Bike commuters on the rise

Dec. 5, 2014

It was a Nebraska blizzard. The wind was blowing, and visibility was non-existent. Stranded drivers dotted the sides of the dangerous roads while bicyclist Heidi Martinez-Reyes trudged onward.

"I was having an absolute blast," Martinez-Reyes said. She described this blizzard as one of her favorite bike commutes because she enjoyed the challenge.

Martinez-Reyes, who started biking two years ago, is part of an increasing population of bike commuters in Lincoln. According to the American Community Survey, there has been a 21 percent increase in the number of bike commuters from 2011 to 2013.

Sydney Brown, blended learning coordinator at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is another recent bike commuter who has biked recreationally for most of her life.

"Even when the weather is foul, it's pleasant because it gets you outside," Brown said.

For Martinez-Reyes, her ride provides time for reflection.

"It helps me get ready for work, and then it helps me get calmed down from work," she said.

The cost of gas and the lack of parking are other reasons that Brown and Martinez-Reyes choose to bike to work.

Brown's work requires her to attend meetings on both UNL campuses, and her office building at 1520 N. 20th Circle is conveniently located a mile or less from either location. Brown can make the trip in five minutes; that same trip would require 10 minutes or more if she drove, counting the parking spot search and walking to her destination.

Commuting by bike is not without its challenges. A couple of recent bike accidents, including a Sept. 22 accident that led to a local doctor's death, have renewed concerns about bicyclists' safety. The majority of those accidents were on Saltillo Road, which is south of Lincoln.

In response to the accidents, the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office released a video encouraging drivers and bicyclists to share the road safely.

"Cyclists have a legal right to use the road, and drivers must give them at least 3 feet passing," Chief Deputy Sheriff Jeff Bliemeister said. "It's the law."

For Brown and Martinez-Reyes, the recent accidents haven't affected their bike commute because they were cautious cyclists already.

"I have the mentality that everyone is going to hit me," Martinez-Reyes said.

When a collision happens, the biker usually suffers the most damage.

"As the smallest vehicle, I'm the one who--right or wrong--will lose," Brown said.

Taylor Kibbie, sales manager at the Bike Rack, has commuted by bike for the past five years and recommends bicyclists wear high-visibility clothing, which the shop began selling a year ago, and use high-powered bicycle lights.

However, these safety measures can't prevent all conflicts between bikers and drivers.

"There's definitely both a--hole drivers and a--hole bikers," he said. The reason for bikers' bad perception in the driving community is bikers breaking traffic laws are more visible than their driver counterparts according to Kibbie.

Ann Koopmann, who has driven in Lincoln for 34 years, said she believes bicyclists should be restricted to specific bike routes, such as bike lanes or trails.

"Bikers are somewhat foolish," Koopmann said. They are "taking their lives in their own hands."

She was unaware of Nebraska's 3-feet passing law and said there is a safety concern due to a general lack of knowledge in regards to biking laws.

However, Koopmann said her perception of bikers varies depending on her own mode of transportation. Since she lives on the UNL City Campus, she encounters bikers daily while walking and driving.

"As a pedestrian on a college campus, I am more frustrated by bikers," Koopmann said. "As a driver, I just try to be more cautious."

Thanks to cautious drivers like Koopmann, Lincoln's bike accidents have decreased 11 percent from 2011 to 2013, according to Lincoln Police Officer Katie Flood.

This decrease also shows the city's increased commitment to a "Complete Streets" policy, according to David Cary, the Lincoln/Lancaster County long-range planning manager.

"Generally, we want our transportation to be multi-modal," Cary said. "We work toward making the choice to walk, bike and drive an easier choice over time."

One proposed project is the N Street protected bikeway. The bikeway, which would be the state's first, would run from Seventh Street to 22nd Street and connect the Jamaica North and Billy Wolff trails.

The bikeway plan "is convenient and secure, even for families who might not be too enthusiastic biking downtown," said Ernie Castillo, who works for the Lincoln's Urban Development Department and is the lead on the project.

The project will greatly benefit less-confident bikers who are concerned about the safety aspect, according to Brown.

"It is great for a wider array of people to bike and going to be a really important addition," she said.

The city closed its second bidding process for bikeway's construction on Nov. 21. The first session had only one bid that was nearly double the project's estimated cost. Castillo said they received five bids this time with a low bid of $2.4 million, which is within the estimate. The group is now evaluating the bids and searching for funding before that bid expires on Jan. 21.

The N Street Protected Bikeway could have a large effect on the future of Lincoln's bike infrastructure.

"We need to have projects that have success to further sell (biking projects) to the public," Cary said.

According to Brown, selling bike riding to people is easy once she gets them on a bike.

"If someone hasn't ridden a bike in many years, it's still that fun," she said.