Turning To Two-wheeled Transportation? Local Cyclists Sound Out About Joys, Pitfalls

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Roads, highways and transportation , Bicycle and pedestrian safety

Cyclists gathered at Brooks Park in Harwich last Wednesday for a Bike Month event sponsored by the Cape Cod Commission. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

HARWICH —In celebration of Bay State Bike Month, the Cape Cod Commission’s transportation experts were at the bike trail in Harwich Center last week to hear from local cyclists about what they need in terms of access and safety improvements. With gas prices at head-spinning highs, it’s a timely topic.

Commission Senior Transportation Planner David Nolan said there’s been good feedback from the cycling public on the annual Transportation Improvement Plan and the regional Unified Planning Work Program, two documents that outline upcoming transportation-related projects of regional interest. Cyclists are pretty uniformly interested in improvements that increase safety, particularly ones that expand bike trails.

“There’s always uniform support for those,” Nolan said. He acknowledged that there are plenty of places where the narrowness of roadways and the high volume of vehicle traffic make it difficult for bikes and cars to share the road. In many places, multi-use paths are included in roadway projects as part of a federal “Complete Streets” initiative to provide more space for cyclists and walkers.

Harwich Bikeways Committee member Charlie Walkley said he and his fellow cyclists spend plenty of time on the Cape Cod Rail Trail, which runs from Yarmouth to Wellfleet, and on the Old Colony Rail Trail spur from Harwich to Chatham.

“We really need to focus on maintaining the trails,” Walkley said. He knows of a number of bicyclists who’ve been injured when they’re thrown from their bikes after hitting a bump in the pavement caused by a tree root.

Bernie Meggison of Harwich is a seasonal ranger for the Mass. Division of Conservation and Recreation and logs thousands of miles on the Cape Cod Rail Trail while helping cyclists and marking unsafe conditions. Often the trail remains in good repair for some time, “and then one year we’ll get a lot of root protrusion,” Meggison said.

The flashing warning lights installed where the bike trails cross major roads have been a mixed blessing, he added. “It gives both the cars and the bikes a false sense of security,” he said. Bikes are required to stop at the crossings but frequently don’t, and cars often don’t yield to cyclists when they should. When it comes to conflicts between cyclists and motorists, “there are no good guys and bad guys,” but when accidents happen, “there’s always a winner,” and it’s not the cyclist, Meggison said.

The rail trails are shared by cyclists, runners, pedestrians and even equestrians, but the users don’t always share the space efficiently, said Jim Kolbenheyer of Dennis, a member of the Cape Cod Cycling Club. When he’s cycling the rail trail and encounters pedestrians, sometimes walking four abreast, he calls out to let them know he’s passing, “but they just ignore you,” he said.

Particularly since the start of the pandemic, there are plenty of cyclists who dusted off the bike they last used a decade ago and headed out on an excursion without any preparation, Meggison said. In addition to making sure they’re still comfortable cycling, bikers need to check that their bicycles are in good working order, preferably by checking with a qualified bike mechanic, he said.

“Most of the bike shops will do a little safety check for you,” he said. But his single most important piece of advice?

“Wear a helmet,” Meggison said. In Massachusetts, people 16 and under are required to wear helmets, but people of all ages also should be doing so. Kolbenheyer agreed, saying it’s time that the law is changed to require helmets for all cyclists.

Locally, Chatham and Harwich continue to invest in expanding and improving the Old Colony Rail Trail. On April 19, the bikeways committees of both towns oversaw the installation of a stone marker at the town line, helping inform cyclists of their location. Occasionally, when cyclists need help on the rail trail, they call 911 but don’t know their exact location, or even what town they’re in. The new marker will be formally dedicated next week; it was funded using Community Preservation Act funds from both towns, Harwich bikeways committee member Charlene Pilon said.

“We plan to continue that collaboration in the future,” she said. Next, the towns may seek to have mile markers erected along the trail to help cyclists in trouble better report their location to first responders.

In Chatham, the bikeways committee is advancing plans to improve safety along the portion of the trail on George Ryder Road, where cyclists currently share the road with motorists. In the future, they’d like to extend the trail south to connect with Route 28 in West Chatham, which was recently rebuilt to include a multi-use lane.

In Harwich, Pilon said the town is seeking to install a bicycle repair station near Brooks Park sometime in the fall, providing the tools cyclists need to make minor repairs. They’re also seeking to have a “hydration station” installed that will allow bikers to fill water bottles with filtered drinking water.

Marking Bay State Bike Month, the Cape Cod Commission will participate in Brewster Bike Fest, being held by the Brewster Bikeways Committee on Saturday, May 21 from 1 to 4 p.m. in the gym at Eddy Elementary School in Brewster. Free bike lights and trail maps will be available.