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My First Time

My First Time

To this day I can remember quite clearly… I was moved; it affected me emotionally like nothing had at that point in my life. No, not what you’re thinking; I’m talking about my first time riding my bike on Green Sharrows.

Belmont Shore’s Green Sharrows are 20 miles away, so it’s a trip I’d planned for awhile. All the way up there I’m filled with anticipation, but then the transcendent reality; it was surprising! The neighborhood is much like Corona del Mar, lots of retail with 2 lanes of traffic in both directions and parallel street parking. It’s the classic definition of where Green Sharrows belong, because there isn’t space for a bike lane. In Long Beach they’ve painted the right lane green and placed the Sharrows insignia on top; it’s striking and a bold statement: cyclists have the right to the traffic lane.

So my first time riding the Green Sharrows, how did it feel? Joyous, wouldn’t be too over the top; it’s like now, for the first time, I’m a legitimate vehicle, entitled to my place on the roadway. I knew no one would blow their horn; through traffic had long ago figured it out, if they wanted to move through town without impediment they would politely pass me or travel in the left lane. Yes, politely, because many of the motorists were themselves bicyclists and they knew what it felt like to ride 2nd Street. Long Beach is ahead of just about every city in the Southland; they’ve been implementing bike safety features, building bike lanes and installing bike racks for a few years now and what they find is, like every other city that preceded them, if you build it they will come; trite, but true.

I enjoyed the experience and looked forward to a ride I’d already planned with the Lido Island Boy Scout Troop; we would take a 50mi ride to complete Cycling merit badge along this same route in Belmont Shore. Wanting to offer them a little before-and-after, over the intervening weekend rides I would lead them through Corona del Mar; this way, my thinking went, they’d appreciate the significance of what Green Sharrows bring to the neighborhood. But taking the scouts through CdM proved to be a disheartening experience; each week some motorist would pull up behind us and aggressively blow their horn, even if there was an open lane to the left and they could easily pass us. I eventually altered our route to avoid Coast Hwy; the scouts were intimidated and I was concerned that it would affect their enthusiasm for cycling.

Fast forward: this past week Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff mailed a letter to local merchants describing Sharrows and the City’s intention to paint them on Coast Hwy through Corona del Mar. The mailing is a step to
answering questions and concerns, to build community support.

So CdM isn’t trailblazing here; other cities, many 10 times our size, have implemented Green Sharrows on their streets. What makes Green Sharrows a reasonable approach for CdM? Simply, there isn’t enough space for a bike lane, yet we have sufficient bicycle traffic; so what can be done to improve safety and reduce risk of injury for cyclists?

Kiff’s letter points out that this isn’t gifting new privileges to cyclists. They have a legal right to the road already, and in places where there isn’t room to share the lane, due to narrow roadways or parked cars, they have the right to the full lane. Few cyclists are brave enough, or know their rights, and so they “thread the needle” by riding dangerously close to the parked cars. Getting “doored” often results in serious injury or death because hitting an opening car door tends to abruptly throw the cyclist into the traffic lane where they’ll be struck by a passing car. Ironically, most cyclists weigh the risks
differently, they have a disproportionate concern about traffic from behind, which according to the Director of the Orange County Bicycle Coalition, Pete Van Nuys, is statistically less dangerous, but the whir of a car passing at 35mph or the stress of someone blowing their horn causes many cyclists to take this path of least resistance, never mind the risks.

If not Sharrows, what else can be done? There isn’t room for a bike lane, not without removing parked cars and no one involved in this project wants to hear the squawk about removing that convenience. So that leaves two options: do nothing, or paint Green Sharrows. Oh, you think I left out, go-around? Yes, diverting cyclists onto other streets like Seaview or First Ave has been considered, but the fact remains, cyclists will continue to ride through town on their way to other beach communities, so what are we going to do to make that as safe as possible? The answer is Sharrows.

Imagine a future when CdM is more pedestrian-friendly, traffic is slowed and cafes line the sidewalks, restaurants and shops are crowded with customers and the pace of life slows while the quality of life goes up. “Dreamer,” some will say, others will go further. Yet we’ve all visited cities in Europe where that’s the reality today, so why not CdM? Maybe we’ll get there, but we’ll be an automobile-saturated society for a long time to come. Balance is what’s needed as the next step, balancing access for all, pedestrians, cyclists and drivers, and few will argue that we’re not out of balance, that cars are the dominant factor that needs to yield, at least somewhat, so that our streets can more safely support other legitimate users: pedestrians and cyclists.

Boston Bikes’ Nicole Freedman had a single word of advice for me, remember? “Plagiarize!” I like to say that I’ve known this to be an effective approach since college, just kidding. So we look to other cities for ideas on bike safety. Cities like Santa Cruz, Santa Monica, San Francisco, New York and Long Beach have all experimented with similar approaches. They work. Whether it’s Green Sharrows or bike lanes, these cities that precede us have found that safety is improved, that their communities experience renewed vitality and merchants attract more customers as cycling becomes safer. I can’t wait for those benefits to accrue to us.

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