Bikers vs. Drivers: Chattanooga is 'bike-friendly', but there is tension between cyclists, drivers

photo Anthony Green rides his bike along Lake Resort Drive and tries to avoid heavy traffic.
photo About Chattlandia: It's an occasional series that take a look at our region through the eyes of social media. Produced by Lynda Edwards. Illustrated by MattMcClane. All comments from the Times Free Press Facebook page. Have an idea for Chattlandia? Email

Justin Grasham hasn't owned a car for five years; he commutes on his Allez Pro bike from his Red Bank home to his downtown job at Mellow Mushroom.

When the light on his bike died after Daylight Saving Time ended, he asked a buddy to drive him to work so he wouldn't endanger himself or vehicle drivers in the dark.

"There isn't a nearby bus stop, and I can't afford a car," the 29-year-old Grasham says, adding that he does his best to bike safely.

Biking lawsHere are some biking laws on the books, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Laws in Georgia and Alabama are almost identical:• Bicyclists are drivers of vehicles and have the same rights as other vehicle drivers.• State law requires drivers to give at least 3 feet when passing bicyclists, even more when speeds are high.• The law allows bicyclists to ride as far to the left of curb debris and storm drain grates as needed for safety.• If a lane is too narrow for a motorist to safely pass a cyclist, allowing the cyclist a safe buffer-distance from road hazards and the passing vehicle, the law allows the bicyclist to take the entire lane.• Bicyclists shall not ride more than two abreast, except on paths or parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles. Persons riding two abreast shall not impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic.

"I keep up with traffic and move over as far to the edge of the road as I can go, but cars and pickups still zoom within inches of me as if they're mad I'm there," he says. "Drivers have screamed at me, cursed at me, thrown garbage at me.

"Chattanooga markets itself as a bike-friendly city but it doesn't always feel like that on a bike."

The League of American Bicyclists honored Chattanooga as a Silver Level Bicycle Friendly Community this past April. But many cyclists, like Justin, often feel more hate than affection when they ride. The Times Free Press Facebook page recently asked for comments about cycling, driving and sharing the road. The page exploded, both with comments from cyclists and from drivers.

"I actually do hate cyclists," Hikari No Hara posted.

"I hate cyclists with a passion. I do not respect their right to use public roads that do not have dedicated bike lanes. Groups of two or more should not be allowed to use curvy mountain roads like Suck Creek Road without a private motorcycle escort," Phillip Eskew posted.

Shon Medley: "Let me put all doubt to rest. Yes! Drivers hate you! You're in the way! You're a hazard! I don't care how well-toned your Spandex glutes are."

Within days, there were hundreds of comments, many with multiple replies nestled within other replies like enraged Russian nesting dolls. Animosity quickly morphed into a cultural clash with bike riders upbraided as "tree huggers" and "hippies" while Spandex and Lycra biking shorts seemed code for "rich slackers."

Bikers, while not as vehemently angry as drivers overall, did have a few choice words about drivers - "uneducated, bigoted rednecks," one said - and a general belief that many drivers are inattentive, self-centered and need to learn the laws. But they also seemed caught off guard by some drivers' animosity.

One angry remark from a cyclist came after a driver said he hoped a biker would be killed on the road, prompting the cyclist to ask whether the driver had "teeny testicles" and was issuing a death threat.

Overall, though, there is a huge gap between the mindsets of bikers and drivers.

"It would take an anthropologist to unravel, but there definitely is a cultural clash between cyclists and vehicle drivers," says Ruth Thompson of Chattanooga Outdoors, a bike path advocate. "The fact is a lot of people - including a middle-aged lady like me - ride bikes here, and some need them to get to work," says Thompson, who teaches monthly free bike safety classes. "Cyclists are not just skinny guys in Lycra. And there are some things we can do to make life better on the road for all of us."

Perhaps a first step toward peace would be clarifying a few points of confusion between bikers and drivers. Here are some alternating biker/driver comments from the TFP Facebook page and an examination of the issues they raise:

Road rules

• Andy Hamilton: "There is no such thing as a cyclist 3-foot rule. They actually have a right to the whole lane. They are being polite when they stay within a foot of the edge. And when people buzz you at 45+ mph, you don't want to be on the edge of the road."

• Jamey McCurdy: "I hate cyclists who ride out in the middle of the lane. Sure you have a right to ride on the street but use some common sense."

"Tennessee law gives cyclists and cars equal access to the road," says Thompson. "Cyclists are required to ride as far to the right as practicable and are required to have a red reflector on the back of the bike and a white light on the front."

But safety experts do recommend that bicyclists ride in the middle of the road on certain occasions.

"At night, safety experts recommend the cyclist ride in the middle of the lane," she says.

And there actually is a 3-foot rule, but it applies to drivers, not cyclists.

It refers to the 2007 Jeff Roth and Brian Brown Bicycle Protection Act, so popular it passed the Tennessee House and Senate with no opposition. The law requires drivers to maintain a safe distance of not less than 3 feet between a vehicle and a cyclist when the two are on the same side of the road. The law places primary responsibility on the driver, reasoning that a 10-pound bike with 2-inch-wide wheels does less damage than a 2-ton vehicle with four tires.

The law was named after two Tennessee cyclists who were killed when vehicles smashed into them. Roth was a physical therapist, a husband and a father of three daughters. He died when pickup truck struck him from behind near Maryville. Brown, recreation director at the University of Tennessee at Martin was killed when a truck hit him while he rode his bike on the shoulder of highway.


• Greg Williams: "I wonder how many wrecks are caused by a driver avoiding a cyclist and the cyclist just drives off? There's no way to track them as they aren't tagged like a car."

• Anthony Miller: "I have pondered the question of 'Why?' many times after somebody slowed or stopped to yell curses (at bicyclists) ... They would swerve into oncoming traffic to miss an animal but consider fellow citizens a nuisance deserving an immediate death penalty for being in their way."

Statistically, when it comes to crashes between bikes and cars, Hamilton County is not the most dangerous metropolitan county in Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation. In 2013, Hamilton County had one fatality and 29 injuries from such collisions. As of mid-November 2014, Hamilton had no fatalities and 28 injuries.

In comparison, Davidson County in Nashville had no deaths and 76 injuries in 2013, but injuries plummeted to 41 with no fatalities this year. In 2013, Memphis' Shelby County had no fatalities and 100 injuries, but this year injuries plunged to 66 with no fatalities. Knox County had one fatality and 32 injuries in 2013, but no fatalities and 21 injuries this year.

ChattlandiaDestin Romero noted that the biker/driver debate would make a great episode of "Portlandia," the TV series based on life in Portland which, like Chattanooga, is smack dab in the middle of the glorious outdoors and faces similar cultural clashes. In that spirit, vehicle driver Phil Kranz and cyclists Phil Ruhling, Brian Middleton and Christopher Haddock found common ground after witty Facebook combat.Chris: Roads are for cars!Jessica: If I should be OK with being behind a cyclist holding up traffic doing 15 mph in a 55 (mph zone), it should be OK for me to fly by them doing 80. Huge pet peeve. HATE cyclists.Robin: I've been hit 2x, once (by driver who) flew thru red light, once by drunk driver.Selling the 2nd Amendment: Ride near the gutter where you belong.Travis: Hope next time you get hit, it'll be one less cyclist. Get a car, hippie. If you didn't ride your bike in the street, you wouldn't be hit.Courtney: Basically, Travis Reinel, thank you.Wendy: Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cyclists. Travis wants them dead.• Phil: "Who gives a crap about bikes? If you're an adult riding a bike to work, you're either a tree hugger or got a DUI and lost your license."• Brian: "Or you're healthier than the average obese ignorant Chattanoogan."• Phil: "Like I said: tree huggers ... I'm too busy (burning) fossil fuels, using lots of paper and lots of polluting chemicals. I'm proud to drive my gas-guzzling truck and cars. I'll burn a gallon for you."• Christopher: "Not a tree hugger. Have a license. Drive a Ford F-250 pickup truck. Ride a bike 5,000 miles or so a year."• Phil: "You ride a bicycle 5,000 miles a year? How do you fit it into your Prius? I'd rather drive my car."• Christopher: "Yep. 5k. Wish it were more."• Phil: "Well, I might blow you crap, but I think it's excellent you ride as much as you do. Unfortunately, I can't ride, bad knees. Just be careful out there."• Paul: "Phil, cycling is excellent for bad knees. Give it a shot."• Phil: "Perhaps I will."

"Obviously, the 2014 data won't be complete, yet it looks like bicycle crashes will be trending downward in Hamilton County for 2014," says Jessica L. Wilson, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for TDOT.


• D. Baughman: "I hate it when it's rush hour and you have some dude on a bike in the middle of the road. There's a sidewalk."

• Mary Reed: "I biked from the tracks@Holtzclaw to UTC and had people screaming at me 'Get on the sidewalk,' coming as close as they could to hitting me."

• Brendan Taylor: "Riding on sidewalks would be stupid as well, for one, it is illegal."

• David Snyder: "Actually it's not. See section TCA 55-52-103 - Bicycle Chapter Definitions."

Each municipality has its own rules about whether bicycles are allowed on sidewalks. In some towns, it is illegal, but Chattanooga permits bikes on sidewalks if the road is too hazardous. For example, a truck may be parked, blocking the right lane and forcing cars to go around it, putting any cyclist in front of the truck in a blind spot and making sidewalks a safer choice.

In a separate but similar situation, inside the multiple tunnels around Chattanooga, elevated sidewalks with rails are not wide enough for a cyclist to walk his bike on them, bikers say. Safety experts recommend that the cyclist ride in the center of the furthermost right lane in a tunnel, Thompson says.

Dangerous places

• Jeannie Brown: "I have family that lives off White Oak Mountain in Cleveland. I have seen cyclists on that steep curvy road. There are blind spots. There is no way to pass safely."

• Daniel Harris: "Riding on roads, such as Highway 341 in Georgia, is not good... curvy, narrow and has many blind spots. Bikes cause safety issues."

Some drivers say that, while they admire bike riders' love of the outdoors, they're terrified of killing cyclists accidentally. Drivers have long complained about bikers on Signal Mountain Boulevard and the W Road on Signal Mountain, Ochs Highway on Lookout Mountain and Montlake Road on Mowbray Mountain in Soddy-Daisy. Also mentioned frequently are Ooltewah-Ringgold Road, which has narrow shoulders, and Amnicola Highway, which simply has a lot of fast-moving cars.

For 15 years, Anthony Green commuted 13 miles from Hixson to downtown Chattanooga on his old Schwinn bike until he retired this spring from his federal parole officer's job. His route included Lake Resort Road alongside Lake Chickamauga.

The stretch of road by (Hales Bar) marina was a scary part of my daily commute. Very narrow with no shoulder and a sheer drop," he says.

"Honestly, I don't remember drivers being mean to me," Green continues. "They may have been frustrated to have to go a bit slower for me. I try to be polite and get off on the edge of the road and wave them around me to avoid backing up traffic."

But even downtown Chattanooga in daylight can be perilous. Cyclist Danja Lila Mewes was hit a few weeks ago while turning right off Frazier Avenue onto Market Street.

"Even at a low speed I was pushed across two traffic lanes," says Mewes, who was not badly injured. "I lived five years in Atlanta and was never hit."

Contact Lynda Edwards at or 423-757-6391.