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In My Opinion

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Drivers, bikers and a hard path ahead

Peter St. Onge
Peter St. Onge is The Observer's associate editor.

I met the Providence Road biker once.

If you’re a regular commuter up and down that road, you know who this is. Each morning and afternoon, he rides toward uptown and back during prime commuting hours. He wears a white helmet and rides what looks like a ten-speed bike. He’s one of the most reviled men in Charlotte.

This is not entirely his fault. By choosing the road over the sidewalk – as is his right, by the way – he causes one lane of traffic to go bike speed instead of commute speed. That two-wheel vs. four-wheel tension happens not only on Providence, but on so many roads in Charlotte and other cities built for vehicles with engines.

But what really gets knuckles white is this: When traffic is stopped, the Providence Road biker weaves through cars to get ahead, and when stoplights are red, he crosses through them. That results in drivers getting stuck behind him, then managing to pass him, then finding themselves stuck behind him again. It’s like the dream in which you try to dial a familiar phone number but keep messing up the last digit or two and have to try again.

You can imagine how well this goes over during the clog that is 8:15 and 5:15 each day. Last year, one Charlotte man got so frustrated with the Providence Road biker that he posted a video taken while driving behind him. It was an unpleasant thing to watch – a mix of bad language and anger that fell somewhere between justifiable and embarrassing. At least a couple news outlets picked the story up.

I wanted to know what the cyclist thought. So one afternoon during rush hour, I parked in the apartment complex I’d seen him turn into a few times during my commute. Shortly after 5:30, I saw the familiar white helmet heading my way. I got out of my car, yelled a friendly hello and told him I was from the newspaper. He rode past me and stopped 50 yards later. Then he cursed at me. They were the same words I’d heard in the video about him.

This week, the Observer published a front-page article about a new city proposal to build a new Cross-Charlotte bike trail. The project would expand and connect city greenways, and when finished, the trail would not only offer more opportunities for recreational biking, but alternative ways to get from one place to another in the city.

It hasn’t taken long, however, for the conversation to get steered to the usual place. In the days since, walkers and cyclists have complained about each other. And drivers and cyclists. And everyone is a little bit right.

I thought of the Providence Road biker. I saw the apartment he eventually went into last summer, and I found his address and name later at work. But I decided not to follow up. In part, it was because he probably wasn’t going to talk to me, anyway, but mostly it was because when he rode past me that day, I saw fear in his eyes.

I wonder if at some point on the road, he got tired of drivers cutting him off too closely, tired of drivers running red lights and speeding, tired of the middle fingers, and decided to be as much of a jerk as everyone else. Or maybe he just started that way.

It doesn’t matter, really. More bikes are coming to Charlotte’s roads, as they are in most urban areas. The city can take some incremental steps to improve matters, such as adding bike lanes. A Cross-Charlotte bike trail surely could help, too.

But in the end, it’ll take all of us giving up something – a little time, a little empathy, a little piece of the road (or path) we’re on. That’s something that doesn’t come easy, no matter how many wheels are under us.

Peter: pstonge@charlotteobserver.com
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