The City of Buffalo has encouraged bicycle riding by installing more bike racks, adding some 10 miles of bike lanes a year, and hiring a consultant and meeting with community members to craft a master plan for bicycling. A ferry has even started taking walkers and cyclists from Canalside to the Outer Harbor.
But what’s happening where the rubber meets the road, where two-wheel pedalers mix with four-wheeled gas-pedal-pushers?
Local bicyclists say that while the relationship they have with drivers is sometimes fraught, especially with the dreaded “dooring,” where a driver pops open a door right into the bike rider’s path, it has improved, especially recently.
“When I moved here 20 years ago, it was horrible,” said Dianne Gilleece, drawing out the final word for emphasis. “People trying to run you off the road, throwing things out of their windows, yelling stuff, people dooring you and then getting mad at you for wrecking their door, the cops never showing up or when they did, yelling at you while you sit there with your concussion. It was just horrible, horrible.”
Gilleece lives on the West Side and has biked to and from work and for recreation.
“It has overall improved considerably since then,” Gilleece said. “My personal experience is that it has improved quite a bit.”
Part of that change comes from motorists, who have become more accustomed to sharing the road with bicyclists, she said.
“More people are riding, more people are riding smart, putting lights on their bikes and using hand signals,” she said.
Before, she said, bicyclists “rode any way you could to survive, weaving in and out of traffic, zipping up on the sidewalk, whatever you had to do. Now people are taking a lane like they should, and it helps to slow the traffic down. It used to be that there would be one person out there riding, and the drivers’ attitude would be, ‘You’re in my way!’ But now it’s a common condition. There are more people on bikes doing it correctly, and on certain roads I think car drivers are expecting to see bikes and are slowing down.”
Part of that may be because the city has made a commitment to educate everyone who uses the roads about the probable growing presence of bicycles, said Mike Finn, the acting city engineer.
The city has partnered with GObike Buffalo to educate schoolchildren, Finn said.
Also, people who attend meetings about road improvements learn about the importance of including facilities for bicyclists, such as sharrows, painted arrows on the road that remind drivers that they will share the lanes with two-wheelers.
“A number of our infrastructure improvements really hit home about the right way to use the roads, and call out to drivers, ‘Hey, this is a sharrow, bicycles are going to be sharing the road,’ ” he said. “The same with the bike lanes.”
The education goes beyond drivers and even bicyclists to pedestrians, Finn said.
Moray Campbell, a Roswell Park Cancer Institute researcher, has been riding his bicycle from his East Aurora home up to three times a week between May and October, a 20-mile trek. He rides on the shoulder of Route 16, Seneca Street, and has seen some improvements through the years.
“It’s not a cycle lane, but it’s fine,” he said.
“Certainly in that seven years, some new bike lanes have cropped up in the area that is being renewed,” Campbell said.
That has raised awareness, he said.
“I’ve never had trouble with a car,” he said. “The worst you get is, like last week, I was overtaking a garbage truck and some guy was blaring on his horn, and I was thinking, ‘What did you expect me to do?’ There are one or two people around who are somewhat antagonistic to cyclists, honking their horns and being a bit frustrated, but that’s not very common at all. Most of the time, you just get sort of bemusement.”
Tivona Renoni, community outreach coordinator for GObike Buffalo, has traveled almost exclusively by bike since moving to Buffalo three years ago. She said that she, too, has seen improvements both in road design and in attitude.
“I definitely have found, even in the three years I have been here, a huge upswing in cyclists,” she said. “I have seen a vast improvement of infrastructure, the culture, people getting involved, a lot of interest, bikes have become more part of the norm.”
Her experiences with drivers, she said, “are a mixed bag.”
“Some people are very kind and encouraging when I ride, and some people are just angered by my presence on the road, who are yelling these obscene things at me or telling me that I need a license plate to be on the road, which isn’t true, or people doing sketchy things by swerving around me or trying to scare me by creeping up behind me or speeding by me,” she said.
Renoni said that female cyclists and bicycle enthusiasts face extra challenges, “although I think that’s changing, too.” Sometimes people who mean to encourage her are inadvertently condescending, such as someone who calls out, “Wow, you go honey!” when they see her biking in bad weather. “You would never say that to a man,” she said. “I worked in a bike shop for a year, and I got comments all the time, like, ‘It’s crazy that you know more than me about bikes!’ Why, because you’re a man and I’m a woman?”
That, too, may be improving, she said. “I think there are a lot of really powerful women who are bicycling because they want to, because they like it, because they have to, whatever, the same reasons men are. I don’t think it’s equal, but I think it’s definitely improving for women as well.”
Campbell and other cyclists interviewed mentioned one situation that really irks them – when fellow cyclists ride against traffic rather than with it. “Why do they do that?” asked Campbell, exasperated. “It’s the most dangerous thing I’ve ever seen, but it’s doubly dangerous if you’re a cyclist. If I ever see a cyclist doing that, I’m cycling along and they are coming toward me, I always shout at them, ‘Get on the other side of the road!’ It’s so dangerous and frustrating, because I have to go out into the road to go around them.”