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Bikes & bruises: City cyclists working to educate public about bike safety

Jennifer Sprouse • Nov 19, 2012 at 9:00 PM

You can’t keep a good man down, even if he’s been knocked down five times. But for a group of Johnson City bicycle enthusiasts, five is way too many.

Johnson City cycling enthusiast Justin Tipton was riding his bike between Friday morning when he was hit by a vehicle at the corner of Lark Street and Skyline Drive.

The vehicle left the scene, and an injured Tipton was taken to Johnson City Medical Center for treatment. By Saturday evening, Tipton was back home recovering from the accident that left him with a broken clavicle and many sore spots.

As a co-founder of JC Bike Party and Little City Bike Collective, Tipton is not an inexperienced cyclist. He was on his way to film an interview for a bike documentary when he was sideswiped by the vehicle.

Friday’s encounter with a car wasn’t his first.

“This will be the fifth time in the past two years,” Tipton said. “I’m trying to take the negative energy from these things happening to me and turn it around and make something positive and make something real.”

One way he’s tried to accomplish this is by educating the public through the bicycling organization he and Charis Hickson founded. According to its Facebook page, JC Bike Party promotes bike safety for bicyclists and motorists, and hosts biking events for members.

“I’m giving them the opportunity to change their minds about alternative transportation, because it really hasn’t been presented to them,” Tipton said. “The main thing about it is a bicycle in America and this area especially is considered a toy, not a vehicle or transportation.”

Hickson said while most people believe cyclists shouldn’t be on the road, by law they have to ride there — not on sidewalks like some might think. Johnson City Municipal Code requires any cyclist over 16 to ride on roads rather than sidewalks unless supervising a child while riding.

Twenty-one states, including Tennessee, require motorists to give bicyclists at least a 3-foot buffer when passing. Hickson said most drivers are not aware of the regulation.

“If you’re going to pass a bicyclist ... make 3 feet in between your car and the cyclist,” Hickson said. “It’s also not recommended to pass a bicyclist going certain miles per hour more than they are, you know, due to wind gusts and things like that that can knock them off of their bike.”

Johnson City code also has provisions for how cyclists ride on city streets. When a bicycle lane is not available, cyclists must ride on the right side of the road, moving in the same direction as motor vehicle traffic. When a bike lane is available, all cyclists must ride in the lane in the same direction as traffic but may move out of the bike lane to make a turn or to avoid a hazardous condition.

By state law, cyclists cannot ride more than two side by side when in traffic. The state also requires cyclists to ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the road except:

— When passing another vehicle in the same direction

— When preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway

— When necessary to avoid objects, parked or moving vehicles, pedestrians, animals or surface hazards or in substandard width lanes.

Hickson said as a cyclist the courteous thing to do on a heavily traveled two-lane road would be to pull aside to let vehicles pass, but she said this scenario many times has caused tension due to personal reactions and beliefs of the motorist and the bicyclist.

“These are all very personal issues that can be settled with education and we are working with the city to provide a better infrastructure,” Hickson said. “I’ve found that there’s just a serious lack of education.”

She said more bike lanes around the city would definitely help, but community support is essential to improving biking safety.

“It’s just a matter of does the community want it, is that on our priority list,” Hickson said. “I think that the most important areas to put bicycle infrastructure is around the university, up through Milligan, places where there are two-lane roads that it’s just absolutely not safe.”

“We do have plans for more bicycle paths in the city,” said Anthony Todd, the city’s traffic engineer. “We have plans to extend the State of Franklin walkway/bikeway project from University Parkway north to Earnest Street further into downtown. We also have a section of this recently built. We also have a multi-purpose path on the north side of town, and there are other plans in the works to build more bike paths in the ETSU area.”

Meanwhile, though not an exclusively downtown project, the first-ever “rails-to-trails” project in East Tennessee, a 10-mile stretch of pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly pathway from Johnson City to the edge of Elizabethton, will increase the amount of available space for two wheelers. Durham, N.C.-based Alta/Greenways is expected to present a detailed master plan of the project to the City Commission sometime in January.

Stephanie Chambers, one of JC Bike Party’s administrators, said accidents like Tipton’s happen frequently, and being aware of your surroundings is an important part of riding safely.

“You need to make sure that you’re equipped from a safety standpoint, that you have your lights on your bike if it’s dark, those kinds of things,” Stephanie said. “You have to really ... ride defensively.”

She said the responsibility is not only on the cyclists, though.

“Some motorists spend a great deal of energy honking, blasting their horns, yelling out the window at people, telling them they shouldn’t be riding their bikes there, and that’s distracting and that can cause a wreck, too,” she said.

Her husband, Sam, another member of JC Bike Party, makes daily commutes from their home in Gray into Johnson City. He said creating a biking infrastructure would make Johnson City an even better town to bike.

“We need some wide shoulders and we definitely need some bike lanes and we need to take care of the ones that we have a little bit better,” Sam Chambers said.

He said cyclists need to make sure they stand out when riding the roads. Flashing lights on bikes, bright jackets, reflective tape on shoes and headlights on bikes would help with visibility problems, he said.

As for Tipton, his long-term hopes are to make Johnson City an even better city to live in and to educate people on the reasons some residents have chosen to use alternative transportation. Right now, though, he is eager to get back out on the road.

“I really cannot wait to be able to get back on my bike,” he said.

For more information on JC Bike Party, visit their website at www.facebook.com/jcbikeparty and to review Johnson City’s local municipal bicycle ordinances, visit www.jcmpo.org/Bike/local_code.htm.

Press Staff Writer Gary B. Gray contributed to this article.

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