Easthampton opens full road lanes to cyclists

  • Bruce Frankel, left, of Florence, and Matt Waugh, of Easthampton, ride down Cottage Street in Easthampton during the lunch hour on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Chris Webber, of Easthampton, turns onto Union Street from Cottage Street in Easthampton during the lunch hour on Tuesday. As he walked his bicycle the rest of the way up Union Street to a coffee shop, Webber said that he rides all over town but riding on Cottage and Union Streets — which are relatively narrow, with cars parked on both sides — is “five minutes of dicey-ness.” STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bruce Frankel, left, of Florence, and Matt Waugh, of Easthampton, ride down Cottage Street in Easthampton during the lunch hour on Tuesday.The City Council has voted to allow cyclists to use the full width of the road while riding in the city, rather than confining them to the right side only. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 10/9/2018 11:17:31 PM

EASTHAMPTON — City Councilors approved a change in the city’s law to allow bicyclists to use the full lane of the road last week, a move councilors say will bring more uniformity with surrounding communities and the rest of the state.

In an 8-1 vote at the Oct. 3 meeting, the council revised the city’s bicycle ordinance due to safety concerns for cyclists and to more closely align with the state law, which allows for full lane use by cyclists. The city’s previous ordinance limited cyclists to the far-right side of the road, which councilors said posed dangerous conditions for cyclists, in addition to being more restrictive than the Massachusetts General Law.

“Instead of restricting riders to ride on the right hand side of the road in Easthampton — where other communities may allow full lane usage — it was agreed that we would follow full lane usage in Easthampton,” Councilor Margaret A. Conniff said at the meeting. “By restricting riders to the right-hand side, we may present a potential inadvertent violation to riders who enter Easthampton roads from other communities.”

Cars attempting to pass bicyclists without going into the opposite lane present one of the greatest risks to bicyclists restricted to the right side of the road, Conniff said.

“(Cars) will still try to squeeze by and it could present the hazard,” Conniff said. “The attempt is to allow a bike rider to use the full lane as a car would. However, we feel that it is critical that all bike riders understand that this is not an invitation to slow traffic or to create a backup due to slow riding.”

Eli Damon, a bicyclist advocate from Easthampton, said the city took a step in the right direction by eliminating the “far-right rule” because it allows cyclists to have greater control of their safety when riding on the road.

Yield when safe

A video presented at the city council meeting, produced by the American Bicycling Education Association, said that the most common type of crash involving cars and bicycles occurs when cars attempt to overtake a bicyclist.

“When cyclists ride at the edge, it can appear that there is enough room for a motorist to overpass without changing lanes,” the video states. “When a cyclist narrows space to the left, it makes it clear to motorists that a lane change is necessary.”

Other dangers posed to bicyclists riding to the right include pavement conditions and the swinging open of doors from parked cars, according to the video.

Still, councilors said they want bicyclists to yield to cars wishing to pass them when conditions are safe enough to do so.

The ordinance states, “The operator of the bicycle shall not unnecessarily obstruct vehicles wishing to safely pass on the left and shall yield to the passing vehicle by moving as far to the right as is safe.”

Conniff said, “We are making an emphatic statement that if you are in the full lane, and a car or another vehicle comes up behind you wishing to pass you, that you should yield and go to far side of the lane.”

Police Chief Robert Alberti said at the meeting that he is not opposed to the changing of the ordinance, yet expressed some concern.

He wanted residents to know that this change will not allow bicyclists to block traffic. He also said that in conversations with councilors, he wanted to make sure the ordinance would be more in line with surrounding towns and the state law.

Easthampton passed the ordinance restricting bicyclists to the right side of the road in 2012, but it created the possibility of potential violations for bike riders coming into the city. This created a “problematic and unnecessary” situation for cyclists, Conniff said.

Councilor Daniel Rist said that the city having a bicycle ordinance inconsistent and more restrictive than neighboring communities put the Easthampton Police Department “in a difficult situation.”

The city’s ordinance subcommittee did not review the amended ordinance, the committee’s chairman Salem Derby said.

“We did not discuss this, but I am fine with it because it aligns it back to state law,” Derby said.

Derby also said no other area community has an ordinance as restrictive as the one Easthampton just replaced.

The only councilor to oppose the amendment, James Kwiecinski, said he was concerned about the “shock” it could make for drivers used to seeing cyclists riding on the right side of the road.

He said watching the American Bicycling Education Association video was “educational” for car drivers to understand the dangers posed to cyclists, but he questioned whether there had been enough information made available to the public.

“I think (the ordinance) requires some education,” Kwiecinski said.

Kwiecinski said Tuesday that there could be confusion created if car drivers are not expecting to see bicyclists using the full lane on the road.

“It becomes an unsafe situation if everybody does not have the same expectation,” Kwiecinski said. “I wanted to see some education before we implemented a change in the law. It’s complicated, and it needs to be clarified and well understood.”

Derby made the point that even though cyclists will be allowed to use the full lane, they do not necessarily have to use it all the time.

Derby said that “there is absolutely times you need to take the lane, and times you have to yield,” noting that a majority of sidewalks in the city are permitted to be used by bicyclists with the exception being in the downtown area.

Damon, the bicyclist advocate, teaches bicycle safety and lane control techniques through a program called “CyclingSavvy,” which is part of the the American Bicycling Education Association.

“Lane control is the most important, and least understood, technique that we teach,” Damon said. “There are so many hazards that a cyclist exposes themselves to, so they are timid and stay on the edge instead of being further in the road as part of the flow of traffic.”

He said the change in the city ordinance means he can continue to teach those techniques since cyclists will no longer be restricted to the right side of the road.

He added, “A cyclist is responsible for being courteous to motorists” and yielding to the right in order to allow for a car to pass them.

“People should get the training first,” Damon said. “People who don’t have the training, the tendency is to be way too timid. The training gives them more confidence to be more assertive instead of untrained people who are recklessly assertive.”

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com.
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