City Streets, Safe Places to Bicycle

“Chris,” I said to my grown-up grandson whose previous urban cycling had been in St Paul and Minneapolis, “I suppose you ride the Monon Trail when you go to Broad Ripple Village.”

“Not really, Grandpa,” he responded. “I usually ride straight up College Avenue. I feel safer.”

This conversation helped me understand my initial experiences on this urban trail and greenway, which has come into being in the years since I moved away from Indianapolis. It also helped me understand  the downside to urban bicycle trails and the upside to cycling city streets.

Both as cyclist on the trail and motorist driving on the intersecting streets, I had sensed the peril. Streets crossing the trail have the right of way and at intersections cyclists have to stop, peer around bushes and other obstructions to their view, and then proceed when the coast is clear.

Heavy-duty arterials (like six-laned 38th Street) may be the safest because there is no question but that cyclists have to exercise great caution. Furthermore, there is an island between the two directions of traffic so that cyclists only have to wait for clearing in one direction as they make their two-part crossing. In contrast, the two-laned residential through streets, like 52nd Street on which I have cycled and driven countless times during my thirty-three years living on the city’s north side, are perilous. I’m not used to slowing down at the point where the trail crosses the street, and my first couple of trips across town this time were too fast for the safety of cyclists who might have been trying to get across.

Fortunately for all concerned, regulars who drive these streets are learning to be careful. Some of them come to a full stop, which may be good for the cyclists trying to cross, but increases the possibility of rear-end collisions because other motorists would ordinarily not expect to find a stopped vehicle on the street in front of them.

On one of my rides on the Monon, this time with my Indianapolis son who has cycled over the north side since he was a kid, we met a member of the Indianapolis Police Department. He cycles some part of the trail, from 30th Street northward, nearly every day. “There have been several murders in my district during the past few months,” he told us. “Recently, some men jumped out of the bushes up by 46h Street, grabbed a cyclist, and shot him in the hand. The trail is safer north of 54th Street.”

A few days later, I was on the Monon again, south of the “safe district” and had to cycle to the side of the trail in order to allow two police cars to work their way southward. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry, but it was unsettling to see them.

On bright summer days, around the retail nodes, especially Broad Ripple, Nora, and Carmel, the trail comes into its own: walkers, runners, people on roller blades, mothers pushing strollers, little ones on trikes, with big brother or sister on juvenile bikes. And grown-up bicyclists who worry about cars on streets. Safety in numbers, lots of room for everybody!

Except for cyclists like me, whose goals are to ride hard and fast, without the need to keep slowing down and dodging the little ones. “On your left, please,” usually alerts people ambling along taking up all of the trail, but not if they have plugged up their ears with music devices.

So, for fast riding grown-ups like me, the streets are better. Intersections are wide open enough to see, the rules of the road are clear to cyclists and drivers alike. I can ride as fast as I want.

But Chris, probably not College Avenue. It’s too busy, too rough, too little room for cyclists. North Pennsylvania and Washington Boulevard are better: wide, reasonably patient  residential drivers, long stretches without stops, protected intersections, smooth pavement, nice looking houses, lots of green grass and shade trees.

That’s the kind of trail I like. Aggressive urban cyclist that I am, that’s where I feel safe.

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