Police launch safe biking initiative to improve cycling in Chattanooga

A bicylist waits in heavy traffic on Frazier Avenue before pedalling his bicycle across North Market Street. Outdoor Chattanooga, the Chattanooga Police Department and the city's transportation department sponsored a Safe Bicycling Initiative Roundtable aimed at identifying area locations where problems often occur, illegal or inappropriate actions by both drivers and bicyclists, and helping officers and others learn how they can work to increase tolerance on both sides. With context of rapidly increasing cycling interest and activity locally, high-profile incidents and deaths in recent years.

Chattanooga has made great strides in growing its cycling community and attracting economic development through the sport.

But the growth in cycling hasn't come without plenty of conflict with motorists.

"As both those groups are getting bigger and bigger, the conflicts are getting more and more," Chattanooga police officer Rob Simmons said Tuesday. "I've looked at the past five years of accidents, and there hasn't been a growth in the accident rate, but the injury rate has gone up."

The city is now the host city for two Ironman triathlon events as well as the USA Cycling men's and women's pro championships, and last year the city was named a Silver Level bicycle-friendly community by the League of American Bicyclists in recognition of its efforts to promote cycling.

Yet a cyclist was attacked on Raccoon Mountain by a group of youth and sprayed with pepper spray. Tacks were placed on the road during the bike portion of the inaugural Ironman Chattanooga last fall.

With this in mind, and at the encouragement of Chattanooga police Chief Fred Fletcher, Simmons has launched the Chattanooga Safe Biking Initiative with the goal of educating both cyclists and motorists about the existing laws and creating a safer environment for all types of transportation.

Officials held a roundtable discussion about bicycle safety at Outdoor Chattanooga Tuesday night.

Simmons said city Mayor Andy Berke's office as well as Fletcher provided the environment for him to undertake such an effort where it may not have been possible in the past. Fletcher is a cyclist who previously worked in Austin, Texas, an avid cycling community that has worked to make cycling safer.

"With the national championships coming to town and two Ironmans, this [cycling] is something that people are doing a lot now," Simmons said. "That created the environment for me to approach the chief with my concerns and the chief was on board with it."

Safe biking movement

The Chattanooga Safe Biking Initiative involves three phases to improve transportation for cyclists and motorists, which will be implemented over the next several months.* Phase 1: Education of motorists on the laws regarding cycling on city streets * Phase 2: Education of cyclists on their rights and their responsibilities regarding cycling legally on city streets * Phase 3: Increased enforcement of relevant laws regarding safe cycling and driving around bicyclists For more information on the Chattanooga Safe Biking Initiative, "like" the Chattanooga Safe Biking Initiative's page on Facebook or contact officer Rob Simmons at simmons_r@chattanooga.gov.

The CPD's safe biking initiative has as its goals decreasing the number of crashes involving motorists and bicyclists, increasing understanding of the laws and rules by both motorists and cyclists and tolerance between the two groups, and increasing the level of trust between the cycling community and the police and other public safety agencies.

One of the things that Simmons has been working on is a specially designed bike that will be equipped with cameras and radar to determine if motorists are violating the 3-foot law that requires cars to give bikes 3 feet of clearance when passing. The radar bike will be ridden by plain-clothed officers and will notify them if a motorist passes to close to the bike and should be cited for violating the law.

Cycling advocate Jim Johnson, owner of Bike Tours Direct, was among the 30-40 people at Tuesday's meeting. He was encouraged by the change of tone the Chattanooga Safe Biking Initiative is bringing to the city to help everyone better understand their rights as well as their obligations on the road.

"Chief Fletcher is such a breath of fresh air," he said. "He's a cyclist, and he knows what it's like. He knows our frustrations, and he also knows the things that we do that we shouldn't do.

"I'm a strong proponent of the concept that sometimes we're our own worst enemy, so we have to look at ourselves as well as just always complaining about motorists."

In addition to Simmons' discussions of work that the police will be doing, city transportation engineer Bert Kuyrkendall told the group about plans to begin installing better cycling facilities. The city hopes to secure $36 million to install 330 miles of bike facilities in the city over the next four years.

The first project will be the installation of protected bike lanes on Broad Street from the Riverwalk to M.L. King Boulevard starting this summer. The project converts Broad Street from three lanes of traffic in each direction to two lanes and add a protected cyclist-only lane.

"I think getting cyclists a little separation from car traffic increases their safety," Kuyrkendall said. "And it's going to encourage a lot of people to ride that like to ride bikes and want to ride bikes but don't feel comfortable sharing space with cars.

Kuyrkendall said he thinks creating better bike facilities will be the next step in Chattanooga's continued growth as a city for both tourists and residents.

"We kind of see protected bike lanes as the new thing, just like the electric shuttle was the new thing however many years ago," he said. "The shuttle opened up a lot of life downtown. It enabled people to get around easier -- you didn't have to park and walk a long way.

"We see protected bike lanes as the next wave of a really new and fun way to get around not only downtown but throughout the city."

Contact staff writer Jim Tanner at jtanner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6478. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.