The Road Most Traveled

Cyclists and drivers often find themselves on different sides of the same yellow lines.

Written by Phillip Ratliff

Cycling is a battle that is as much mental as physical. While a sober sense of one’s mortality can be healthy, overcoming the fear of injury is a never-ending struggle in a sport filled with wrecks and injuries. In the minds of mountain bikers, these interior monsters take the form of the wayward branch that locks up a wheel and cartwheels you and the bike Indiana Jones–style into the emergency room or a careen off a mountain slope to be devoured by kudzu. For road cyclists, the monster may be a hidden pothole or chunk of limestone that topples you into the path of a Ford F-150.

Over the past months, I’ve interviewed cyclists about riding on Birmingham streets: Encounters with both motorists and terrain, survival tactics that help cyclists feel and be safe, and the motivations that keep them pedaling.

Two of those cyclists are connected to Birmingham’s design community and are working to make the metropolitan area a bike-friendly paradise. Woven into their stories is the common thread that cycling in Birmingham is a dangerous sport but worth the risk.

Personal rewards encompass practical and psychological benefits. Cyclists cycle to get from point A to B, getting fit, soaking their brains in adrenaline and endorphins. Some likely have romantic notions of saving the environment one leg pump at a time, or living out a Birmingham-lifestyle as Parisian cyclist, minus the baguette. Further, I suspect several of these motivations operate within the complicated psyches found within the city’s community of cyclists. As a member, I’m tempted to project my motivations onto fellow riders. I can attest that those motivations are multifaceted and in complicated symbiosis with one another, potent in their ability to overwrite images of wreckage.

Scotty Colson is an enthusiastic urban cyclist working the City of Birmingham’s Office of Economic Development. Colson, like many cyclists, is an equipment connoisseur, who gives credit for his success as a city cyclist to finding the right bike. At 6-foot-9 and 305 pounds, Colson has bent his fair share of spokes, jumping curbs and hitting potholes downtown thus making clear his gear obsession. Colson’s solution? A tricked–out Specialized hybrid, mixing a road bike’s litheness with rock-track ruggedness.

“I call it my urban assault bike. I have had it 10 years. It’s a carbon bike with knobby tires, good suspension. Unless you’re lightweight, you’re going to be tough on spokes on the streets. I can’t remember when I last broke a spoke on this bike. It’s not fast, but neither am I anymore,” Colson says.

The Specialized has become so beloved to Colson that his family refers to it, somewhat derisively, as “Precious.”Precious has proven itself over a decade of intense riding, averaging between 50 and 60 miles a week.

Precious may have saved Colson when a MAX bus turned across his bike lane in May 2012. “We came to the intersection of Eighteenth and Third. The bus whipped around the corner. I slammed and almost went under the bus. What to do but swerve and hope the gravity gods don’t have your number that day?” Colson recalls. “I had to lay the bike down, slam my foot down and go down. The bus never stopped,” Colson says.

Pedaling with a broken foot, Colson managed to chase down the MAX bus and confront the driver. The exchange was typical. “She says she didn’t see me,” Colson recalls. “I am a six-nine guy in white reflectors. One biker’s opinion: It ain’t what’s in the road.”

While such a brush up might mean chipped paint for a driver, it can be devastating for the cyclist. According to a 10-year Alabama Department of Transportation study, an average of six Alabama cyclists die in road crashes and another 200 are injured each year. Motorist attitudes, as Colson suggests, will have to change for conditions to improve. “It’s a cultural thing. Either motorists are going to share the road with a bike, or they’re going to think ‘this bike is a nuisance,’” Colson says.

The hostile driver is a trope with urban cyclists. While most negative motorist encounters stem from cluelessness, there is no doubt for cyclists that some motorists purposefully assault them.

Cycling advocate Stan Palla tells a painful story about being run off the road by a trucker in one of the city’s industrial sectors. Palla, an organizer of a weekly ride out of Pepper Place, was on his bike mapping a sunny outing last February.

“I was riding over a route I have done many times for beginners. I am constantly cautioning them how to cross the tracks. As you know, you cross tracks on a bike at a 90-degree angle.  I was traveling down First Avenue South near the Old Mazer’s warehouse. As I approached the tracks, a large delivery truck approached from the rear and crowded me and I had to change lines, and when I rolled across the tracks my front wheel just slipped out from under me. It body slammed me on the tracks,” Palla says.

Palla suffered a deeply bruised hip that has been slow to heal. Palla believes the trucker was more likely trying to crowd him than run him off the road. Either way, Palla attributes the behavior to a cyclists-induced transformation seen in motorists. “My impression is that drivers forget that we’re their good neighbors and friends, and that their actions can kill. I don’t know what happens to cause them to dehumanize us. I think they lose sight somehow.”

I bought it on the same stretch of railroad track on a drizzly day in 2011. Against what would have been great advice from Palla, I crossed the slippery track at an oblique angle, hitting the pavement so hard and so fast that I was still pedaling when I came down on my left side. When I relayed Palla’s story to Colson, he said that he crashed on the same railroad tracks. But those were both self-inflicted mishaps. Being run off the road by a motorist who is either tuned out or feeling the need to regain lost masculinity is a different matter.

Avoiding aggressive motorists was top-of-mind for cyclist Mike Kaczorowski, when he attempted to ride from his Hoover home to his downtown office. For three days in fall 2011, Kaczorowski, made the commute. “I thought about transit, but the transit route would have involved cycling anyway, and the route was very long and not very dependable. I noticed that the route would have taken about an hour. It’s not going to take me much longer just to ride all the way,” Kaczorowski explains.

Kaczorowski mapped his route to avoid the major highways and to zigzag through residential neighborhoods instead. As an engineer with the Regional Planning Commission, Kaczorowski recognized immediately that one of his most daunting obstacles to cycling — “I could not avoid U.S. 31 through Hoover.”

Because there are no bike lanes on 31, Kaczorowski had to pedal down the highway’s far left side. This expanse of Hoover is a monstrosity. Buildings are set back several hundred feet from the curb behind parked cars and an asphalt ocean. Parking lot entrances are like drains, sucking autos through narrow passages and across Kaczorowski’s improvised bike lane. Kaczorowski frequently had to stop for motorists bolting into parking lots in order to miss oncoming traffic. Though cycling through Hoover on U.S. 31 is an exertion of raw courage, getting the rest of the way into Birmingham was more a matter of creativity.

From Homewood, the only two ways into downtown were Greensprings Highway and Eighteenth Street in Homewood. Neither option appealed to him, so Kaczorowski drew upon his city planner’s experience to find an inventive solution. “I knew a dirt road to Red Mountain’s water, radio and TV towers, over the mountain to the UAB side,” Kaczorowski says. This swath of terrain was unfriendly, but Kaczorowski’s bike, a 2007 Trek Fuel, rendered the dirt path’s washed out gullies and chunks of red iron ore passable. Once over Red Mountain, it was an easy coast to work.

In April, Kaczorowski and I recreated key parts of his journey, hitting U.S. 31 near the Hoover onramp to I-65 South, but we decided to alter his path in one respect; instead of crossing Red Mountain at Eleventh Avenue South, we decided it would be an interesting experiment to schlep up Twenty-first Street toward Vulcan.

It was an ill-advised choice. The main surface road from downtown Birmingham into Homewood, with its blind curve and relentless whiz of cars, we found, is a cyclist’s nightmare: a steep climb that makes maintaining speed difficult, increasing the risk of losing momentum and falling over into traffic. Violating his city planner’s sense of propriety, Kaczorowski and I agreed that we had to cycle on the sidewalk. This was not without its perils. The sidewalk is a bamboo forest of utility poles. By the end of the ascent, Kaczorowski and I were off our seats and pumping our legs. It is easy to see why Kaczorowski found another route.

Kaczorowski’s epic journey illustrates one of urban cycling’s most daunting obstacles: moving from a largely residential area to a commercial center. Bike paths have to be meaningful; that is, they have to connect a natural point of origin, say, an apartment or subdivision, to a useful destination like a store or office building. While a loft apartment might fit the image more snugly, suburban development can be connected assuming that the cycling commuter must travel entirely by bike. Bike paths from a suburban residential enclave to a nearby bus stop can knock scary stretches off the cyclist’s commute if the bus is equipped with bike racks and routed to deposit commuters near bike paths or bike-lane roads.

Jeff Speck’s Walkable City, a research-based and highly readable primer on urban design, presents a solid case that bike lanes can improve conditions for everyone, including motorists. When communities are bike friendly, Speck argues, cyclists leave their cars and opt for bikes, regardless of the community’s climate and topography. This is true in Boulder, Copenhagen, Portland, Minneapolis, Brooklyn and the Yukon Territories.

Though streets are slowed down and the number of lanes may decrease for motorists, the impact on drive times can be minimal. Cycling is more efficient than driving; several bikes and their riders can occupy the same space as one SUV. Taking a small percentage of drivers out of the car lane and putting them into a bike lane half the width has consistently proven a smart move.

When Brooklyn converted one lane of Prospect Park West from driving to biking, the number of weekday cyclists tripled, speeding dropped from 75 percent to less than 20 percent. Crashes decreased by more than 60 percent. Travel times stayed almost the same.

According to Speck, cities have economic incentive to make such changes. For the cost of building one mile of freeway, the city of Portland built 275 bikeways, directing 1 percent of its transportation budget to serve 8 percent of its commuters. In contrast to widened roads and the speeding traffic they bring, bike paths actually increase property values and tax revenue.

The alternative to bike lanes is for cyclists to simply pretend they are cars and take a lane, (this is called vehicular cycling), or to invent their own trail. My own attempts to cycle down Valley Avenue have convinced me that neither are particularly appealing options. Even under the “make a lane in the gutter” scenario, Valley Avenue still bears down on cyclists from both sides, with four lanes of traffic to one side and perpendicular parking to the other. Valley Avenue brings out my most neurotic cycling behaviors. To survive, I must communicate with motorists to let them know my intentions and to humanize myself. I find myself inventing elaborate hand gestures cryptic messages for motorists: “Weaving through you two guys—I’d appreciate it if the light changes you wait two seconds until I cross the street!”

Bikes lanes are not the entire fix—Scotty Colson’s wreck makes that clear—but they put cyclists at ease to the point that they feel it is safe to opt for cycling. The creation of bike paths is a vital piece of a puzzle that, when complete, positions pedestrian friendliness, functional public transportation, and smarter parking options into a seamless whole.

To real estate developer Cathy Sloss Jones, getting these pieces in place will mean an economic opportunity for developers seeking untapped demand for urbanism. “The market has shifted absolutely and completely. Though there’s still growth in the suburbs, the market demand is no longer focused there. If you look at national trends with millennials and baby boomers, you see that people want walkable urban spaces. We have a beautiful city and the market demand for urban market will happen,” Sloss says.

A question remains: Will we get the political strength to make cycling and other alternative modes of transportation possible? There are hopeful signs.

The two vexing, intersecting areas, Valley Avenue and Twenty-First Street, may be getting a bike-friendly makeover one day soon, thanks to the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System. In 2010, the Freshwater Land Trust partnered with Birmingham architectural firm Goodwyn Mills Cawood to create the Red Rock plan for Jefferson County. The new plan organizes along six major corridors to connect all Jefferson County parks into a giant network of walking trails and bike paths. The plan also includes numerous paths designed to accommodate cyclists, pedestrians and cars. The catchword for this type of road is a complete street; at the policy level, Birmingham is a nationally recognized leader in adopting complete street ordinances.

Freshwater Land Trust is taking a unique approach to implement the plan. They have invited community groups and municipal governments to adopt a portion of the trail through the Our One Mile campaign. Through Our One Mile, Valley and Twenty-first are both slated for road diets that will reduce the roads from four lanes to three and add biking and walking paths.

Jane Reed Ross, Senior Landscape Architect with Goodwyn Mills Cawood’s Birmingham office and an avid cyclist, served as the project’s lead designer. Ross is convinced that more bike lanes will bring more cyclists and more accepting cycling culture.

Connectivity is an issue that both plays out within municipal boundaries and transcends them. The Red Rock plan is comprehensive in both regards. To make the Red Rock Ridge & Valley Trail System work, municipalities covered under the plan have to agree to implement their part.

Again, there are hopeful signs. In June 2012, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the City of Birmingham a $10 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant. The TIGER grant will be used for road, bike and pedestrian projects in the Civil Rights District and other corridors within the City. The project is currently in the design phase with construction scheduled to begin this year.

TIGER grants will improve sidewalks and add bike lanes along seven corridors, says Chris Hatcher, Manager of Catalytic Development with REV Birmingham. The TIGER projects connect residential areas to Birmingham’s downtown and other commercial areas. The Civil Rights corridor, for example, begins at Sixteenth Street continuing through Fountain Heights and on to Enon Ridge. Another TIGER project, the Jones Valley corridor, begins on First Avenue South near Sloss Furnaces, turns right onto Eighteenth Street, continues under the railroad tracks then turns left onto First Avenue North, heading westward into the Smithfield Community and on to Tuscaloosa Avenue, to end near the Crossplex.

According to Hatcher, REV has been working with the Regional Planning Commission and the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority to ensure that all seven corridors connect to the Red Rock Ridge & Valley Trail System.

Connectivity at the regional level requires coordination of various entities. And while the TIGER grant and its relation to the Red Rock system is a great example of interagency cooperation, it is not always clear where regional planning oversight and accountability lie.

“We’re very fragmented,” Jones says. “It’s hard to get everybody on the same page, moving in the same direction, especially on matters pertaining to urban revitalization.”

Despite its many obstacles, urban cycling has time and again proven itself an exhilarating possibility. The metropolitan area, I have found, is filled with bike-able corridors. When I hit the streets on my Trek Superfly, it is not Valley or Twenty-First I seek out, but a lovely stretch of Manhattan Street in Homewood, which has become Homewood’s mecca for road-based fitness. Three- and four-man pelotons take to this street, even in the dead of winter. The Trak Shak holds its weekly runs there.

Getting to work by bike would be a more complicated matter: Valley Avenue, where I would enter into competition with cars. It is a competition I would eventually roundly lose, I fear, and I have tried the commute only a few times.

Though pedaling to work is not yet an option, I am encouraged by the signs that it might be soon. To raise motorist awareness of sharing the road with cyclists, more than 200 area cyclists participated in the annual Ride of Silence this past May. If the option of riding to work one day exists for me, who knows who else from the city’s ranks of cyclists, currently riding mountain bikes in nearby parks or road bikes along quiet streets and alleys, might decide that cycling to work is an efficiency too good to pass up?

What might happen along bike-friendly corridors? Past experience shows that by attracting pedestrians and cyclists and slowing cars down, complete streets attract economic activity to what was once blighted pass-through; the resulting in more tax revenue makes the relatively modest investment in bike lanes and pedestrian pathways more than worth it. It is an appealing thought, that Birmingham might do citizens, cyclists, and itself, this favor.

One Response to “The Road Most Traveled”

  1. Pete says:

    I would ride my bike to work 3-4 times per week.

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