My neighbor tried to run me off the road in late August. He was in his car, and I was on my bike, and if I hadn’t stopped, he would have crashed into me. This occurred on Fuller Street in Edgartown, a two-way street that’s half again as wide as most streets, but with no center line. Parking is not allowed, but that morning a worker had parked a van on my side. However, because Fuller is almost wide enough for three cars, I had ample room to continue, even though my neighbor was approaching from the other direction. As I moved toward the center of the road, he veered toward me. I assumed he didn’t see me, so I rang my bell and gestured for him to swerve back. He kept on coming right at me.
I stopped, of course, and glared at him. “What’s up with you?” l asked. In response, he proceeded to rant about bikers. “You bikers think you own the world,” he yelled (and he may have cussed as well). “You speed through stop signs, you go the wrong way on one-way streets, and you’re arrogant and obnoxious.”
His road rage was apparently the product of a summer’s worth of aggravation, and my biking in the middle of Fuller to avoid a parked vehicle was the proverbial straw that set him off.
In other words, what could have been a serious and deliberate collision was not personal. We had never met before that encounter. In fact, I know we’re neighbors only because I noted the color and make of his car and the first three digits of his license plate, and I watched him turn down a dead-end road.
I actually tried to reason with him. I told him there was plenty of room for both of us, and that I never bike the wrong way on one-way streets, nor do I speed through stop signs. He would have none of it. He sputtered some more about “you bikers,” and then sped off.
Now I was angry. I was tempted to follow him and do my own yelling, but after I cooled off, I thought more about what he had said. Could he be right? Are bikers on Martha’s Vineyard, collectively, often arrogant, disrespectful lawbreakers? The more I thought about it, the more I recognized that my neighbor had a legitimate gripe (but not the right to run me down!).
This insight was reinforced about an hour later, when I was walking our dog and three or four teenagers on bikes came close to running us down. They were biking against traffic on North Water Street in Edgartown. They were also going fast, and not wearing helmets. I hollered, “Hey, this is a one-way street,” but they ignored me, and also sped right by the local summer traffic cop, who did not even attempt to stop them.
But it’s not only kids who routinely break the law on Edgartown’s one-ways streets (and probably in the other Island towns as well). Many adults, some with their children, also routinely ignore the laws. I had asked Edgartown’s chief of police about this problem a few weeks earlier, and he said it was too complicated to allow his summer cops to ticket moving violations (which biking the wrong way is). He also said his young workers, empowered to ticket parking violations, were already stressed, which is why they don’t confront the offenders.
What about me? Am I part of the problem? I don’t think so, because I respect one-way streets, I don’t speed, I ring my bell when approaching pedestrians or passing other cyclists, and I always wear a helmet. While I don’t stop for stop signs, I do slow down and roll through intersections with care, which is exactly what the policemen on bikes do.
This essay’s title has a second part, “Lax and lazy lawmakers,” because Martha’s Vineyard’s biking problem goes well beyond the behavior of some cyclists. Simply put, our Island’s leaders have their heads in the sand and are — apparently deliberately — ignoring what is already a crisis. Unconscionably, inadequate maintenance of bike and pedestrian paths, and poor signage, which have been problems for years, are now compounded by the explosion of electric and electric-assist bikes all over the Island.
Maintenance: This defies explanation, because some towns have appropriated significant amounts of money every year for several years to maintain paths and sidewalks. Edgartown, where I live, seems to have done nothing (and I have the photos to prove that assertion), despite setting aside hundreds of thousands of dollars for that specific task. Many paths are dangerous for cyclists because of patches of deep sand.
Other paths have deep cracks that have been ignored for years. Pedestrians can step over the wide cracks, but bikes cannot avoid them. Where has that “repair” money gone?
Signage: It’s just plain awful. Why not recognize that many visitors are first-time bikers, and point them in the direction of bike paths? Put up more signs to remind drivers and cyclists that they are sharing the road.
And definitely put up “Bikers: Do Not Enter” signs on street corners with one-way streets, along with signs to help bikers do the right thing. One quick example: Cyclists coming out of Edgartown on Upper Main Street come to the intersection with the West Tisbury Road, at the beginning of Cannonball Park. A sign directs pedestrians to cross, but nothing tells bikers that there’s a wide bike path on the other side of the street, so during the summer, many bikers continue on the street, unaware and in danger. Some drivers get angry and honk at the bikers, but they really should be upset with town officials, who know there’s a problem but do nothing. I actually made a sign and put it up last summer, but officials came and took it down a few hours later.
What’s to be done? Six steps are required, and soon.
- Fix the paths, for openers. Because of the condition of some paths, more and more bikers are taking to the streets. It’s just a matter of time before someone gets killed or maimed.
- Put up signs to help bikers stay safe. Better to have too many signs than too few.
- Establish — and enforce — a speed limit on the paths. 15 MPH would make sense.
- Regulate electric bikes.
- Require shops renting bikes to equip them with bells, and to provide bike helmets.
- Create more parking areas for bikes, so people can shop and enjoy the towns.
Actually, there’s a seventh step, which the Island’s bikers need to take: Start behaving better. Obey the laws, and show some respect for the rest of the world. And an eighth step, for lawmakers: Do your jobs and lead.
Retired journalist and avid cyclist, John Merrow lives in Edgartown.