By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — For many suburban kids, owning a bicycle for the first time is a ticket to freedom.
That first set of wheels means visiting friends who are blocks away, instead of just a few doors, even if mom and dad aren’t home to drive. Riding a bike is liberating.
Then that next rite of passage, the driver’s license, comes along. Two extra wheels bring a change in the bicycle’s status, from mode of transportation to weekend accessory for recreation and exercise, usually forgotten entirely in the colder months.
Hesitation is often a matter of safety. Sharing the road with cars can be stressful and even dangerous. Even those who still hold onto their affection for cycling may feel it’s just too risky to ride while running errands or commuting. They may feel unclear about the rules of the road and the rights of cyclists — or they may not know cyclists have rights at all.
A group of Niskayuna cyclists is joining a global movement that may change all that. The riders, who have organized a monthly group ride under the umbrella of the Critical Mass initiative, hope to educate riders and drivers alike about cyclists’ right to share the road.
“The purpose of [Critical Mass] is just to be more visible in places where there are cars,” said Vicki Michela, a Niskayuna resident who helped to organize the group’s inaugural meeting in late July. “The more people, the more cars will see you,” she said.
Education about cycling is at the heart of the ride. Participants hope that other cyclists, as well as drivers, will learn that bicycles are equal to cars in the eyes of traffic law. For example, bikers are entitled to take up an entire lane, although many choose to ride to the side so cars can pass.
In addition, when making a left turn, it is not only legal, but much safer for cyclists to pull into an intersection and wait, just as any motorist would. One of the most dangerous places for cyclists, in fact, is on the far right shoulder when they are going straight or turning left into an intersection, as drivers making right-hand turns often don’t expect the bikers or notice them.
Critical Mass began in 1992 in San Francisco, where cyclists took over the streets to make themselves known. There, they prevented cars from driving at all. It takes places in over 300 cities worldwide now, and often takes on the air of a protest. That’s not the plan for the Niskayuna group; they ride single-file or, at most, two deep on the road’s shoulder.
“We don’t want the cars to be angry with us,” Michela said.
Technically, the rides are “leaderless,” but really what they lack is hierarchy. In every city, a couple of cyclists initiate the rides by setting a time and date and publicizing the event. After that, they let the event take on a life of its own. Michela and her friend Melissa MacKinnon, also of Niskayuna, initiated their hometown chapter.
“The idea is not just to take the bike path, but to bike to the grocery store,” said MacKinnon, who became a frequent cyclist during graduate school in Tucson, Arizona, in the ’90s. Her affection for traveling by bike stuck. When she had kids, she bought a trailer so they could come along, too. However, the Niskayuna area is short on bike lanes, she said, so it’s tougher to feel confident sharing the road.
In the future, MacKinnon hopes that will change. Complete Streets legislation, signed into New York state law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in August 2011, mandates that any new roads that get federal or state funding have to include accessibility features that may include sidewalks, bike lanes, wide shoulders and pull-offs for buses. In addition, the Niskayuna Comprehensive Plan Committee committed to increased bicycle accessibility with its final draft of its most recent plan, which the Town Board will likely approve soon.
Change takes time, but MacKinnon and Michela hope increased awareness will speed it along.
“It’s not that people are opposed to it,” MacKinnon said. “It’s just the way government works.”
She said she expects many suburban areas to follow suit, simply because young adults now are passionate about having varied transportation options.
“It’s part of a generational shift,” MacKinnon said. “Otherwise, they’re moving out of the suburbs.”
Michela and MacKinnon hope the ride will have a secondary effect: that in addition to making the roads safer for already-passionate cyclists, it’ll attract casual bikers, too. They know that anxiety sometimes arises from ability level. A casual cyclist might wonder whether commuting by bike isn’t reserved for tougher or more experienced athletes. It’s not, they insist; everyone is welcome.
The group’s initial ride in late July attracted 19 riders, including friends, neighbors, teens on summer vacation and some local cycling enthusiasts. All are invited to join them for the next Critical Mass ride on Aug. 29. Riders will meet at 5:15 p.m. in the Shop-Rite Plaza parking lot.