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City cyclists hope for safer passage

By Rachel Molenda, Staff writer

Lawmakers hope a new law will make it safer for people to ride their bicycles throughout the state. Last week, West Virginia joined 22 states and the District of Columbia with a 3-foot passing law for motorists who drive around cyclists, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“The cars practically ignore you and they come way too close to you when they pass you,” said the law’s lead sponsor, Delegate Danny Wells, D-Kanwaha.

Wells, who described himself as an avid cyclist, said he doesn’t often feel safe riding on roads and sticks to bike trails. He hopes the passing distance requirement will change that.

The law also gives more freedom to cyclists, often relegated to debris-strewn roadsides, to move from the far right side of roads when avoiding obstacles and turning left.

“It gives [cyclists] essentially the legal right to be able to use what they need of the roadway to keep on riding,” said Bill Nottingham, owner of the Charleston Bicycle Center in Kanawha City.

Nottingham, who rides throughout Charleston and the state, said he feels “by and large” drivers are respectful of cyclists. But, he has had more positive experiences when riding in a group than independently. Nottingham recalled riding his bicycle on Corridor G when he felt something on his arm. Nottingham said he realized a young man was hanging out of the window of a car while trying to grab him.

“That would have been cool to reach out and grab somebody, but that same scenario if there had been 10 or 15 riders, I don’t think that person would have tried to do what he did,” Nottingham said of “safety in numbers.”

West Virginia Connecting Communities director Kasey Russell said the state “was very far behind the rest of the country in bicycle safety,” but this law should change that. The organization’s goal is to help implement policies that make cycling all over the state safe for recreation and commuting, Russell said.

“We also just hope it’ll start a dialogue,” Russell said of motorist-cyclist education and bike safety.

The League of American Bicyclists — a national cycling advocacy and education organization — ranks West Virginia 44th in its Bicycle Friendly State questionnaire. States are assessed based on practices in bike education, infrastructure and funding, legislation and enforcement, programs and policies, as well as evaluation and planning. West Virginia’s report card shows the organization gives the state ones (its scale is five to one, with five being the highest) in legislation and enforcement, infrastructure and funding and evaluation and planning. The state received a two in bike education and encouragement, and a three for its policies and programs.

The League lists having a “safe pass/vulnerable road user law” as one of its Top 10 Signs of Success for bikeable states.

Legislators and community cycling advocates said the state’s new 3-foot passing rule could improve its bike-friendly image. Wells said he wants West Virginia to be known as such.

“We haven’t mentioned tourism yet. People come here to do all kinds of things,” Wells said. “It’s a beautiful state to bike in, not only the trails that I like so well, but also the country roads.”

Nottingham said, “the whole aspect of [the bill] is built around safety.”

“As West Virginia tries to enhance its attractiveness for tourism, then that’s also going to help protect and encourage riders from other states to come here,” Nottingham said.

Charleston City Manager David Molgaard said he wasn’t certain how the bike safety law would affect areas of the city where “bike lanes might be considered just as a designated and dedicated lane alongside traffic,” but he acknowledged the importance of bike safety.

“Certainly the safer that you can make it for bicyclists, the more friendly it is and the more people that may be encouraged to participate in that activity,” Molgaard said of the bike safety law.

Russell expressed similar thoughts about cycling and said she thinks and hopes Charleston is becoming more bike-friendly.

“We’ve got all the great vision and the plans to do it. Now we just need funding, and [to see] that it’s a lot cheaper to be proactive instead of treating obesity and diabetes,” Russell said.

The city of Charleston is waiting for approval from the state Historic Preservation Office before it puts out a construction bid for the first phase of bike lanes along Kanawha Boulevard, Molgaard said.

The $2.7 million project will include bike lanes separated from traffic by a curb and green space. They, along with crosswalks, will run from Patrick Street to Magic Island.

The Gazette reported in April construction would start this summer on the project, but Molgaard said it could be delayed if the city doesn’t get its approval soon.

“We’re losing construction time, certainly, because a big portion of this will involve the asphalt plants and the modifications we have to make to the medians, the curbs, the bike lanes,” Molgaard said.

“We’re just waiting. I think we’re ready to go.”

Reach Rachel Molenda

at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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