Soundings : Getting serious about bikes
Pedaling along at 15 miles per hour, I burn 30 calories per mile on my commute to work at the Edgartown Public Library. A gallon of gasoline contains 31,000 calories, which means that on my bicycle, I'm getting better than 1,000 miles per gallon. This puts a technological marvel like the Toyota Prius in a whole new perspective.
Admittedly this is anecdotal - the Martha's Vineyard Commission doesn't count bikes the way it counts cars - but there's been a perceptible uptick in two-wheeled traffic on the Island this year. As a three-season bicyclist, I find this heartening. But in July and August, there's no denying that the risks of getting around by bicycle increase sharply.
Once you learn to ride a bike, they say, you never forget. I've had plenty of opportunities lately to lament the truth of this. On any Island summer day, a high proportion of our bicyclists are folks with the muscle memory to balance the machines, but with no recall for the basic rules of bicycling safety. If these clueless cyclists had forgotten how to ride entirely, they'd be off the paths and we'd all be safer.
It's impossible to commute by bike for any length of time here without amassing a collection of Stupid Bicyclist stories. This spring, I watched with amazement and alarm as a father and his training-wheeler son accelerated down a long slope in front of me. As the son's bike began wobbling out of control, the father grabbed the kid's handlebar and tried to steer both bicycles. The result was a spectacular pile-up that sent dad tumbling into the highway - where, fortunately, no cars were roaring by at the moment.
Less spectacular and far more common are the mishaps that result from cyclists' disregard for the notion of riding in lanes, and for the fact that other people are using the bike paths, too. Rounding each sharp corner in the State Forest, I brace for oncoming youth groups riding four abreast. Riding into Edgartown, I'm alert for bicyclists who veer into my lane without glancing ahead or behind. This June I was struck head-on by an adolescent girl who, bicycling up Main Street, blithely veered into me while ogling a Smart Car in the rental lot.
As long as Vineyard bike paths lack center stripes, for too many cyclists the concept of lanes will remain just that - an abstraction. Painting center lines on our network of paths is the single most cost-effective step we could take to make bicycling safer on the Island. Why this hasn't been done years ago is beyond me.
Meanwhile, given that our Island's roadside paths are technically not bike paths at all, but what traffic engineers call "multiple use paths," many serious cyclists still choose to ride on the margins of the highway. You know the ones I mean - sheathed in spandex, cruising on narrow tires in the committed crouch of the distance tourer.
For the most part, these cyclists who choose the road are fully aware that there's a path just a few feet away. They've weighed the risks of the paths against those of the highway and made a considered choice. We need to respect that choice, and to remember that bicycles are entitled by law to join us on our public roads.
It's important for us to be better about making space for bicycles, both on our roads and in our planning for the Island's future, because in years ahead, bikes stand to play an increasing part in the Vineyard transportation mix. They're simply too compelling an alternative not to gain traction as we continue to grapple with downtown parking congestion and the high cost of fuel.
In my own transition from recreational rider to commuter, I've spent as much money on accessories as on my bicycle (though that was fairly easy since I bought the bike for a pittance on eBay). With a warning bell, headlights and a taillight, a sturdy rack and a snap-on grocery bag, I'm equipped now for trips to the post office, the supermarket and work, even when that means pedaling home after dark. Just this week I ordered a pair of fenders, because what's the deal with having to leave the bike at home just because there are puddles on the way into town?
In 2000, according to the U.S. Census, fewer than one American in 200 commuted to work by bicycle. Perhaps that's why so few of the bicycles on Vineyard roads have fenders - we still tend to view them as fair-weather toys, not daily transportation. I hope we can keep our historic sense of bicycling as fun, even as we find ways to make it a more viable transportation choice. What's wrong with enjoying the Island landscape, improving our health, saving money, and getting from here to there, all at the same time?