Local cyclists prepare for two-wheeled commutes
by Paige Rentz
prentz@annistonstar.com
May 11, 2013 | 7851 views |  0 comments | 34 34 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Matt Johnson, a frequent long-distance cycling commuter, has had to put up with numerous indignities from rude motorists on certain area highways. (Anniston Star photo by Shannon Tucker)
Matt Johnson, a frequent long-distance cycling commuter, has had to put up with numerous indignities from rude motorists on certain area highways. (Anniston Star photo by Shannon Tucker)
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Not long ago Matt Johnson was hit with a pipe because he was heading home from work. He’s often screamed at or hit with flying garbage as he makes the 41-mile trip, simply because he’s on a bicycle.

The vice president of manufacturing for Alabama Specialty Products, Johnson frequently commutes home from his office in Munford to Cottaquilla Road in Jacksonville.

Motorists often “buzz” him, passing close and fast, frequently on purpose, he said. Once, a driver pulled over to yell at him to get off the road, right by a “Share the Road” sign.

Johnson said he’s even got a repeat harasser. Four times he’s had the driver of the same truck, while passing in opposite directions, honk the horn and make obscene gestures at him.

“If he’s harassing me, he’s got to be harassing other cycling individuals as well,” he said.

In a community working to build a reputation as “Bike City, Alabama” and a local economy on the recreational tourists it draws, cyclists still face a great deal of disrespect and potentially dangerous harassment from others on the road. And in Alabama, there’s not much legal protection for the two-wheeled set. Alabama is ranked 49th on the League of American Bicyclists’ annual bicycle-friendly list. Only North Dakota is less bicycle-friendly. Alabama fell from its previous 47th spot, lingering at the bottom of the list as other states improve.

“They don’t really put the value of that cyclist in proper order,” Johnson said of the motorists who harass him. “That cyclist is a person, and he’s a got a family and he’s got kids, and in my case, grandkids.”

Shifting attitudes

Carolyn Szczepanksi, director of communications for the League of American Bicyclists, noted that many states, including Southern states such as Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina, have passed laws aimed at curbing disrespectful and dangerous behavior toward cyclists. These laws make it illegal to harass, taunt or maliciously throw an object at or in the direction of any person on a bicycle. Alabama has no such law, nor does state law specify a safe passing distance for cars approaching cyclists.

On average, at least one cyclist per day is killed in a motor vehicle accident in the United States. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that between 529 and 700 people died in the United States each year during the last decade, with a large portion of those in the the South.

Nearly 44 percent of the 5,972 U.S. cycling deaths from 2001 through 2010 occurred in the South, which made up only 36.5 percent of the aggregate population.

Only 64 of the 2,614 deaths in the South occurred in Alabama, a state where between 0.1 and 0.3 percent of people commute by bike in its largest cities.

Legislating locally

The city of Anniston is working to make it easier for cyclists to navigate the city, with plans to extend the Chief Ladiga Trail into city neighborhoods and designate bike routes along downtown streets.

Mayor Vaughn Stewart said he’s a big believer in creating a comprehensive bike policy for the Model City, with safety the highest priority.

“We cannot rely on state law because Alabama is not top of the pack in terms of bike-friendly regulations,” he said. Stewart said he expects city officials to examine best practices in larger cities such as Austin, Texas, and Asheville, N.C., to find ways to incorporate bicycle access and safety measures into strategic planning taking place this summer.

“We don’t want to go out and encourage biking without having the necessary safeguards in place,” he said, noting education for motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists will likely figure into the adoption of a bike plan.

While new measures will likely make life easier for cyclists on Anniston city streets, those riding on more narrow country roads such as Choccolocco Road that extend beyond the city limits won’t have such policy to fall back on.

Johnson, along with other commuters, named Choccolocco Road as the worst spot along his route home and the site of a good deal of harassment from motorists. It’s where the passenger of a passing car leaned out the window and struck him with the pipe.

Joining up

Some local commuters will be taking two wheels to work this week, joining commuters across the nation in celebration of Bike to Work Week, an initiative of the League of American Bicyclists.

Although he’s not a regular bike commuter, Barry Nicholls, 57, said he typically tries to ride the 14 miles to work from his home near the junction of U.S. 78 and Alabama 9 to his office at Animal Medical Center in downtown Anniston at least once during Bike to Work Week.

Nicholls said he’s lucky because he works at a place where he has the two things a bike commuter needs: places to shower and securely store a bicycle.

“Those kind of work environments are helpful for people who want to bike to work,” he said.

Nicholls, the director of communications for the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association, said he sent out a notice in his weekly newsletter to remind members that Bike to Work Week was approaching.

Building speed

Szczepanksi noted that bicycle commuting grew 42 percent nationwide from 2000 to 2011. But in cities the league has identified as some of the largest bicycle-friendly communities, the rate has risen by as much as 80 percent.

Events like Bike to Work Week, she said, can help those numbers grow. Szczepanksi said research has shown that people who are encouraged to take that first step and participate in a bicycle commuting event are much more likely to engage in that behavior moving forward.

“Bicycling is kind of an addictive behavior,” she said, noting the freedom of riding a bike, coupled with the health and economic benefits regular riders often see.

“Once you kind of get over that first hurdle of seeing that it’s possible,” she said, “overcoming that first hurdle leads people to adopting that method of commuting.”

In many places, she said, participating cyclists organize commuting caravans to improve visibility and join on the safest routes into major business areas.

Johnson said he thinks education is key to curbing potentially dangerous behavior. “It’s got to be education,” he said, “and I guess the more they see us, the better it is because people get used to it.”

Szczepanksi said members of her organization have seen exposure to cyclists help curb disrespect by motorists.

“The more bicyclists are out on the road obeying the rules of the road, the more that culture dissipates organically” she said.

Nicholls said it seems to him that the harassment of cyclists on area roads has actually decreased, but it does happen. He said he tries to combat attitudes of disrespect by waving to passing motorists and apologizing to those drivers who honk or yell at him, whether he’s in the wrong or not.

“I want them to know I’m human,” he said, “and not just a bicycle in their way.”

Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.

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