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Can Bikes And Cars Safely Share The Road? Bicyclists And Local Officials Working Toward Solutions

Kristin Malavenda/WBAA News

Greater Lafayette-area bicyclists are calling on local officials to make the roads safer for them.

The issue of bikes and cars sharing the road has been at the forefront recently with the city of Lafayette’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan nearing completion, and officials in West Lafayette and Tippecanoe County looking into establishing similar documents.

But a recent accident has caused cyclists to ask for quicker action to improve conditions.

The Harrison Bridge connects Lafayette and West Lafayette. Thousands of cars travel over it each day. Markings on the pavement – called sharrows -- indicate bikes and cars should be sharing the lanes, but cyclists say that’s easier said than done.

Last month, a cyclist traveling westbound on the bridge suffered multiple injuries after being hit by a car whose driver allegedly looked away from the road when he dropped his cell phone.

Bicycle Lafayette president Aaron Madrid says with the John T. Myers Pedestrian Bridge closed for renovations, it’s even more important to ensure the other bridges that connect the two cities are safe.

Madrid says even with the establishment of Lafayette’s trails master plan in 2012, people who want to ride their bike as their main means of transportation still struggle to get around. He says if trails could get him everywhere he needs to go safely, he would use them every day.

“But that’s not the case," says Madrid. "So right now saying that we have a great trail system is just simply not true. Yes we’re doing some great work with trails. Yes both cities are putting in some cool trails, and they are neat and they are fun, but from a practical standpoint if I need to go somewhere your trail’s not helping me out.”

Madrid says he actually feels safer biking in Indianapolis than in Greater Lafayette, because of Marion County’s multi-million dollar trail system that provides safe routes from Indy’s northern suburbs down to Fountain Square.

He says while appreciates the effort Lafayette officials have put into the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, the approval and implementation process is slower than bicyclists want. In fact, West Lafayette and county officials haven’t even begun their processes.

Madrid says adding or repainting “sharrows” on streets would send a message to drivers that bikes are allowed on the roads. He’d also like to see bridge speed limits lowered.

We talked about maybe changing some yield signs to stop signs, even trimming some of the greenery along the eastbound lanes of the Harrison Bridge itself would make a big difference,” he says.

Still, Madrid acknowledges bicyclists aren’t without fault and must also follow the rules of the road.

“Cyclists should come to complete stops at lights and stop signs," he says. "You should ride on the right side of the road. We don’t think that people should ride on sidewalks within the business district in Lafayette and in West Lafayette, where there’s more pedestrian traffic, we don’t think they should ride on sidewalks at all.”

As Highway Department Director for Tippecanoe County, Opal Kuhl is responsible for the bridges between Lafayette and West Lafayette.

She says she’s empathetic to the concerns of local riders because she’s been cycling for more than 40 years herself. Kuhl admits she’s done more rural riding than urban riding, but says the problems bicyclists face are universal.

“Just making people aware that you’re there," says Kuhl. "Sometimes they don’t see you—they’re looking for cars, they’re looking for trucks, and all the other distractions.”

After the accident on the Harrison Bridge Kuhl called together officials from the county and the cities of Lafayette and West Lafayette to discuss changes that could be made to improve safety.

She says while the county and cities want to accommodate bicyclists as much as possible, doing so takes time and money. Kuhl says it’s not possible to install bike lanes or other amenities on every county road.

“If I feel uncomfortable, I get off and walk my bike," says Kuhl. "But a lot of cyclists don’t choose to do that. But you know there’s, I think, twenty-some-thousand cars a day on the Harrison Bridge. That’s not going to change. And if you don’t like riding in that big of a crowd of vehicles then you might have to change.”

But Aaron Madrid says if the cities and the county are serious about supporting cycling as an alternate form of transportation, telling people to get off and walk their bikes is counterproductive.

“It’s not really that much more safe on the sidewalk on the Harrison Bridge than it is on the road," says Madrid. "People are still driving by really fast. There’s a very high curb. If you even slip and step of it you’re immediately in traffic. Not to mention if you’re standing next to a bike that’s going to take up a couple feet next to you.”

Rose Kaczmarowski is Bicycle Lafayette’s Community Liaison. She says the immediate need is for safer access to some high-traffic roads.

“South Street out to Sagamore and Creasy," says Kaczmarowski. "Acknowledging that those are areas that people want to be, and should be, able to get to without the requirement of having a car.”

Kaczmarowski says any plans established by the cities or the county should be flexible and change with the needs of the community.

“As years go by and we continue to use this plan and reference it, making sure that there’s always an opportunity for the users of the road at all levels to have an opportunity to engage with the process,” says Kaczmarowski.

Opal Kuhl says while local officials plan to continue those conversations, even though some of the actual changes could take longer to implement than the cycling community is hoping for.  

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