Drivers frustrated with Bellingham cyclists should practice the 15-second rule

What’s the key to bicycle safety?

Washington State Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson reminds drivers, bikers and pedestrians that transportation corridors serve many users and everyone needs to share the road to make sure everyone gets where they are going safely.
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Washington State Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson reminds drivers, bikers and pedestrians that transportation corridors serve many users and everyone needs to share the road to make sure everyone gets where they are going safely.

As Bellingham moves forward with its commitment to a “multimodal” road system for bikes, cars, buses and pedestrians, drivers are seeing more streets with space dedicated to bikes.

That means drivers will have to pay closer attention to two-wheeled travelers, said Doug Dahl, who writes the “Road Rules” column for The Bellingham Herald and is the Northwest Region manager of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission’s Target Zero program.

“The key is to think about all of our neighbors and not just ourselves being inconvenienced,” Dahl said in an interview with The Bellingham Herald.

Dahl said that if a bicyclist is in your way, simply count to 15.

“I think the biggest thing is giving yourself 15 seconds,” said Dahl, an avid bicyclist himself.

“If you as a driver can’t afford 15 seconds on your commute, then you’re planning it wrong. In my experience as a cyclist, it’s so rare that I delay a driver more than that,” he said.

Bham bike lanes.jpeg
Bellingham city workers install new signs indicating a bike lane was added to eastbound Chestnut Street at the intersection of North State Street in August 2019. Robert Mittendorf The Bellingham Herald

Stakes higher for bicyclists

“Somehow that courtesy disappears on the road and the stakes are so much higher,” Dahl said.

Five years of statistics from 2014 to 2018 show there were 20 serious injury crashes and three deaths involving bicyclists on Bellingham streets, including state highways, according to data from the state Department of Transportation.

In 2019 alone, there have been six serious injury crashes and one fatality, a bicyclist hit by a train.

City officials hope that adding bike lanes will help slow traffic and encourage more people to walk, bike or bus to their jobs, to shop and to events downtown and in the city’s neighborhoods and urban villages.

U.S. Census data from the 2104 American Community Survey shows that 4.2% of Bellingham residents bike to work — a figure that was 21st in the nation.

Bicycling continues to grow in popularity across the country, according to the League of American Bicyclists.

Bellingham will add more bike lanes

Just this year in Bellingham, bike lanes have been added or widened on Barkley Boulevard, Lakeway Drive, Sunset Drive, Roeder Avenue and Chestnut Street — all main routes in and out of the city center.

Bike lanes will be part of a project set to start this month on Cordata Parkway and more bike lanes are planned next year with a reconstruction project on Samish Way-Ellis Street.

Funding sources have varied, with some projects using state transportation money and others using the city’s Transportation Benefit District tax.

It is part of a long-planned strategy to accommodate all types of road users, said Public Works spokeswoman Amy Cloud in an email.

Cloud said the city’s Bicycle Master Plan recently won one of five Governor’s 2019 Smart Communities Awards.

In addition, the city will be adding traffic lights and pedestrian crossings downtown, said Chad Schulhauser, assistant director of the Public Works Department’s engineering division.

“Later this fall we will be installing new traffic signals at the intersections of Holly-High, State-Maple, and State-Laurel streets, which will include signalized pedestrian crossings,” Schulhauser said in an email. “Next year we will be extending the bicycle network along Magnolia and York streets into downtown.”

Some drivers adapting slowly

Most of the recent email feedback that Cloud said the city has received at askPW@cob.org has been about drivers who weren’t paying attention to new signs and road striping on Chestnut near State streets.

“With time, regular drivers on Chestnut will adapt — and the meantime, we’re learning to be watchful of other drivers who may be less attentive,” Cloud said in an email. “On the days I drive to work, I go home that way myself; so far, I’ve not yet seen any ‘near misses.’ But I have seen cyclists in the new bike lane.”

Dahl said drivers should also be aware of a new state law that aims to protect bicyclists riding with traffic by requiring drivers to pass no closer than three feet — or about an arm’s length away.

“What we’re dealing with isn’t cars vs. bikes,” Dahl said. “It’s cautious and safe users vs. careless road users. In order for this to work, it has to be more than just about what the law is and more about being a member of our community.”

This story was updated Sept. 9, 2019, to clarify that three bicycle deaths occurred on all roads in Bellingham from 2014-2018 and one death was reported in 2019.

Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.