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Despite accident rate, cyclists say St. Louis is a bike-friendly region

Given that the St. Louis area has the highest number of bicycle-related accidents in Missouri and that St. Charles County is considering banning bicycles on certain highways, how can St. Louis be touted as a great destination for cyclists?

"Cyclists from other cities come here and can't believe how much nicer motorists are than those in other cities," said Patty Vinyard, executive director of the St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation .

That's despite the Missouri State Highway Patrol's crash map . It shows that the St. Louis area — defined as St. Louis City, St. Louis County and St. Charles — accounts for 102 of the state's 236 reported accidents involving cyclists in 2010.

The high number of reported accidents is actually a testament to the area's good cyclist education and support system, Vinyard said. According to Vinyard, more accidents are reported in St. Louis because advocacy groups such as her regional bicycle federation and the state-wide Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation encourage documenting accidents. Both organizations promote safe and legal cycling.

"Many bike accidents go unreported in other places," Vinyard said. "More people here are likely to report because of these local advocacy groups."

While one has to have a lot of background to see the high number of reported accidents as a sign that St. Louis is a great area for cycling, the League of American Bicyclists has been much clearer. The league awarded the city of St. Louis a bronze level rating in its annual Bicycle Friendly Community campaign. Only three Missouri cities — St. Louis, Columbia and Springfield — qualified for any rating. Springfield also received a bronze, while Columbia attained a silver rating.

The league looks at engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation. St. Louis received stars in education and enforcement. The campaign also examines what cities have done to promote cycling.

The league views St. Louis as a very accessible city, citing bike lanes on 30 percent of the city's roads with more are on the way thanks to programs like Complete Streets. The league was also impressed with Bike St. Louis Phase II, which added 57 miles to the on-street system in the city and into St. Louis County.

In addition to the city's efforts to become more bike friendly, the league lauded St. Louis for participation in National Bike to Work Day  and for hosting races like Gateway Cup and Tour de Soulard.

"Overall, the area is pretty good for cyclists," Vinyard said.

'An Expression of Freedom'

In response to recent questions through the Beacon's Public Insight Network, several cyclists echoed Vinyard and the League of American Bicyclist's sentiments and even demonstrated the safe and legal attitude the league and local organizations expound.

"I have had to take trips to the western edge of St. Louis County, St. Charles County, and parts of Madison County," Alissa Nelson, a graduate student at Washington University said. "Aside from just the mileage aspect, it's nice to spend a few hours in less-populated areas with clear air and some shade. The cyclists I ride with are all aware that there will be cars on the road and ride accordingly, with a sense of awareness of our surroundings. Fortunately, most drivers will also give cyclists that same courtesy."

Although the area has made efforts to put bike lanes in, Nelson said the lanes are not a necessary precaution.

"I don't think that bike lanes should be a prerequisite for cycling on any road," she said. "However, I do value their existence on major thoroughfares, and support the addition of bike lanes on those major streets whenever possible."

Washington University fundraiser Alex Ihnen does not care for the bike lanes in any capacity and would rather see smart cyclists on the roads instead of lanes.

"Personally, I do not like bike lanes," Ihnen said. "To me it says that bicycles only belong inside a bike lane and only on streets with bike lanes painted. This isn't the law and shouldn't be the impression.

"Bicycles are an expression of freedom and a wonderful way to exercise and explore. All cyclists should be cautious and aware of their skills and road and traffic conditions at all times."

Most of those who responded to the questions opposed St. Charles' proposed ban on bicycles, which would prohibit cyclists on Highways DD, D, F, Z and 94 from Interstate 64 (U.S. Highway 40) to the county line until shoulders or bicycle lanes are in place. A few cyclist who responded to the questions had experienced major incidents on rural roads in St. Charles.

One of them was Alex Peper, an automotive computer diagnostics and pollution control employee for Car Code. Peper was in a coma for four days after being hit by a truck in the historic St. Charles area. He suffered permanent nerve, ear and eye damage.

Despite his injuries, Peper still finds his experiences on rural highways very enjoyable and opposes a bike ban.

Bicyclists pay road taxes, and bikes "have rights, too," Peper said.

Sharing the Roadway

While many St. Louis cyclists are happy with the area's cycling freedoms, several motorists expressed concerns about sharing the road and believe cyclists take too many liberties.

"In earlier times, bicyclists got onto the grassy or rocky portion beside the roadway when they heard or saw a car coming on the roadway," said Anna Jackson, a retired public school teacher from St. Charles. "More recently, I feel bicyclists look back at you with a look that says 'I have as many or more rights than you on this road. Just try to get around me.'

"It dismays me that cyclists share the roads but do not follow the rules and laws of the road. They often run stop signs, fail to yield to pedestrians, and do not signal for stops or turns."

Jackson also said that she supports the St. Charles bike ban and would like to see traffic laws enforced on cyclists.

John Hartfield is more concerned with safety than the law when it comes to cyclists.

"These people endanger themselves and impede traffic whatever kind of road it is," said Hartfield, a database developer from Florissant. "This isn't Europe or Asia. Virtually no one uses bicycles for transportation. There are a multitude of off-road choices for people to work out or take a ride."

Hartfield has had several incidents with cyclists on urban and rural streets and feels that efforts like Complete Streets have put bike lanes in places where cycling is limited.

"They painted bike lanes down Goodfellow in north city but nobody rides there," he said. "I drive through the central corridor Lindell, Olive, Delmar, Delmar Loop and people ride even when there is no room for bikes."

Rather than have bike lanes on roads, Hartfield feels there should be a harsher policy for cyclists.

"Cyclists should be banned on any road where speed limit is greater than 20 miles-per-hour," he said.

What's Next for St. Charles

According to Vinyard, many leaders in the cycling community have met with St. Charles councilmember and bike ban proposer Joe Brazil to discuss alternatives to the ban. Brazil could not be reached for comment.

"We want to help the council understand that they have alternatives," said Vinyard.

The bill was tabled July 12 and is scheduled to be discussed again Aug. 9. Vinyard said Brazil was very supportive of an alternative and open to ideas.

Read more from the Beacon

St. Charles County Council debates bill to ban bicycles from rural highways

Street smarts: St. Louis strives to make 'Complete Streets' usable by all

Patrick Sullivan, a student at the University of Kentucky, was a Beacon intern. This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Patrick Sullivan
Patrick Sullivan was a student at the University of Kentucky and an intern for the STL Beacon in Fall 2010