There is no more frequent reminder of Santa Fe’s lack of recognition for bicyclists than the experience of sitting at an intersection waiting for a red light to change.
Often, it never does.
“You could sit there until you get hypothermia,” Stephen Newhall, manager at rob and charlie’s bike shop, says of one local traffic light that ignores his presence without fail.
Add to such slights the embarrassing fact that Albuquerque is widely considered much further ahead in terms of accommodating cyclists. The advocacy group BikeABQ convinced city leaders there to install cutting-edge infrastructure such as “bike boxes”—painted stripes at intersections that reduce the likelihood cyclists will be flattened by allowing them to congregate in front of cars, instead of forcing them to wait in drivers’ blind spots.
“It’s the capital, and we’re so far behind,” David Wyman, a Santa Fe retiree and dedicated cyclist, tells SFR. “There’s a lot of people whose only mode of transportation is the bicycle. You shouldn’t have to feel you have to take your life in your hands just to get to work.”
Despite the challenges, an increasing number of commuters do just that, braving Santa Fe’s ubiquitous potholes and suddenly vanishing bike lanes to embrace a cheap, nonpolluting and healthy form of transportation.
According to the latest federal transportation surveys, bicycling has increased by 25 percent over the last decade. There are no recent, reliable statistics specific to Santa Fe or New Mexico but, nationwide, bicycling accounted for 1 percent of all trips made in 2009.
Yet the carless die on the roadways at a disproportionate rate. On average, between 50 and 70 pedestrians and three to seven bicyclists are killed each year on New Mexico roads, according to the state Department of Transportation. That makes this one of the most dangerous states to walk or bike.
What explains New Mexico’s poor showing? It’s not just bad drivers. According to transportation planners and bike advocates, shoddy road design and lagging investment for bike-friendly infrastructure contribute to those death rates. In other words, some of those deaths—and countless injuries—are preventable.
“The problem is, Santa Fe has not had an organized bike advocacy group,” Tim Rogers, a consultant for the Santa Fe Metropolitan Planning Organization, says.
There’s new, bike-friendly blood at the Santa Fe MPO in the form of Senior Planner Keith Wilson, who moved here 11 months ago from Massachusetts. He is working with Rogers and Santa Fe County Senior Transportation Planner Andrew Jandacek to improve the region’s bicycle and pedestrian network. Unlike some NMDOT bureaucrats, Wilson doesn’t think of bikes as merely toys. “We’re looking at these [bikeway projects] as a transportation function, rather than a recreation function,” Wilson says.
There’s also a new nonprofit lobbying group, Bike Santa Fe. One of its founders is Newhall, of rob and charlie’s. Another is Lisa Miles, the marketing director for Bicycle Technologies International, a bike-parts distributor that gets surprisingly little local attention despite its nationwide reach.
Newhall and Miles are heading to Washington, DC, to lobby New Mexico’s congressional delegation during the March 9-11 National Bike Summit. In advance of their trip, they organized a Santa Fe bike summit on Feb. 20 at Second Street Brewery on Second Street, which is conveniently located along the Rail Trail and features a rare accommodation to cyclist patrons—a bike rack.
The summit was unusual in that it brought together some disparate cycling subcultures. In attendance were hipsters who ride fixed-gears, road-racing jocks in Lycra, plus “the only cyclist in Española” and a large contingent of Santa Fe SOBs (Seniors on Bikes), a club whose president, Edwin Crosswhite, resembles a white-haired Christopher Walken in a black cowboy hat.
“If we all recruit a few people, we have the biggest damn lobby in town,” Newhall told the approximately 30 cyclists who showed up. City and county officials will “think we’re the goddamn NRA or something.”
The summit also provided an opportunity to vent. Some of the gripes could be easily addressed, such as Santa Fe’s lack of a Safe Routes to School program. The absence of the popular classroom cycling education program may be one explanation for the sight of empty bike racks outside local schools.
“Just think about how much carbon dioxide is going in the atmosphere by mom driving the kids to school in an SUV—and almost hitting me on the way,” Newhall said.
Cyclists also complain of ignorance and disrespect on the part of police. “Basically, to have a legitimate complaint, you have to die or be seriously injured,” Christopher Ryan, a lawyer and cyclist, said, describing unhelpfulness by the police after his own near-death experience.
Worst of all is the nearly murderous behavior by drivers in a hurry. “I have actually had my life threatened and been told ‘I’m going to kill you’ by motorists,” Miles told the crowd.
Miles’ boyfriend, Brian Mayhall, bassist for the popular local band D Numbers, was seriously injured while attempting to cross on his bicycle the perilous railroad tracks at the already dangerous Cerrillos Road and St. Francis Drive.
The musician’s injuries caused him to lose his day job; according to Miles, Mayhall is planning a lawsuit against the state. (Mayhall did not return SFR’s phone call by press time.)
Bike-friendly street improvements won’t prevent all injuries, but they might help cut car traffic in town by taking the fright factor out of cycling. Many cities—notably Portland, Ore.—have seen significant increases in cycling after investing in bicycle infrastructure.
“If we can get this stuff implemented, we could possibly start seeing similar results,” Wilson says, moving through a list of proposed new trail connections and street renovations. Until the local bike lobby scores some victories, most of those projects will remain lines on paper.
Bike Santa Fe meets at 6:30 pm every third Wednesday at rob and charlie’s, 1632 St. Michael’s Drive, 505-471-9119.