interacting that create new norms.  In the 70’s, we learned not to litter our highways. In the 80’s, we learned to leave no trace on trails.  In the 90’s, we learned to reduce smoking in public.  Since 2000, we’ve begun to tackle other issues, like bullying, and distracted driving.

So, how can we make interactions on roads and trails more civil and safe in Denver?

First, we can acknowledge that we all have a stake in the outcomes.  Looking to our commonalities helps solidify this notion. Our obvious shared interest is that we all love Denver.  We love this city for its sunny weather, and great blend of the urban and out-of-doors. We love the unique western history, hospitality and the “frontier friendly” qualities that make networking and making friends in Denver so easy.  Clearly, we are all invested in building a culture of civility that extends to the ways we move around town.

Second, we can change our language.  Instead of labeling cyclists or drivers, let’s talk about people – people on foot, people on bikes and people in cars.  Because the reality in Denver is that almost everyone drives a car, many of us ride a bike, and most of us walk every day.  Descriptors that put us in separate camps don’t help us address the real issues. That kind of language, used all too often in the media, assumes we have nothing in common, but it’s the opposite that is most true.

Third, we can create positive peer pressure for safety and civility by working together to do the simple things that matter.  So that’s our vision.  And if you’d like to come along for the ride here’s what you can do:

You can own it.  Own your behavior in your car and on your bike and demonstrate the courtesies and safe biking and driving habits you want to see.

You can do what your Mom taught you.  Smile. Say hello.  Be friendly. Try not to judge based on your first impression and be willing to give people the benefit of the doubt.

You can shift away from “us vs. them” thinking.  If you rode a bike this past year, then you too, are a member of the bike community.  If you drove a car then you can call yourself a motorist. Does any part of your week involve walking?  You get the picture.

You can keep it safe and simple.   Bike and drive safely, and ask others to also.  Don’t lecture or antagonize.  If the conversation isn’t going well, say “have a great day!” and move on.

You can change your story.  You know that one story you always tell when biking and driving comes up in conversation?  The one about the person who did you wrong?  It’s time to replace it with some observations you have about the people you see doing Denver proud every day.

As we look back on 2012 and forward to 2013 we know the “growing pains” we’re seeing in Denver aren’t going away overnight.  We know that Denver was built when car was king and that it takes time to create the built environment, supportive policy and culture of acceptance that supports and encourages the shift to more and safer active transportation.  That’s why we’ll be working even harder in 2013 to encourage more public education, effective bicycle infrastructure, stronger safety laws, appropriate enforcement, and creative and visionary planning.  We know from the experiences reported in other U.S. cities that Denver is approaching a “tipping point” when ridership numbers, infrastructure, policy, and climate come together to create strong widespread acceptance and safe practices on every level.  We’ve got a lot to look forward to.

Ride safe, everyone, we’ll see you out there!

Posted in Bicycle News
8 comments on “A Matter of Civility; Our Safety on Denver’s Roads and Trails is at Stake.
  1. Sean says:

    Will BikeDenver be looking at Idaho Stop Laws as a possible avenue for constructive growth?

    Based on the success there and the fact that new laws don’t require huge infrastructure investments it certainly seems like an excellent short term step in a positive direction. Further, the way those laws are written, there is nothing for motorists to “learn”. The learning is on the bicycle side and I think almost all cyclists will be MORE than willing to adopt them due to the sensibility.

    Here’s a good web article concerning the laws I’m referring to: http://bikeportland.org/2009/01/14/idaho-stop-law-faq-13387

  2. Lise says:

    Great article, and well said, Piep!
    Agreed, it’s best to encourage everyone to define ourselves not as “cyclists”, “motorists”, etc., but as “people” moving from place to place and using the most effective mode available for the trip.
    I am also interested in seeing infrastructure and laws evolve toward less car-focused and more equitable for other modes, such as cycling. The Idaho Stop Law is a good place to start!

  3. Mantis says:

    Somehow implying that cyclists actually stop at stop signs now…

  4. Chaer Robert says:

    Just went by the stop in Cherry Creek where the young woman bicyclist was killed. Is anyone looking at whether the “bump outs” of sidewalks that make things safer for pedestrians actually make things more dangerous for bicyclists by suddenly eliminating the the shoulder of the road. Feels that way on my bike.

    • NC Weil says:

      I agree that these “traffic calming devices” make life for cyclists more dangerous. I lived in Takoma Park Maryland for many years – after they narrowed streets & created curb bump-outs to slow traffic (on the theory that a narrower road makes drivers slow down), I found cycling far more hazardous. Unlike Denver, that part of MD has major arterials with no parallel less-traveled side streets – sometimes I had no choice but to take my chances between parked cars & drivers.
      Traffic calming never considered the needs or safety of cyclists.

  5. Allen Beauchamp says:

    Piep,

    Very well written and great observations on how to coexist as people living in a vibrant city.

    Great job getting BikeDenver to the point that it is right now, I know that you all have a very bright future ahead of you!

    Pedal On,

    Allen

  6. Moved east to Georgia for a few years (job). Streets that would be 35 mph in Denver are 45+ out here; and few safe shoulders, almost 0 bike paths. But surviving. Same thing applies here as
    the 40+ years I rode and raced in CO. Common sense!

    Great article! And yes on my 20 mile commute in Metro Denver, I ran a few stop signs and eased thru red lights when no traffic. Always yielded to cars.

    Colorado’s lucky to have BikeDenver.

    And Urban Chaos, I’m there when I get back in a couple of years.

    Greg A

    Greg A

  7. DD says:

    Denver is a special city. The drivers are very courteous towards bike commuters. There are very few roads where bike lanes are not available. I, myself, run red lights and stops signs, but only when it is safe to do so and do not pose a risk to traffic. In Houston and Las Vegas, they throw garbage at you if you are on a bicycle because they think you are a low-life if you ride a bicycle. In Dallas you get run over. Feel blessed, this wonderful city…300-plus days of sunshine, and embrace the polyester.

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