Rain dampens 'Don't Drive Day'

Jason Carey's morning commute takes as much patience as it does muscle.

Carey, an avid cyclist, weaves his way from SouthPark most mornings, 5 1/2 miles to his job uptown.

It's cheap, environmentally healthy and a good workout. But cycling in Charlotte has its drawbacks.

Cul de sacs, dead-end neighborhoods and a shortage of bike lanes make it hard to consistently trek across town. Not to mention, many drivers see cyclists as a nuisance. And in the “bike-versus-car” matchup, bikes lose.

“You have to ride defensively around here, just like you drive,” said Carey, 36, who rides with a whistle in his mouth. “I love doing it, but you have to be careful. You have to be.”

Today is “Don't Drive Day,” a promotional effort by area leaders aimed at reducing pollution. People are urged to try alternative modes of transportation, such as buses and trains – and bikes.

A steady light rain this morning might have deterred some of those who thought of riding a bicycle to work or even walking today, organizers of the event said. But the Charlotte Area Transit System's light rail line cars were jammed during the morning commute, and a check at the Transportation Center about 8:30 a.m. indicated that most of the arriving Express buses were full or nearly full.

Of course, with the price of gas near $4 a gallon, many Charlotte-area residents have observed "Don't Drive Day" for several weeks.

For area cyclists, however, leaving the car at home isn't always easy. They say the region is so disconnected and hard to traverse, that for many people, biking daily is not yet practical.

In the past three years Charlotte has worked to become more bike-friendly. Officials have added more than 50 miles of bike lanes, though the lanes are spread out and disconnected.

Still, their work has earned Charlotte a place on the “Bicycle Friendly Communities” list put out by the League of American Bicyclists. Charlotte is one of only three North Carolina cities to make the list, along with Cary and Carrboro.

The highest ranked cities on that list were Davis, Calif., and Portland, Ore. Portland, a city of 145-square miles, has 272 miles of bike-related roads. That number includes 171 miles of bike lanes. Despite being much smaller than Charlotte – about 280 square miles – Portland has more than three times the miles of bike lanes.

“The city is definitely more biker friendly than it used to be,” said John Cock, one of the founders of bikementor.org, a Web site that helps area cyclists meet and gather for rides around town. “But it is still too disconnected. You are basically forced onto major thoroughfares and that can get scary.”

Safety was the theme when the Charlotte Area Bicycle Alliance held a conference uptown in January.

About 20 cyclists a year die in North Carolina, most of them from cars turning into them. The highest profile case occurred in 2005.

Todd Weaver, 36, of Concord was killed when a Charlotte Area Transit System bus turned in front of him as he rode his bicycle along South Tryon Street. Weaver, an avid cyclist and father of two, had been riding home from his job off Tyvola Road.

“You really have to watch your back, literally,” said David Brannigan, 61. “People will ride right up your back, like they are trying to push you off the road.”

Brannigan has cycled in the Charlotte area for the past four years. Semi-retired, he works for Cool Breeze Cyclery.

Last October, Brannigan said he was riding in Huntersville when a woman pulled into the lane in front of him, on the side of the road, and stopped. Brannigan rammed into the back of her car and busted through her windshield.

“I ended up in her back seat,” he said. “I had four hours of surgery and more than 100 stitches in my face.”

Brannigan said people just don't like to share the road with cyclists.

But Ken Tippette, Charlotte's bicycle program manager, said he has also heard complaints from drivers that cyclists don't follow the rules of the road.

“It's really all about respecting one another and realizing we all have rights and responsibilities on the road,” said Tippette, who bikes and buses to work every day.

Carey said that he has seen motorists run cyclists off the road. He said he has also seen cyclists ignore traffic laws and put themselves in danger.

“I meet people who feel like I should be out of their way, riding up on the sidewalk,” he said. “But I have met people on bikes who aren't exactly polite. So, in a lot of ways, it's not much different than driving.”

Staff writer Steve Lyttle contributed