Cyclists moving forward for safety

By Anna Ramia

TUSCALOOSA | Cars dominate the roads in Tuscaloosa, with cyclists widely viewed as a dangerous nuisance. Despite it being illegal for people to ride on the sidewalks, generally drivers do not entertain the idea that cyclists belong on the street.

Laurie Bonnici, assistant professor at The University of Alabama and avid cyclist in the Druid City Bicycle Club, said two main issues make safe cycling a challenge in Tuscaloosa.

“First, the lack of bicycle lanes makes riding in Tuscaloosa and Northport challenging,” Bonnici said. “Second, and certainly tied to the former item, is the local culture.  I encounter lots of drivers in this area that generally feel that cyclists do not belong on the road.  Furthermore, their attitude is aggressive.”

“Cycling, like other activities, has an inherent element of risk.  However, I have found the risk to be much greater than other places I have lived in the past,” Bonnici said.

Safe cycling is possible in a community without many bicycle lanes as long as the community respects cycling as a valid means of transportation, Bonnici said. Tuscaloosa lacks bicycle lanes, but the city is working on adding more.

In the wake of the April 27 tornado, the city is working on a Path of Remembrance, also known as the CityWalk. This trail would connect both ends of the tornado’s path with a 5.5-mile greenway from Harmon and Rosedale to Alberta City.

Tuscaloosa twice applied for, but did not receive, federal funding for this project.

The CityWalk is part of the Tuscaloosa Forward Generational Master Plan. Tera Tubbs, Tuscaloosa’s director of transportation, said the city’s five-year plan includes a complete redesign of Jack Warner Parkway that might make it more appealing to cyclists.

“This would include widening the street, and we will look into bike lanes when that happens,” she said.

Bicycle lanes benefit not only cyclists, but taxpayers.

“A wider roadway with bicycle allowance enhances road life because ideally there will be fewer cars and less weight on the road,” Tubbs said.

Sam Rombokas, the advocacy and education director for the DCBC, has been working closely with Tuscaloosa to move the city forward in its acceptance of cyclists.

The city has applied twice for the “Bicycle Friendly City” status by the League of American Bicyclists. Each time, Tuscaloosa was awarded an honorable mention instead of bronze, silver or gold.

“The primary deficiency was engineering, which encompasses the physical structures and lane configurations—the most expensive portions of the plan,” Rombokas said.

“On two differing occasions, I found the city to be supportive of bike issues,” Rombokas said. “As advocacy director, I worked with the police department to provide helmets, free of charge, to individuals over the age of 18 found riding without a helmet.”

A local bicycle shop, Velocity, partnered with the DCBC and gave the helmets for the police to carry in their cruisers.

“The second occasion was a request I made to the City Council to implement a ‘Three Feet Please’ policy,” Rombokas said. “This would require a passing motorist to provide at least 3 feet minimum clearance when passing a bicyclist as well as to not make an immediate right hand turn in front of the cyclist after passing.”

More than 20 states have implemented the legislation, and Tuscaloosa followed as the third city in Alabama to apply such a policy. The policy prompted the installment of “Three Feet Please” signs across town.

“I do believe that these signs are a positive start in making Tuscaloosa a safer cycling community, but the signs must not be seen as a solution,” Bonnici said. “They must be viewed as step in a larger initiative.”

When drivers are more accustomed to seeing cyclists, they pay more attention to and are more aware of bicycle traffic. Because of this, Tuscaloosa naturally has parts of town that are safer to ride.

“That would make the areas on campus and adjacent to the University some of the safest because the University leads the way with commitments for lanes and signage,” Rombokas said.