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How Lawmakers Could Make Cycling Safer for North Carolinians

These solutions are cheap and easy to implement, but would take action from the NCGA

A photo of two people cycling in front of a bike store in Copenhagen.
Cycling is a way of life in Copenhagen, but far from it in NC (Photo by Patrick Maynard).

The parked bicycles outside the front entrance of the main train station in Denmark’s capital are no surprise. Many cities have them — a few rows of slim, tubular frames before commuters go in the door. But in this city, they keep going … around the corner and onto a side street, then over a bridge at the back of the station, then along the southwest edge of the station, all the way back to the front entrance.

The station is completely surrounded — often by three or four rows of parked bicycles. It’s no surprise that Copenhagen was ranked 4th worldwide in a recent listing of cycling-friendly cities.

Even outside of Europe, cycling and transit infrastructure rankings are becoming a key part of the way employers decide where to locate, says Steven Goodridge, a board member for the advocacy group BikeWalkNC, with North Carolina ignoring such rankings at its own peril.

“Some employers consider factors such as quality of life (as perceived by young professionals) and availability of multiple travel modes complementary to individual car use, especially to widen the demographic of potential employees,” Goodridge wrote in an email to Queen City Nerve.

“Pleasant and convenient conditions for bicycling can factor substantially into both of these,” he continued. “Many young people today don’t want to live and work in a place where they would need to use a car to get everywhere, and many valuable potential members of the work force don’t have access to a car. Employers are starting to notice this.”

With that in mind, Queen City Nerve reached out to more than a dozen cyclists and cycling policy experts, asking them not for their ideal changes to a generic state’s cycling policy, but merely for their favorite cheap or free changes — things like instituting the Idaho Stop, which allows cyclists to conserve momentum by treating stop signs as yields, and changing laws regarding how motorists pass cyclists.

A man wearing a helmet stands with his bike while waiting for traffic to pass on a busy road
John Holmes is a full-time bike commuter in Charlotte. (Photo by Rico Marcelo)

In other words: Seemingly easy wins that would involve little physical infrastructure. We then asked BikeWalkNC to rate which of the five most popular policies were already implemented on the state level.

The policies examined were as follows:

  • Explicitly allowing local communities to lower their speed limits wherever they’d like (not passed — untrue of many state roads)
  • Explicitly removing local communities’ legal ability to restrict cycling and require bike registration (not passed)
  • A “change lanes to pass” law allowing drivers to fully cross the double yellow to pass cyclists or, failing that, a 3- or 4-foot passing law (a “change lanes to pass” rule is state law in North Carolina)
  • Allowing the Idaho Stop (not passed)
  • Explicitly using state law to remove regulations on sidewalk riding (not implemented)

As seen above, only one of the five policies we looked at had been fully implemented by the state.

The most popular action in the poll, which would be virtually free to put into law, was the idea of explicitly setting down in North Carolina legislative policy the ability of towns, cities and counties to set speed limits as low as they’d like on any road or street.

The World Health Organization has stated that someone who is hit by a vehicle traveling at 50 miles per hour has a three times higher risk of dying than if they had been hit by a vehicle moving at 30 miles per hour. There were 20 pedestrian deaths on Charlotte city streets last year, according to data compiled by Queen City Nerve.

While cities are free to set speed limits on their own streets, many streets are officially state roads, on which cities must get state approval for speed limit reductions.

A photo of upwards of 100 parked bikes in Copenhagen.
Bike parking in Copenhagen. (Photo by Patrick Maynard).

On the other hand, activists were nearly as interested in preventing local control in one area — the question of requirements for bike registrations — as they were in wanting to grant it where speed limits were concerned.

While BWNC director Terry Lansdell says there is no statewide ban on local bike registration laws, he also says there are no local bike registration laws in North Carolina, making the issue relatively moot for now.

“Other states and communities have already realized the futility of bicycle registration as a revenue generator,” Lansdell said. “It just is not feasible or financially manageable.”

Analyzing key cycling policies

The next item on the list — an Idaho stop law — is viewed by Lansdell as simply “not an option in this legislative climate.” That’s potentially bad news for cyclists, as recent research has shown that such laws can improve safety for those on bikes.

A state policy overruling local riding-on-sidewalk laws, which have historically been disparately enforced against Black bicyclists, is also not presently in place.

Charlotte, for example, has a law stating that “it shall be unlawful to operate a bicycle upon the public sidewalks located within the congested business district,” which refers to Uptown, South End and parts of West Tyvola Road in southwest Charlotte that were home to the Charlotte Coliseum at the time congested business districts were created. There is an exception for police, who can bike anywhere.

A photo of a cyclist riding their bike along a busy intersection in Charlotte.
Cyclist along the Albemarle Road corridor. (Photo by Rico Marcelo)

More fortunate in the legislature was a “change lanes to pass” rule, which has been codified into state law. That policy, which requires drivers to switch lanes when passing a cyclist, has been called a lifesaver by cycling advocates.

  • Policies that were also popular with polled activists, but which did not make the top five, included:
  • A requirement that newly lined streets have staggered stop lines where cycle lanes are present
  • Banning any new on-street perpendicular parking, which often leads to collisions
  • Setting gas taxes as a percentage rather than a fixed price

Declaring an intention to put the Dutch reach — a maneuver that can help prevent  dangerous “dooring” of cyclists in unprotected bike lanes — into the next edition of driver safety manuals

At least two advocates argued via email that it was important to not just reach for cheap solutions, with more expensive changes like protected bike lanes and cycling-only signaling being eventually necessary if the state is going to be serious about bikes.

“[The rules Queen City Nerve analyzed] are all good policy changes; however, the most effective changes state or local governments can make to encourage cycling are to build safe and comfortable bike infrastructure (especially protected bike lanes and shared-use paths),” wrote Martina Haggerty, senior director of local innovation at PeopleForBikes.

“Infrastructure is the top barrier to cycling participation,” Haggerty continued. “We recommend that state and local governments prioritize creating local funding mechanisms for bike infrastructure and passing Complete Streets mandates to create bike-friendly places that get more people riding bikes more often. “

The need for a state bike caucus

The Complete Streets movement includes not just cycling improvements, but pushes to boost pedestrian comfort and transit coverage. A big factor in a city’s cycling ranking is rail transit availability — an area where Charlotte has seen growth in recent decades — which is increasingly becoming something big employers are looking for.

Still, there’s more work to do: A lack of transit was cited by one local developer as a main reason that Amazon shied away from North Carolina when picking a site for its enormous HQ2 office and research facility.

Amazon was vocal about transit in its original request for proposals, stating that it would only move such a large collection of highly paid employees to a place with good rail transportation for workers. HQ2 eventually went to a transit-heavy suburb of Washington DC, which boasts a comprehensive, regional system for getting around by rail.

A cyclist riding along a crosswalk while cars cross in front and behind him
Intersections are the most dangerous places for cyclists in Charlotte. (PHoto by Rico Marcelo)

One common complaint by would-be cyclists — that the rolling, Piedmont terrain of North Carolina makes cycling less attractive here — is now increasingly mitigated by new technology, Haggerty says. That makes cyclists a growing constituency statewide.

“The rise of electric assist bicycles (e-bikes) has made previous challenges like hills and longer distances a thing of the past,” Haggerty wrote. “PeopleForBikes is making riding e-bikes easy and accessible for all by working to pass e-bike incentives in states and local communities nationwide. We’ve also created an e-bike incentive guide to help officials create great e-bike incentive programs.”

State Rep. Becky Carney, who has long been a legislative backer of cycling in the North Carolina General Assembly, says it would be quite feasible for North Carolina lawmakers to form a state bike caucus, emulating the 1996 creation of a similar group that exists in Congress.

Learn more: Nooze Hounds: Dianna Ward and Shannon Binns on Bicycling in Charlotte

According to Carney, a caucus could be formed via the submission of a letter of intent that would include a brief description of the caucus, a mission statement, objectives, a membership roster, and a listing of the group’s leaders.

“State legislators who are organized in their efforts to move biking forward are always helpful,” Haggerty told Queen City Nerve.

“A simultaneous push at the national, state, and local levels is essential. Having elected officials at all levels who understand the need for bike infrastructure and champion bike-related legislation and funding is the best recipe for forward progress.”

Charlotte’s middle-of-the-road city ranking

Back in Europe, the competition to unseat the Danish capital and other top-ranked cycling cities is fierce, with a British outlet openly asking “can we catch Copenhagen?”

Cities are adding not just features like indoor bicycle parking and double-width, sidewalk-level cycle lanes — a given in places among the top five these days — but also more innovative additions like heated cycle paths to melt snow and traffic signals that give cyclists additional priority on rainy days.

Copenhagen’s Nordic frenemy, Oslo, has gone even farther, essentially making its downtown area car-free.

American cities are moving forward with cycling infrastructure plans too, albeit at a more modest pace; Charlotte is somewhat predictably outranked by Portland, Boston and Seattle in the global top 90, but it’s also beaten by surprise entrants such as the Motor City itself.

A photo of upwards of around 50 parked bikes in Copenhagen.
Parked bikes in Copenhagen (Photo by Patrick Maynard).

Detroit, having made big strides in its push toward more cycling action, is number 72 in the Luko Global Bicycle Cities Index ranking, which doesn’t even include Charlotte. PeopleForBikes has a more detailed ranking, which places Charlotte on the less functional end of the mid-tier of American cities.

Charlotte cycling advocate Pamela Murray says that low global rankings shouldn’t mean Charlotte should stop working to boost its bike culture.

“No change alone will move a state in the rankings,” Murray wrote in an email. “The rankings are opaque and not a great indicator of cycling in my opinion. Riding around a city will give you a better idea.”

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