Bike commuters can sense when a car is too close, and the red Jaguar SUV that pulled up beside me on Sixth Street near China Blue was close to being too close. I was on yellow alert, ready to hit the brakes or dodge a car, when the driver of the Jaguar rolled down his window and said, "Hey, mister. I got something for you."
I imagined turning to see him holding a baseball bat or a gun, but what he proffered looked like a huge ruby set in cardboard packaging. It was an LED bike light with the words "Bike Law" written across it. Relief rolled over me.
I've never owned a car, and over the years of bike commuting, I've saved a lot of money and kept in decent shape. The trade-off is I'm more vulnerable to road hazards and have to be sure drivers see me, but despite the much-discussed tensions between Boise cyclists and motorists, I don't often have negative experiences with drivers. Ugly confrontations are rare for me, and Kurt Holzer, the driver of the Jaguar, said it's the same for him.
"I've had a few confrontations where you just shake your head, but for the most part, motorists are very attuned, attempting to get out of the way," Holzer said. "It's easy to talk about the confrontation, but the vast majority of motorists are accepting of and dealing with cyclists just fine."
It didn't take much digging to identify Holzer as my bike light benefactor. I put a photo of the Bike Law "blinky" on Instagram, and a mutual friend connected us. Holzer, a local attorney who specializes in the law as it applies to cyclists, is also the race announcer for the Twilight Criterium and a former race organizer. As an avid cyclist, he travels by bike around the same distance he drives each year: approximately 8,000 miles.
Holzer bought a box of the Bike Law lights two months ago and has handed out more than 40 so far. Giving them away may "not be the greatest economic investment," but the blinkies, which he gets at cost for $5, actually make cyclists safer. He got the idea from a fellow member of Bike Law, a loose network of lawyers around the country who share resources and discuss advocacy.
"You just hand them out and try to enhance safety," Holzer said. "One less cyclist hit is a huge improvement in somebody's life."
The "Idaho Stop" law, which allows riders to yield at stop signs, is an important source of tension between cyclists and motorists, and is also one of the things that makes cycling laws in Idaho unique. It has been on the books in the Gem State for decades but Delaware became the first state to implement something similar late last month. Proponents argue it makes cyclists safer by acknowledging how people actually use roads, while critics say it creates confusion and discord by establishing different rules for different users.
The Idaho Stop lets cyclists use their judgment, and a similar principle could guide bike-friendly laws for motorists. Holzer gave the example of a car trying to pass a cyclist while in a lane with a double yellow line. Allowing the motorist latitude to cross the yellow line would make passing the cyclist less about obeying the law and more about safety and judgment.
"It's the opportunity for that road user to use discretion and reason," Holzer said. "Motorists ... perceive the risk to the cyclist, and one of their reactions comes from their fear of being responsible for causing injury."
Roads are in the center divide of any discussion about cycling, and in Boise, that conversation always involves the Ada County Highway District. Over the years, ACHD and the city have worked to make roads more bike friendly, but history is mixed when it comes to bicycle infrastructure.
A pilot project in the spring of 2014 to put buffered bike lanes on Main and Idaho streets was scrapped ahead of schedule to the chagrin of local advocates, commuters and the Boise City Council. More recently, ACHD ran afoul of bike commuters when it waffled on transitioning Fifth and Sixth streets downtown into two-way streets, which would slow vehicle traffic. ACHD commissioners eventually voted in favor of the change, which is expected to take place when the roads are resurfaced in 2019.
ACHD has also allowed a bike lane on Capitol Boulevard to remain and has made numerous minor improvements in neighborhoods and on thoroughfares to make them safer for all road users. Holzer sees the road authority as "a pretty remarkable organization" that responds to cyclists.
"There are people within [ACHD] that are cycling-oriented. We're not going to get all that great cycling infrastructure immediately," he said. "I think I'm in the minority that thinks the ACHD is improving over time. It's far from perfect, but anybody who thinks any government is ever perfect is living in a fantasy land. There are too many people pushing."