Longtime local cyclists and bike advocates Meredith Erlewine and Bob West want people to learn how to ride bikes safely on Athens streets while maintaining their right under Ohio law to use most roadways just as much as any legal motor vehicle can.
Erlewine and West recently took this reporter and others on a ride-along event to teach people just that.
The educational ride through Athens was offered through the statewide How We Roll campaign. The project is put on by the Athens-City County Health Department in partnership with the Ohio Department of Health and Yay Bikes!, a non-profit organization in Columbus.
Erlewine, co-owner of Athens Bicycle, and West, president of the Athens Bicycle Club, argued during the multiple-hour ride and lecture through Athens that biking on the road should become as socially acceptable as driving a car, for the benefit of the environment and the rider’s physical health. They also said that a diversity of modes of transportation being encouraged in the city of Athens can only improve the city’s livability, and even its economic situation, by allowing easier access to businesses for bicycle or pedestrian shoppers.
Erlewine starts the ride-along with a crash course in bicycle law in Ohio. Bikes, for the most part, should be treated just like other vehicles on the roadway, she said. They need to obey all traffic signs, and signal their intent to turn with hand motions.
One of the big differences, Erlewine explained, is that in Ohio, cyclists are asked to ride as far to the right of a lane as “practicable,” which is different than “possible” or “practical.” It’s a legal term meaning “able to be done” safely. On most of Athens’ relatively narrow streets, Erlewine said, it’s just not “practicable” to ride far to the right side of the lane. There are parked cars (with the potential for serious t-bone collisions if the doors swing open and hit a cyclist), sewer grates and broken glass, to name a few hazards.
Erlewine explained that it’s often far safer for a cyclist to ride in the middle of the lane.
“It’s not practicable for us to ride far to the right in narrow lanes, of which the type we have in Athens,” she said. “That’s sending the message to the car that ‘oh, I think you can fit with me here… and that’s when collisions happen. I want that car to think really hard about getting around me, so riding visibly and predictably in the lane is how I’m going to trigger that decision-making process.”
West said that Ohio recently enacted a law requiring a minimum of three feet to be maintained between a passing car and a cyclist. Motorists are often afraid to give that much space to bikes, he noted, because they think they are breaking the law if they cross over double-yellow lines. However, it’s perfectly legal in Ohio to cross such a line in a vehicle while passing another vehicle, provided there’s no oncoming traffic and the vehicle being passed is going less than half the posted speed limit.
As the small group rode through the city – on East State Street, and through uptown Athens – it became clear to this reporter that while the geography can be challenging, it’s not particularly difficult or unsafe to bike on the streets in Athens.
While it’s legal to bike on the sidewalk in Athens outside of the uptown area (city code bans that practice in uptown Athens), Erlewine said it’s “many, many, many times” more dangerous to bike on the sidewalk than the road, with the potential for collisions with pedestrians and cars turning onto the street.
West said that motorists need to learn to share the road with cyclists. He and Erlewine added that the debate over the city adding bike lanes to East State Street shouldn’t be so contentious.
“They (opponents) see the bike lanes as pushing into their ‘cars belong here, bikes don’t’ mentality,” West said. “I hate to tell them, but they’re wrong.