A lot of people in South Florida's biking community were upset to see that Ray Strack, a leader of the monthly Critical Mass bike rides in Fort Lauderdale, got hit by a car while riding to get a loaf of bread on January 2.
He is currently home recovering from a broken vertebrae and head gashes but is reportedly in a lot of pain. His accident brought attention to bike safety in South Florida -- or the lack of it. (In a 2012 interview, Strack had specifically mentioned Oakland Park Boulevard as one of Fort Lauderdale's "very dangerous" roads.)
Peter Schuetz of the Green Mobility Network tells New Times, "Florida is probably the most dangerous state in the country, and we have many dangerous cities for bicycling -- it's too much of a car culture, and safety is disregarded too much. A lot of people talk about crashes like that as 'accidents,' but it's actually very predictable." Schuetz says that "distracted drivers, high speed limits, and low courtesy in the roads" make a combination that almost guarantees collisions.
A New York Times article from September called "Is It OK to Kill Cyclists?" noted that around the country, drivers are almost never prosecuted for hitting bike riders, even when the cyclist is severely injured or dies (unless the driver is drunk).
In Strack's case, the driver, Christian Alexander Stewart of Fort Lauderdale, told police he had been traveling behind another car. That car changed lanes suddenly, so he looked down to downshift, and when he looked up, he saw Strack only the instant before he hit him. Stewart was going an estimated 30 mph in a 35 zone. He was given a citation for failing to exercise due care, a noncriminal traffic infraction.
Some commenters on our original story about Strack's collision blamed the lack of bike lanes. But Green Mobility's Schuetz says, "Bike lanes are a double-edged sword -- on one hand, it's an encouragement of bicycling -- motorists have better sense of expecting bicyclists -- but they can be very dangerous." The lanes are often placed in between roads and parking spaces; cyclists have to navigate around people parking cars, opening doors, making right turns into the bike lane, and more. He believes part of the problem is that Florida's roads are generally wide and straight, so drivers treat them all like highways. Driver education and better enforcement of existing laws would help, he says.
James Wolfe, district secretary for the Florida Department of Transportation, responded to allegations that his agency had unfairly nixed bike lanes by saying that when his staff restripes or resurfaces a road, it often considers adding bike lanes. In many cases, it comes down to having enough pavement. For instance, he said, "Sunrise Boulevard was built in the 1960s. It was four lanes with parking -- two 12-foot lanes and eight feet for parking -- 32 feet wide. Now, it's a six-lane road, and it's still 32 feet wide." He says six lanes were fitted by making each lane 11 feet. A lot of six-lane roads have three 12-foot lanes for cars -- which is the DOT standard -- and "it's hard to squeeze in a four-foot bike lane" on top of that.
"A lot of the roads are too narrow and have a high volume [of traffic] and trucks -- we can't go down to less than ten-foot lanes," Wolfe said. "If we want bike lanes, we'd have to widen the roadway... buy property." He said it was in many cases "extremely expensive" and "not feasible for us," though he agreed that bike lanes not only offered bikers a space to ride but also the "sharrows" -- those little pictures of a stick-figure bicyclist that are painted on the lanes -- "alert driers they need to be sharing the road."
"We have standard policies," he continued. "We put bike lanes in where we can -- we narrow the lanes when we resurface and put in a bike lane. It's four feet for a bike lane, though I expect that will change -- there's a general recognition that it needs to be wider, also to add to the bike lane so there is a greater separation between cars and the bike lane -- but that makes it even more challenging to fit these in."
He said that within the DOT, it was "under discussion now that four feet lanes should be revised larger to five feet... It is very likely that we will be revising the policy." He said that would be an internal decision based on engineering and safety data, as well as design practicalities; there probably wouldn't be public hearings about it. "It's not a matter of the public indicating a preference -- it's either safe or it's not."
Green Mobility Network's Schuetz says it's best to figure out good routes between destinations and bike along those. Whatever the risks of cycling, "you're almost guaranteed going to die of heart disease if you never get out of car. Plus, it's no fun being in the car."
Send story tips to Deirdra.Funcheon@BrowardPalmBeach.com
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