Jun 17, 2023
Anchorage Assembly proposal aims to lay groundwork for a more bike
A bicyclist peddled northbound in a bike lane on Cordova Street on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. (Bill Roth / ADN) Some Assembly members are proposing a small overhaul of city rules for bicyclists,
A bicyclist peddled northbound in a bike lane on Cordova Street on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. (Bill Roth / ADN)
Some Assembly members are proposing a small overhaul of city rules for bicyclists, pedestrians and other non-vehicle roadway users, in an effort to improve safety in car-centric Anchorage — and to lay the groundwork for a shift toward city infrastructure that’s friendly to multiple types of transportation.
The idea for the ordinance came from Assembly member Daniel Volland, who said its overarching purpose is “transportation choice.”
“I want to encourage residents to be able to choose their form of preferred transportation — whether that’s driving, walking, cycling, rolling — and be able to get to their destination safely, whatever method of transport that they choose,” he said.
A skateboarder waited for the signal to cross C Street in a cross walk on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. (Bill Roth / ADN)
The ordinance would decriminalize jaywalking for pedestrians. It would also legalize what it dubs the “Anchorage stop” for cyclists, which would allow riders to treat stop signs as yield signs, no longer requiring bicyclists to come to a full stop if they can proceed through the intersection safely.
Additionally, the measure would remove penalties for bicyclists riding without equipment like lamps, brakes and noise signals, and revoke the rule and associated penalty requiring children age 16 and under to wear helmets.
Some of these changes may seem counterintuitive when it comes to safety, but national data shows they improve safety or reduce the chance of disparities in enforcement for low-income residents and people of color, Volland said.
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Another sponsor of the measure, Anna Brawley said, “part of the purpose is really to get Anchorage in line with what a lot of other cities are doing as far as separated bike lanes.”
Many of the proposed changes to city code are forward-looking, said Brawley. She said they don’t make immediate changes, but they set out definitions in code to make it easier to build infrastructure like protected bike lanes in the future.
For example, by defining and describing them in code, Volland said, the measure sets the stage for bringing special bicycle control signals to Anchorage, which are becoming more prevalent in the Lower 48.
The ordinance also aims to “recognize the rights and needs of vulnerable road users, which is people who are not in cars that use our transportation system,” Brawley said.
Advocates of alternative transportation, like the local nonprofit group Bike Anchorage, see the measure as a small but positive step.
A bicyclist peddled northbound along bike lanes on Pine Street on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. (Bill Roth / ADN)
“If I could wave a magic wand and make a plan for Anchorage, it would be that big-picture network, complete network” of protected bike lanes across the city, said Bike Anchorage’s board president, Emily Weiser. “And really recognizing that non-motorized transportation should be equal to motorized transportation. We should have both options. They should be equally convenient and comfortable and safe, just to give people that freedom to choose without worrying about their own safety.”
Anchorage has a large system of recreational bike trails. But those who need to get from place to place, like from home to work and back again, often have little choice but to ride along high-speed arterial roads and on sidewalks.
“Much of Anchorage was built was through this theory where, essentially, roads should be like a watershed. And you’ve got these tiny little residential roads that feed into bigger collector roads that then feed into bigger arterial roads. And the arterial roads are the only ones that actually go anywhere,” Weiser said.
Weiser helped advocate for several of the changes the proposal would make, including the stop-as-yield law.
Intersections are one of the most dangerous places for any road user, be it bike, vehicle or pedestrian, she said.
“You can tell it feels dangerous. It doesn’t feel like a good place to be. There’s cars coming at you from all directions. You don’t know if they see you — you just don’t want to be in that intersection at all,” she said.
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Idaho in 1982 was the first of nine states to pass a stop-as-yield law, known as the “Idaho Stop.” Bicyclist injuries from crashes decreased by 14.5% the next year. A similar law in Delaware led to a similar drop in crashes involving bicyclists at stop sign intersections, according to NHTSA data.
“If you can get through that intersection just a little bit faster, a little bit quicker, then you’re spending less time in the intersection and less time in that danger zone,” Weiser said. “And also, you can maintain your momentum. Again, that helps you get out of the intersection faster, and just gets you out of the way of cars that much quicker.”
A bicyclist commutes southbound in a bike lane on Spenard Road on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. (Bill Roth / ADN)
Also, movement in a person’s peripheral vision usually catches their attention, said Volland, who is an optometrist.
“So if a car is coming to a four-way stop and they see somebody moving, that might catch their attention rather than a bicycle that’s just at a stop in their blind spot,” he said.
Another component of the proposal would allow cyclists to treat a red light more like a stop sign. Many traffic signals in Anchorage are made to detect cars at intersections to trigger a light change. But most don’t pick up on bicyclists who are stuck waiting for a light to change that won’t change until a car comes along.
Two drafts of the measure have required people on bikes to wait at least 120 seconds before moving through a red light, but Weiser and others pushed back on that because it keeps them in the potentially-dangerous intersection longer.
Volland said the latest draft removes the 120-second rule.
“We’re just saying as long as there’s no cross traffic, then you proceed through the intersection after coming to a complete stop at a red light,” he said.
The Assembly members behind the measure said they have received pushback over aspects of the ordinance, like removing the fine for children riding without a helmet.
“I think in a perfect world, everybody would have lights on their bikes and kids would be wearing a helmet,” Volland said. “However, the question is, should a 12-year old kid have an interaction with a police officer and potentially receive a civil penalty for not having a helmet if they’re riding their bike in their neighborhood?”
Since bikes are cheaper than cars, they can be more accessible to use for people who are low income, and bicycling shouldn’t be discouraged through fines, he said.
Data from major U.S. cities like New York and Los Angeles shows that in those cities, people of color are disproportionally ticketed or stopped while riding bikes. In a 2022 report, nonprofit National Association of City Transportation Officials urged cities and states to revoke any laws that could be used against people on bikes.
In Seattle last year, the county board of health voted to repeal its helmet law for bicycle riders, after data showed enforcement, though minimal, was disproportionately affecting people of color and people experiencing homelessness.
By removing fines, the idea is to also remove the potential for inequitable enforcement, in light of the national data, Volland said.
“I do not believe that there is evidence that the Anchorage Police Department has disparities in their enforcement of the current code. And so this is certainly not an indictment of their current practices,” Volland said.
A bicyclist commutes southbound in a bike lane on Cordova Street on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. (Bill Roth / ADN)
Data from the Anchorage Police Department show that ticketing for bike-related offenses has been relatively infrequent. In 2021 and 2022, no fines were given to people without helmets or for violations of brake requirements. Three people were ticketed for violating the city’s audible signal requirement. The most tickets — 26 total — were given for bicycle lamp requirement violations.
“There aren’t a lot of citations being issued for these. Clearly we have the same safety issues that we have. And so is this really getting us where we need to go?” Brawley asked.
The reasons to revoke jaywalking laws are similar, Volland said.
“Sometimes, when people choose to cross mid-block instead of at an intersection, they are doing so not only for convenience but also for their own safety. We have a lot of streets in Anchorage where crosswalks are far apart,” he said. That’s a failure of current road designs, he said.