I’ve always liked riding a bike, but when I moved to Charlotte, I didn’t bring my college bicycle with me. I really wasn’t in a hurry to get another one either, since Charlotte was clearly a car-heavy town (living in the Park & Woodlawn area didn’t help at all). It wasn’t until about four years ago when I had to go six months without a car that I spent $35 on a bike I found on Craigslist.
That shitty (boy was it shitty) bike got me around for a bit, but I’ve since graduated to a much nicer Specialized Rockhopper, and ideal hybrid/commuter bike. Ever since then I’ve been a huge fan of riding my bike around town. It’s great exercise, lots of fresh air, tons of fun, all the same reasons I’m sure you’ve heard. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s just a 15-minute bike ride to my work uptown, the fastest option for my commute.
The other side of that fun and convenience is that riding a bike in Charlotte is a major risk. The streets were designed almost exclusively with cars in mind, making most biking lanes scarce or redundant. Drivers are also either overly aggressive with cyclists or wildly timid. The only greenway that connects the entire city probably won’t be completed until after 2020. Oh, and one of the most dangerous intersections for pedestrians in the city is less than half a mile from my house.
To me, that leaves three main areas of improvement that can address the situation. The first is infrastructure. There have been some great efforts by the city, Sustain Charlotte and local cyclists to make the roads wider, increase the number of bike lanes and create exclusive bike paths. The second is driver etiquette. Drivers need to show patience around cyclists (who are required to ride on the road by state law) and be comfortable with the idea of sharing road space.
But the third area of improvement falls squarely on the rider themselves. Now most riders I know are like me and pretty courteous. We stop at stop signs, signal when turning and generally follow the same driving rules as if we were in a car. But as the old saying goes, a few rotten apples spoil the entire bunch.
I’ve been either riding or driving and seen the lone jackass cyclist weaving in and out of traffic, running stop signs and cutting people off. That one cyclist out of 50 that doesn’t wear their helmet or lights at night. It’s a daily occurrence uptown to see a cyclist fly through an intersection and narrowly avoid a pancaking. That kind of riding is the same as it is in a car: aggressive and problematic. It’s also that one idiot cyclist that drivers remember when they drive.
So when I’m riding my Specialized Rockhopper (paid a lavish $100 for at a pawn shop) down Davidson, I’m getting drivers who want to come as close as possible to me (I guess to prove a point) or go the exact opposite way and give me ten feet of berth, swerving into oncoming traffic. Another classic example is when I pull up to a stop sign, actually stop, and then have to spend the next 10-15 seconds pantomiming reassurance to the opposite driver that they can indeed proceed. The message to me is that most drivers are deathly afraid of cyclists, to the point that they would actually rather have a wreck with another car than a cyclist.
It’s not going to be easy, and it’s going to take a collective effort, but cyclists need to be just as courteous to drivers as they want drivers to be to them. We need to stop at busy intersections, not make sudden movements and use good judgement when switching lanes (I’m asking a lot on that last one, I know).
(Quick side note: more cyclists on the road will also force the hands of the city and drivers to be more accepting of cyclists on the road. The more you see it, the more you adapt. Just another reason to break out your bi-ped!)
Until both cyclists and drivers can learn to occupy the road together, and the city can build roads and paths that encourage cycling, Charlotte will continue to have a shaky relationship with cyclists. Out of those three things, however, you can contribute directly to at least one, and possibly two. Drive with patience around cyclists, and ride with respect around the half-ton death machines flying around you.