Sharing the Road

I’m noticing more hostility towards cyclists these days.  I’ve logged thousand of miles on city streets and country roads and have rarely been harassed by motorists. Lately that seems to have changed. Just last week our group has had angry words, close passes and some dude traveling the opposite direction down the road lay on his horn angrily because we had the audacity to be riding the other direction, on the shoulder, not obstructing traffic. Sorry for existing, asshole!

There seems to be a war of words of sorts brewing in our community.  A collection of editorial letters to the News-Gazette have argued both sides of the issue of cyclists on the roadways and support for cycling infrastructure.

At the heart of it all is the local community effort to re-purpose abandoned railroad tracks into a multi-use path. The so called Kickapoo Rail Trail has been many years in the planning stage but is finally starting to come together. The funding is from a combination of private donations and state/local grants.

Any time public funds are used for something that doesn’t involve automobile related infrastructure, storm water drainage or public safety you know there will be some dissent. The first blood was drawn with this letter to editor back in June. This was rebutted by this well written though apparently not entirely accurate missive by my old riding buddy, Rich McClary.

Let me just go on the record as saying that I can see both sides.  As a cyclist I am a strong supporter of the Kickapoo Rail Trail project. The trail head will be less than two miles from my home and I look forward to sharing many miles on the new path with my family and friends away from the threat of speeding cars and poorly maintained road surfaces.

However, as a taxpayer, I can see the other side too. Every year I write checks to the county to support public schools that my children do not attend, a library we rarely patronize, buses I never ride and police/fire protection that thankfully we have never needed.  But I am not complaining.  This is part of being in a community and supporting infrastructure and services that add value to the community.

The Kickapoo Rail Trail can certainly be considered an added value to Champaign and Vermillion Counties. It is not a “bike path.” It is a multi-use path. If one looks at the health and wellness benefits alone it is worth it. Our current poor state of public health can be almost entirely attributed to poor diets and lifestyles devoid of adequate physical activity. On either end of the Kickapoo Rail Trail there are ample recreational resources, the nearly 25 mile stretch of the multi-use path will give citizens in unincorporated areas of our two counties access to a safe venue for physical activity whether it be walking, running or cycling. There is no good argument against investing in our community health.

I am more than happy, as Mr. Hildreth suggests in his letter,  to pay an annual license fee or even a nominal surtax on bicycles and related gear if that money were used for the sole purpose of supporting cycling infrastructure and educational/safety programing. I would also expect such arguments against these projects to be silenced since we cyclists would be paying our fair share…perhaps more as we would be subsidizing the runners and dog walkers who will utilize the trail.  But, hey, fair is fair, right?

Despite the controversy, I think it is safe to say that cycling will continue to grow both for recreation and a means of transportation. The miles of bike lanes in cities large and small continue to grow. Certain large cities such as Chicago, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. have invested heavily in cycling infrastructure and these resources are heavily utilized. If you’ve ever driven in Chicago or D.C. you would know why.

In closing I would like to offer of glimmer of hope. While it seems there is so much hostility towards cyclists on the road these days sometimes you find friends in the most unlikely of places.  This past Sunday a couple friends and I were on long ride heading south and east from Urbana. About 35 miles or so into the ride we were in need of fuel. After some jogging around to avoid fresh gravel and parked freight trains blocking the road (yes we were that far out of civilization that trains just block the road) we ended up in the burg of Newman, Illinois.

Nestled on US-36 in Douglas County with less than 1000 residents, Newman was the kind of place that if ever I thought people would be inhospitable to cyclists, this was it.  Boy, was I wrong. We arrived at the local filling station just after it opened at 8am.  Some locals were already starting to fill in.  As I was parking my bike and getting to go inside to drain my bladder and fill my belly a burly dude walked up and greeting me offered  the parting words of “safe travels.”  After I got my Gatorade and Starbucks Double Shot Mocha extravaganza I was outside getting loaded up. At this point a group of three older gentlemen probably in their 70s or 80s walked up and talked to us. They were quite impressed that we had ridden our bikes all the way down from Urbana and that we were riding back!  They chatted with us for a minute before wishing us well and heading inside for their coffee.

When we make our mid-ride pit stops it is rare that we are engaged by locals.  Usually we just get strange and unfriendly glances from people because we are, after all, a bunch of grown men in tights.  But here we were in the seemingly most inhospitable locale for for a road cyclist and the locals were actually friendly.  What  a pleasant surprise.

This episode last Sunday gives me hope.  I now realize that despite the negative interactions I have had recently with motorists, the vast majority respect my right to occupy the road and treat me as such.  I’ve also learned a little about judging without knowing. Perhaps the next time there is a southerly wind we will find ourselves back in Newman and perhaps grab a bite at the Country Junction or Pizza Man.  They’re good people those Newmanites.

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