In 1993, as Police Sgt. Rick Pierce pedaled his bicycle to the station downtown, two men in a car committed a felony.
They threw something at him ” for fun, Pierce reckons. But one could call it assault with a deadly weapon.
“A Gatorade bottle was thrown past my head from a moving vehicle,” he said. “It missed by inches, tumbled into the gutter, and the car was going so fast I couldn’t read the tag. “¦ I just know it was a silver or gray Cadillac convertible.”
Anyone who rides a bicycle regularly on the open road sooner or later may have a similar story. Pierce said it was the contents of the bottle that made the incident especially memorable.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “The bottle skidded across and burst open. I could smell it. The bottle was full of urine. How pleasant is that?”
Nevertheless, Pierce remained committed to bike commuting. For more than a decade, he’s been one of the 400 or so hardy souls in Oklahoma City who commute regularly by bicycle, according to a 2007 U.S. Census report.
That report placed Oklahoma City in the bottom 10 cities for bicycle commuting nationwide, with riders like Pierce holding the line against the metro being dead last (which went to Kansas City at zero percent). OKC came in at sixth from the bottom, with only .2 percent riding regularly to work. At the other end, Portland, Ore., came in first with 3.5 percent of the population pedaling to work.
That’s changing now, Pierce said.
“I’ve seen an increase in the numbers on bicycles recently,” he said. “I directly attribute that to the cost of fuel. “¦ I see people riding more than I ever have.”
While urine-flinging car thugs are rare, Pierce said, more conventional hazards are not. High-speed traffic moving swiftly in and out of downtown makes bicycle commuting a thought-provoking commitment. However, Pierce said, the city is rising to meet the challenge.
“I’m proud of this city, not just as a police officer,” he said. “As a commuter, I have seen a significant effort being made to make it a more friendly place. Obviously there is work to do.”Commuting tips
SHOULDERING THE WORK
Who is shouldering that work? City Hall is, led by the cyclists themselves. A coalition between the two recently began changes that, if successful, would make Oklahoma City safer, cleaner and healthier. Compared to most city plans, this project is also dirt-cheap.
If it works, the air will be cleaner, the roads less congested, and many city commuters could be leaner and richer by hundreds of dollars per month ” but the effort will require a few changes.
In April, at the behest of the Oklahoma City Council, planners formed a committee with bicycle enthusiasts to begin work on a bicycle commuting plan. Among other things, the plan would identify routes to downtown Oklahoma City from surrounding suburbs and establish other criteria that would make OKC into a bicycle-friendly community.
In some ways, Oklahoma City is perfect for bicycle commuting. The city is laid out in an uncomplicated grid pattern ” there are few, if any, real hills ” with straight lines radiating out from the city center to the surrounding neighborhoods and communities.
“The purpose of the Bicycle Transportation Plan is to identify a system of on-street bicycle routes throughout Oklahoma City with ‘transportation’ as the impetus,” states a June 17 city manager’s report.
Although the city has been implementing a recreational trails system, including trails around Lake Hefner and Lake Overholser with connectors in between, the Bicycle Transportation Plan is different.
“”¦The intent of the bike route selection was to connect neighborhoods with employment and activity centers and shopping districts,” the report said.
Hal McKnight, owner of the Wheeler Deal bicycle shop, 2729 NW 50th, said the trails plan, which was established in 1997 through the Trails Master Plan, forms the core of Oklahoma City’s cycling community.
“The key, I believe, was to build a really good trail system and supplement that by the Bicycle Transportation Plan,” McKnight said. “We’re doing great stuff. It’s a dream come true. I’ve been on the Oklahoma City trails advisory program for 15 years. It’s taken a long, long time and lot of work from a lot of people to get to where we are.”
While recreation forms the bulk of Oklahoma City’s cycling, the transportation plan is as ambitious. Conducted in two phases, Phase I, to be completed by 2015, identifies 224 miles of bicycle routes to downtown along Oklahoma City streets from outlying neighborhoods and communities.
“Within the plan itself as well, we’ve even classified the riders into ABCs; advanced riders, basic riders and children,” said city planner Lanc Gross, himself a frequent cyclist. “We have a suitability rating map within the plan that classifies the different routes on different sets of criteria. They range from easy to very difficult. The easy ones have low interaction with automobiles.”
Among the criteria evaluated, according to the city’s plan, are: need, cost estimate, facility type, population density, linkage and safety.
Routes are the heart of the plan. City planners have already identified the streets that form the core of the Bicycle Transportation Plan and color-coded them according to difficulty. The routes range from blue, very good, to red, extremely poor.
“You’ll need a viable route,” advises Steve Schlegel, owner of Schlegel Bicycles, at 900 N. Broadway in downtown Oklahoma City and at 6066 S. Western. “You plan your time. You’ll need a feel for what your commute time will be on a daily basis.”
Many other factors have to be included in one’s bike commuting plan, Schlegel said, but chief among them is safety. A helmet is a necessity, he said.
“Years ago, I never liked the idea of having a helmet on the head but, having done multiple replacements of crashed helmets, it’s just obvious that it’s a necessity,” Schlegel said. “They’re lightweight, good ventilation, comfortable to wear, there’s no excuse anymore other than helmet hair.”
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: “Bicycle helmets are 85 to 88 percent effective in mitigating head and brain injuries, making the use of helmets the single most effective way to reduce head injuries and fatalities resulting from bicycle crashes.”
Pierce said he has always worn a helmet and said it’s crucial to any commuting plan.
“The absolute best riders on the planet wear a helmet,” he said. “I don’t think I’m better than those guys are. When the Tour de France is on, those guys wear a helmet. I always have my helmet on.”
The helmet, however, is only the start, Pierce said.
“I would tell you ” and I guarantee you ” you gotta be realistic. It takes a lot of effort and a significant time commitment,” Pierce said.
Since Oklahoma City has so few bicycle commuters, there’s going to be a learning curve for drivers, said Steve Schlegel, owner of Schlegel Bicycles.
“Overall, our biggest obstacle is driver education and teaching the general public that the bicycle is another form of transportation and the cyclist has the same rights and responsibilities in the roadway,” Schlegel said.
Among these concerns are that drivers need to treat bicycles, for the most part, like a car. Drivers should keep their distance from a cyclist occupying the lane ahead and not try to squeeze through. Even what might seem like a slow speed ” say, 25 mph ” can injure or kill a cyclist.
“The bottom line is that sometimes people assume that because there is a bike trail, that’s the only mode we are supposed to use. The fact is, we need to be known as an integral part of the traffic. It’s a matter of learning to deal with it over all,” Schlegel said.
Cyclists can help, Schlegel said, by owning the lane in which they ride, unless there is a wide, clean shoulder on the roadway.
“We advise people to ride in the passenger tire track. That gives them about two feet to the edge of the roadway,” Schlegel said. “If by chance you feel pressure from the cars, you do have an area of exit.”