Cyclist’s Death Spurs Push for Alabama Road Safety

June 25, 2010

Before she was killed cycling in Tennessee last month, Sharon Bayler lobbied Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle to adopt a “Complete Streets” policy.

Now some of Bayler’s friends are carrying on her campaign to make local roads safer for bicyclists, pedestrians and people in wheelchairs.

“She wanted the streets to be for everyone,” Leela Pahl, an avid cyclist from Huntsville, said last week. “Sharon’s death has stirred up a lot of feelings that there’s something fundamentally wrong with how people are driving carelessly.”

In January, Pahl and Bayler presented Battle with a petition signed by about 1,400 people asking the city to pass a Complete Streets policy. Local cyclist Jim Garvin continues to gather online signatures at his website.

Complete Streets is a national movement advocating public streets that are designed to be safe for walkers, cyclists, public transit vehicles and riders and the disabled, as well as drivers.

That might mean dedicated bike lanes, wider shoulders and sidewalks, special bus lanes or raised medians to help pedestrians cross busy roads.

Dozens of U.S. cities and counties have embraced the concept, including Daphne, Fairhope and Chickasaw in Alabama, Tupelo and Pascagoula in Mississippi, and Cobb County, Ga., near Atlanta.

Pahl said many Huntsville streets are currently “not very friendly” for bike riders, pedestrians or people with disabilities.

Sidewalks aren’t always interconnected. Some curbs don’t have wheelchair ramps. Dedicated bike lanes are rare.

“If we want to be one of the best places to live and raise a family,” Pahl said Thursday, “then we should also be one of the best places to walk and ride a bicycle. It would only help the city go forward.”

While cyclists have been the most outspoken about the need for a Complete Streets policy in Huntsville, Battle’s own Green 13 task force on environmental sustainability also supports the idea.

In a February report to the mayor, task force members recommended that the city “update street standards and adopt policies consistent with those outlined by the national campaign for ‘Complete Streets.”‘

Officials should start by improving the roads linking downtown with Cummings Research Park, Bridge Street Town Centre and the University of Alabama in Huntsville, the report said.

On Friday, Battle said he “agrees totally” with the message of Complete Streets. However, he said city government doesn’t have the money right now to retrofit existing roads with wider shoulders and bike lanes.

His preference: design those elements into new roads when the city has enough right-of-way, as it did on Cecil Ashburn Drive and the Oakwood Road extension.

“It’s a good goal to incorporate portions of that (Complete Streets) system into what we’re already doing,” Battle said. “But we’ve also got to stay within budget, too.”

Pahl said making streets friendlier for cyclists and pedestrians doesn’t have to be expensive.

She said she would like to see Battle film a public service announcement asking drivers to be more considerate of cyclists.

Former Mayor Loretta Spencer created a bicycling safety task force after UAH student Sarah Chapman was struck and killed by a sport utility vehicle in September 2008. Bayler, ironically, was one of the task force’s leaders.

The 52-year-old Harvest woman died on May 8 when her bicycle was struck from behind by a GMC pickup in Lincoln County, Tenn. State troopers said no charges would be filed against the driver, Edward Vincent Higgin.

“We all need to be more aware of each other” on the roads, Pahl said.

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