Why do bicyclists insist on riding in the road on Mercer Island? | Bike Safety Q&A

Editor’s note: This is the first of an occasional column written by Neighbors in Motion (NIM), a Mercer Island organization dedicated to improving and increasing bicycling and walking on Mercer Island. NIM has been recognized by the Mercer Island City Council for its work in preparing a Best Road Safety Practices for Mercer Island Drivers or Bicyclists and Pedestrians, which the council formally adopted on April 2, 2012. You may contact NIM at Board@NeighborsinMotion.org. Typically, these columns will focus on bicycle and pedestrian safety, rules and courtesy.

Q: Why do bicyclists insist on riding in the road when there is a bicycle lane, especially on East and West Mercer Way (the “Mercers”)?

A: This is a common question from motorists. The shoulders on the Mercers are not bicycle lanes. Bicycle lanes are for cyclists only — no parking, walking, garbage cans, etc. — and are marked with a painted white solid stripe and bicycle with a rider. There are only 1.2 miles of bicycle lanes on Mercer Island, mostly in the town center. Occasionally there are “sharrows” (painted chevron/arrow markings and a bicycle but no rider), which indicate bicycles and cars are to share the lane. In addition, cyclists may ride on the shoulders, on the street, or on the sidewalk yielding right-of-way to pedestrians. The Mercers have no bicycle lanes or sharrows, only intermittent shoulders.

So why don’t cyclists ride more often on the shoulders on the Mercers? NIM encourages cyclists to use the shoulders wherever and whenever it is safe, and many if not most cyclists do. Shoulders, however, pose a lot of safety issues for cyclists, including:

1. Shoulder debris such as wet leaves, tree branches, etc.;

2. Parked cars;

3. Broken glass or trash;

4. Potholes or loose gravel;

5. Utility grates;

6. Sudden narrowing or end of the shoulder;

7. Garbage cans;

8. Oncoming pedestrians, possibly with dogs, babies in strollers, etc. (this is especially a hazard on the many winding, blind curves on the Mercers);

9. Low-hanging branches or overgrown blackberries;

10. Cars from side streets or driveways.

NIM encourages drivers to anticipate that a cyclist riding on the shoulder may have to return to riding in the traffic lane for reasons not obvious to the driver.

To its credit, the City Council has allocated funds for years to continue paving the shoulders on the Mercers. Paving of another one-third mile on the southern part of West Mercer Way is underway.

Q: Aren’t bicycles required to ride single file? I’m so tired of following bicycles on the Mercers.

A: The short answer is “no.” NIM strongly recommends cyclists to ride single file, but the law does not require it. State law allows bicycles to ride two abreast, provided they ride as far to the right as is safe and are not holding up five or more vehicles. We are drivers also, and we are frustrated by large groups of cyclists on the Mercers who will not move to the right to allow motorists to pass. Cyclists should show the same courtesy and respect that they expect of drivers.

Q: What’s with those bumper stickers that have three maps of Mercer Island?

A: Actually, those depict three human feet, to encourage drivers to give a cyclist 3 feet of space when passing. Traffic experts consider this the minimum safe passing distance, so the cyclist is not forced off the road, or in case the motorist or cyclist has to swerve suddenly.

This inaugural column focused on the Mercers because that is what residents reported to NIM as the most frequent area of bicycle/pedestrian/ driver conflict (Leap for Green Fair, April 2016). Further columns will be more broad-based. Look for NIM’s booth at the Leap for Green Fair on April 1. The NIM Steering Committee includes James Stanton, Robert Olson, Mark Clausen, Jeff Koontz and Kirk Griffin.