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A pedalling predicament: Soldotna hopes to boost growing cycling culture

Posted: Friday, May 27, 2011

As far as cycling goes, Soldotna is living in the past.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Michael Crowder makes his way across the Sterling Highway in Soldotna on Thursday afternoon. He was on his way to the playground at Soldotna Creek Park. He said dodging traffic could be an issue sometimes. "Some people go way faster than you think they are going," he said.

On multiple fronts, the city falls short of meeting the expectations of a progressive cycling community. In addition to the public's general ignorance -- or blatant disregard -- of cyclist rights, bike paths and lanes are scarce in the area, as are shoulders that would provide a certain degree of space -- and relief -- when riding down the road.

"We are so far behind," said Soldotna City Councilmember Brenda Hartman, an avid cyclist herself.

But Soldotna doesn't want to be a city that stifles the growth of a cycling culture within its borders. At least that's the message the city's Planning and Zoning Commission is trying to send by making the promotion of bike safety, education, and development one of their top priorities in the coming months.

The commission is actually looking into creating a sub-committee, comprised of those passionate about the cause, to spearhead the effort.

Commission members discussed the matter during a recent work session and agreed the pro-cycling objective (outlined in the Envision 2030 Plan, a comprehensive roadmap for the continued improvement of Soldotna) needed immediate attention.

"Trying to ride my bike more is extremely frustrating," said Hartman, who was the council member designated to attend the planning and zoning meeting that week. "I've actually been screamed at to get off the road."

Hartman recounted one time she and her husband were riding their bikes near the Soldotna Police Station when a passing motorist rolled down his window and started yelling at the two to stay off the street.

The thing is, cyclists are completely allowed to be on the road. They are required to follow the same laws as drivers -- signaling, stopping, yielding, etc. -- if they choose to do so. Soldotna Police Officer Marvin Towell confirmed that bikes "should really be on the roadway going with traffic" instead of riding, for example, on sidewalks.

"Since there is a bicycle path, people assume that I have to be over there," said cyclist and Beemun's bike mechanic John Tabor, referring to the loop that connects Kenai and Soldotna. "I do have rights on the road itself. I think that people need to realize that and treat you that way. You're not restricted to that path."

Tabor said this general unawareness of rights sometimes correlates to decreased safety; when drivers don't know where a cyclist could potentially be, they are less likely to exercise increased caution.

"There are obviously a number of drivers who aren't aware of cyclists," agreed Steve Beeson, owner of Beemun's.

Beeson said the area near the Red Diamond Center on Kalifornsky Beach Road is a particular problem for him, because drivers will pull out of those businesses (or stick the noses of their cars out into the intersection) and block a bike's right-of-way.

"The number of people who will come up and park to get out on K-Beach right on the bike path without looking that there is a biker coming is amazing," said Hartman.

As part of the movement to make Soldotna more bike-friendly, Hartman proposed that perhaps public service announcements akin to those used to promote motorcycle awareness could be similarly used for bikes.

Hartman, Beeson, and Tabor all acknowledge there are great, bike-savvy people out there, and those who aren't could easily become so with a little bit of education.

Another local problem the commission would like to tackle is the maintenance of the bike paths. This becomes an issue of responsibility, as the main bike path -- referred to as "the loop" -- is owned by the state.

"One of the biggest problems that we have with bike paths is that the state seems to put them in and forget them," said Commissioner Paul Whitney. "There are some parts of the bike path I've seen that are worse than being on the highway; there's more holes, dips, and cracks in it than you can shake a stick at."

The city, in an effort to accommodate traffic on the loop, has actually taken an extremely proactive stance on the issue of maintenance. They swept and cleaned the path early in the season this year, a gesture Tabor and other cyclists appreciated immensely.

Once the paths and lanes already in place are taken care of, then comes the issue of creating more of them so cyclists aren't locked in to the same route every time they want to do a ride more than 20 miles long. Beeson said even more room on the shoulder would do; particularly from Soldotna to Kasilof, down K-Beach Road.

"From here to Homer," Tabor added. "I know that would get a lot of bike traffic if it was safe."

Still, the city, the state, and the public are not the only ones responsible for bettering the cycling situation in Soldotna. Cyclists who flout laws, blow through stop signs, and weave through traffic give the entire activity a bad name. They have a responsibility, too.

"They need to obey the laws," Tabor said. "If they want to yell and scream, 'We're not being treated equal,' then they better behave equal. It's a two-way street."



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