ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Bicyclists who don’t care about encountering pedestrians, making some crazy hairpin turns or bumping over bridges are happy to pedal along on the designated bike trail that follows the North Diversion Channel as it cuts north and south through the center of Albuquerque.
Some serious cyclists on fast bikes with skinny tires prefer to exit the bike path on the stretch between Osuna and the I-25 underpass and ride a parallel route for a short ways on Chappell Road.
This drives many drivers crazy, especially when bicyclists ride two abreast and block the lane and when they roll through the stop sign at Singer instead of stopping.
Hey! Lycra! Can’t you see the bike path right over there?
The city of Albuquerque recently determined the 3,000-foot stretch of Chappell between Osuna and Singer was too dangerous a mix for cyclists and drivers and decided to make it a no-bike zone – the city’s first.
At the beginning of the new year, signs prohibiting bicycles showed up along Chappell and this set off a fury in the cycling community, which felt the city had cooked up a solution to a nonexistent problem – and left cyclists out of the discussion.
In a letter to several city officials, Jennifer Buntz, president of the Duke City Wheelmen Foundation, spelled out the frustration: “Cyclists are capable of deciding the best route for their travels. We do that every time we are on our bicycles. We can and do make choices with our ‘life, health and safety in mind.’ We do not need the city to do that for us.”
In her role with the Wheelmen, Buntz learns of the routes that are especially dicey for cyclists and hasn’t heard complaints about Chappell. And her search of Department of Transportation traffic data found only a single accident involving a bicyclist on Chappell between 1990 and 2009 – and the driver was at fault. (A cyclist was killed earlier this month on Osuna a few blocks east of Chappell.)
“Anyplace we go has big trucks and lots of traffic,” she said when I called her to talk about Chappell. “Near misses happen every day. The way to deal with it isn’t to close roads to cyclists without ever asking us what we think about it.”
Chappell Road between Osuna and Singer is two lanes with no shoulder, making it necessary for cyclists to ride in the traffic lane, and home to several businesses that cater to large trucks. It can be busy with drivers impatient to get to and from Sam’s Club and Costco.
If you wonder why anyone on a bike would choose that over a dedicated path with no traffic, you’d have to get on your bike and ride the stretch of the North Diversion Channel multi-use path that parallels the road.
To reach the path from the Osuna intersection, a cyclist must navigate drivers turning right on their shared green light, then make two tricky 90-degree turns, ride on a narrow sidewalk for a short stretch and bump over a few wooden-surface bridges that rattle teeth (and other more delicate parts).
It’s perfectly ridable, if imperfect. But cyclists are invited to ride on dedicated trails, not required to. Under state law, bicycles are considered vehicles, with the same rights and obligations on pubic roadways. So being ordered off the road came as a shock.
Michael Riordan, the director of municipal development for the city, said the review of Chappell arose from a dozen or so complaints from drivers to the city’s 311 number and from businesses located on the road. A traffic engineer went to the site, measured the traffic lanes and shoulders, witnessed a near collision between a bicycle and motor vehicle (followed by a heated exchange) and noted the proximity of the bike path. All of those factors convinced him that pushing bike traffic to the path was a safer alternative.
A city ordinance allows the mayor or a designated representative to restrict heavily traveled streets from use by bicyclists, but Riordan told me it’s never been done anywhere else in the city.
“When there’s a parallel bicycle trail built specifically for them with taxpayer dollars that allows a safer passage for those type of commuters use, it was the appropriate decision to have them use that alternative path,” Riordan said. “There’s no other place for the heavy trucks to go.”
Cyclists were planning to sound off at the Albuquerque City Council meeting Wednesday evening.
And Andy Clarke, the president of the League of American Bicyclists, said the decision would factor into the organization’s review process for renewing the city’s vaunted bronze-level designation as a bicycle-friendly community.
Albuquerque, which plans an around-the-city, 50-mile bike loop and has put loads of money into improving existing bike trails, takes a hit to its bike-friendly reputation with this one.
Governing without consulting feels arbitrary. Banning any user from a public right of way in the city sets a troubling precedence.
Riordan acknowledged that not consulting with the Greater Albuquerque Bicycling Advisory Committee, the citizens advisory committee for cycling issues, was a mistake.
“I apologize for that,” he said. “For public safety, I believe we’ve done everything right. Our error was in communication. There won’t be any future street restrictions without going to that advisory board.”
There’s another possible consequence of installing “no bicycle” signs on the route: Some cyclists will continue to use the road and risk a ticket. And drivers, when they see the signs, will have even more reason to feel they own the road. In the immediate future, that could make that 3,000 feet of roadway more dangerous that it’s ever been.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie Linthicum at 823-3914 or email@example.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal