Jan van Steenwijk – Image (c) Barbara Hitchcock, 2018 all rights reserved – Click to view larger image

 

By Jan van Steenwijk

I live in one of those quiet, typical, small towns in Massachusetts. Growing in population, more homes, businesses, cars and…more bicyclists, like myself.

One day a robot phone call came in. It was our Town Manager. “All members of town appointed committees must participate in a meeting next Thursday.” Being a member of the Town’s Bike Committee, I qualified. Excited and filled with questions, I showed up at the Town Hall. The place was jammed. There are so many committees, so many people.

Also attending were members of the Police and Fire Department.  Not all, because some were, of course, on duty. The same for the Dept. of Public Works.

There was a buzz …why, what’s going on?

The Town Administrator picked up the microphone and spoke;

“Thank you all for coming. We are offering a very special survey program that everyone should participate in.” On behalf of our Town, I have two requests:

Request 1: “Everyone who is appointed by, or works for the Town, myself including, is asked to bike to and from work for one week.”

The sound in the room increased, it was like a freight train passing…”WHAAAT…?

Without stopping, he continued:

Request 2: “And the following week, we will ask everyone to walk to and from work. There will be a few exceptions, but one has to explain the reason for not being able to do this.”

Now the humming became a crescendo. People got to their feet with legitimate questions like…”Why?” “I don’t have a bike.” “I live at the other end of town!” “I haven’t biked in years,” etc.

The Town Administrator responded: “The Town will ask for your feedback and will take actions according to your findings. In addition, the Town will provide a bike for anyone who has no bike for that week.” Our office has made a pamphlet with our questions that I ask you to fill out by the end of the two weeks. They are available here. Thank you for your co-operation, and we will meet here in two weeks. Stay safe, healthy and have fun!”

He left all of us perplexed. For the Bike Committee’s members, it would be an easy task. We bike a lot, many every day, commuting or as exercise, on every possible road in Town. We know the danger areas, but for no bikers it would be a challenge. Many (most?) hadn’t been on a bike in years, if ever. Discussions continued for a while – lots of pros and cons.

Well, let’s jump to the end of week two when we all met again. We had filled out our questionnaires. It would take many pages to write down all the comments on this limited space, but here are a few, typical comments.

The Bike Week

“I had to give up the first day because cars fly by too fast.” “Traffic scares me.” “Drivers don’t respect us; they pass too close.” “I had drivers yell at me and use profane language.” “There are too many potholes; I hit one and almost fell.” “I felt like I was being pushed off the road.” One rider hit a deep pothole and the bike’s fork broke. “Cars are almost as wide as the road, leaving no space for me.” “Stopping for a red light in the middle lane, a car behind me honked.” “When a car comes toward me in the opposite lane, many drivers behind me don’t slow down to pass, but pass me with roaring engines and spinning wheels …” “You hear of an accident where a car hits a biker, they almost always blame the biker…” “Why don’t we have bike paths or at least well-marked bike lanes in Town? Like they have many places.? “ “I would like to go for light shopping on my bike, but cannot find a decent and safe  ‘parking’ place for my bike.” “We need lower speed limits.” “All vehicles should have their lights on all day, and not just at night!”

For many participants, it was an experience they would never repeat, “It was not worth a heart attack or an accident!”

The Walk Week

“My street has no sidewalks, so I wouldn’t dare walking there.” “Crossing a road, even if it has pedestrian markings, drivers often do not stop or will swerve around you, some with an unpleasant finger gesture.” A women’s comment, “I have two small children, one still in a stroller, I cannot imagine walking on the street if there is no sidewalk…there are none on my street!” “I see cars going on the sidewalk, just to pass a car stopped to make a left turn.” “There are too few places in the center of Town where there are marked pedestrian crossings.” A person in a wheelchair complained that sidewalks at intersections are often too narrow and sometimes have a utility pole blocking in a way. “You should try to cross when you are handicapped…”

We spent a long time with heated discussions about all these complaints. But finally, it was the Chief of Police who took the microphone: “I hear you loud and clear. We will start a safety campaign for all road users. We will take more action toward speeders in town. We can always print more ticket books for our officers…! Also, anyone who does not stop for someone trying to cross a road will be ticketed and cited, this includes bicyclists!”

Rousing applause from the audience…

The Director from the Department of Public Works was next:

“I, too, hear you, and I promise that within five years there will be sidewalks and protected bike lanes on every street in town. In addition, no more potholes will be allowed!”

A woman in her early twenties sitting next to me said: “I will probably be a great grandma by the time it is done….”

Standing ovation…

Then…poof…, I woke up. It had been a dream… a utopian dream all along.

The Moral of this Story?

Our officials don’t bike or walk enough so they don’t have the same experience as those of us who do. Unfortunately, they have many excuses to drag out projects affecting the health and safety of its most vulnerable citizens. It seems that the highest priority is accommodating the increasing number of vehicles on our narrow roads. Not to mention that bicyclists could reduce the carbon footprint, and have less pollution, if people biked or walked to work, to shop or just for pleasure and exercise, thus cutting down pollution of our precious environment, but we all know that, of course?

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