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Critical Mass

Will Boise cyclists demand better facilities?

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On the last Friday of June, a pack of cyclists showed up at the band shell at Julia Davis Park, hoping to make a statement about bikes on Boise streets. The ride never happened. The half-dozen bikers realized that they did not really have a critical mass.

Critical Mass is one of the ways that cyclists express their right to use the road. In many cities, enough bikes gather once a month to take over the streets, often raising the ire of motorists and police but making their point nonetheless.

Despite the large number of cycling enthusiasts in Boise --road and mountain racers, commuters, cruisers and kids--there has been precious little bike activism in recent years. Even after cars killed three cyclists in May and June, police and media have dominated the response rather than a strong, local bike advocacy group.

Boise State philosophy professor George Knight, a cyclist, has convened an annual Community Bicycle Congress for the past five years in which he brings established cycling experts and planners to Boise.

"They see the things that we all know about, they see the disconnect, yet they see a fairly vibrant cycling culture," Knight said.

The disconnect is the fact that bike lanes peter out, that funding from the state for cycling facilities is nearly nonexistent and that only recently have the city and highway district started to prioritize biking infrastructure.

Knight said that the idea of critical mass started in China, where bikers wait at an intersection until enough have gathered and then cross as a group, forcing cars to wait.

In Boise, the routes bikers take are dispersed by sprawl, leading to a proliferation of solitary riders, rather than groups of cyclists.

"The critical mass is out there all the time," Knight said. "If one thing undermines the Critical Mass movement, it's that we all live too far away from each other."

As the number of visible bikes on city streets increases, crashes actually decrease, said Shane Rhodes, education and advocacy coordinator for GEARS, the Greater Eugene Area Riders, based in Eugene, Ore.

"One of the best things you can do to increase rider safety is to increase numbers," he said.

Eugene has long been considered a bike-friendly city, where cars yield to cyclists and pedestrians and where civic resources are put into bike facilities.

But Rhodes said that in the last decade, Portland has eclipsed Eugene in promoting bike culture, doubling spending on cycling and dramatically increasing the number of riders who feel comfortable riding on city streets.

In Boise, there is a budding realization that cyclists must be part of transportation planning. The Ada County Highway District has adopted a long-range cycling plan for the entire county that envisions 95 percent of county residents within a half-mile of a bike lane, route or trail. But the plan could take 50 years to implement and while it assessed transit needs for cyclists and the practicality of building in bike routes, ACHD did not take bike safety data into account.

There were 798 crashes in Ada County from 2003 to 2008, according to the Idaho Transportation Department, including four fatalities.

The corner of Orchard and Overland streets is where more cyclists have been injured than any other corner in Ada County since 2003. The Idaho Transportation Department reports 10 injury accidents involved cyclists there between 2003 and 2007.

Yet ACHD considers that section of Orchard a long-term project which is not slated for bike lanes for 25 to 50 years.

The City of Boise has convened a bicycle safety team to study ACHD's plans and to work with police and prosecutors on recommendations for any legislative changes that might make it safer to ride in Idaho.

"Part of the process going forward is where are improvements for bicyclists planned, and what's the timetable for those plans and should those plans be accelerated for safety reasons," said Michael Zuzel, adviser to Mayor Dave Bieter.

That committee will report to Bieter by the end of the summer.

Downtown agencies and some private property owners are also building better bike racks. Portland has begun reclaiming on-street parking for bikes; where one car once parked, 10 or more bikes can now be locked up.

While the time is ripe to reassess cyclists' needs in southwest Idaho, citizen-cyclists have not picked up the mantle.

"I think that there's a lot of momentum built up," said Stuart Bryson, organizer of a memorial ride that visited each of the three crash sites after the third cyclist died in June.

Bryson said he organized his spontaneous ride out of frustration and anger and he took a lot of flak for it, drawing the ire of some of the cycling clubs and racing groups in town, some of whom boycotted the ride.

But Bryson is not heading up any efforts to increase awareness of cyclists or improve cycling infrastructure.

Kurt Holzer, a Boise attorney and cyclist, opposed Bryson's ride, calling it disrespectful to the deceased. Holzer has suggested going the legislative route, proposing a 3-feet-to-pass law, as other states have been passing, and laws expressly prohibiting the harassment of cyclists.

"Ten years ago, there was an instantaneous assumption that if a bicyclist was involved, then they were at fault," Holzer said. "I think it's far better than I would have expected 10 years ago."

The Treasure Valley Cycling Alliance is involved in ACHD's bike plan and on the Bicycle Advisory Committee but others in Boise are talking about forming a broader bike coalition to lobby and educate the public about sharing the road.

Without the gridlock of other cities, there is still road to share here.

"I think in a way, cyclists in Boise are higher profile. There's more of us and less traffic," said Patrick Sweeney, half of Northstar Cycle Courier, the Boise bike messenger team.

But his business partner again illustrates the disconnect.

"It also seems to me that every time I have a close call, I look up and the person is on their cell phone," said courier Warren O'Dell.

O'Dell downplays the traffic, but admits he's been hit twice in the last two months and has a near-miss almost every day.

"I think most of it just comes down to awareness," he said. "It doesn't seem to me that there is a group that reps the guy that rides to work."

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