July 27, 2014

Monday Q&A: Modesto heading toward bicycle-friendly

A bicyclist who is well-connected with the local bicycling scene says Modesto has been making great strides in becoming friendlier and safer for those who get around on two wheels.

John F. Gerling’s bicycle sat in his garage gathering dust for many years, until about a decade ago when he entered a 60-mile bike ride for charity. The Modesto resident has been pedaling ever since, riding five to eight hours a week, logging 100 to 150 miles, primarily on two-lane country roads in and around Stanislaus County.

He also competes in bike races. Gerling, 58, has entered as many as 30 events a year, but in recent years has cut back to 10 to 15 races annually. He loves the exercise and its benefits and being able to ride at an elite level. “It’s the fitness and feeling you have after a hard effort,” he said. “It’s the sense of accomplishment.”

Gerling – founder and president of Gerling Applied Engineering, a Modesto company that makes microwave heating equipment for commercial, industrial and scientific applications – is well-connected with the local bicycling scene. He is a co-founder and former president of the bike racing club Ciclistas del Valle, a member of the Stanislaus County Bike Club and chairman of Mayor Garrad Marsh’s Modesto Bicycle Advisory Committee.

He recently spoke with The Modesto Bee about bicycling in the Modesto area and the city’s efforts to make it streets and roads more bicycle-friendly. The responses have been edited for length.

What do you think of the city’s recent efforts to create more opportunities for bicyclists, such as connecting Modesto Junior College’s two campuses with bike lanes?

Two years ago, I might have snickered at the idea that Modesto could become bicycle-friendly. In 2006 the city adopted a formal Non-Motorized Transportation Master Plan that includes bicycle infrastructure improvements but had done little to implement it. New roads were being constructed and existing roads repaired without any attention paid to making them safe for bicycling.

Since (Marsh was elected in 2012), the city has done a complete turnaround. In the summer of 2012, Marsh organized the informal bicycle advisory committee for the purpose of applying for “Bicycle Friendly Community” status through the League of American Bicyclists. Although Modesto received only honorable mention, the process helped kick-start what has since been an ongoing effort to make Modesto more bicycle-friendly. Key to that effort are a number of city staff members in the transportation and parks departments who I believe are genuinely committed.

I see evidence of that commitment throughout Modesto. In addition to the Virginia Corridor, new bike lanes have appeared on Oakdale Road, Needham Street and several other roads that are often ridden. Construction has started on a bike lane connecting the Modesto Junior College east and west campuses, and the city recently presented to local residents a proposal for a complete redesign of College Avenue that adds bike lanes without compromising motor vehicle traffic. What also impresses me is that many of these improvements are paid for by grants rather than the city’s transportation budget.

How does Modesto compare with other cities in terms of what it offers bicyclists?

I ride quite a bit in other areas throughout California and other states. Two years ago on a 1-to-10 scale, I’d have given Modesto a 2, but now I’d say it’s closer to 4 or 5. Cities like Davis and San Francisco are right at the top.

In addition to a well-connected system of bike lanes, other factors that determine a city’s bicycling friendliness include community education, local traffic laws and enforcement, ongoing evaluation and planning for improvements, and encouragement of bicycling for transportation and recreation.

I believe education is where Modesto needs to do the most work. For example, every day I see a bicyclist riding on the wrong (left) side of the street against traffic because so many people believe it is safer than riding with traffic. This is an area the bicycle advisory committee is addressing by organizing classes on bicycle safety.

Is it safe to ride a bike on Modesto streets?

In some areas, yes. Most of Oakdale Road is now quite safe for bicycling in both directions. Other areas are not so safe. The only safe bike route across Highway 99 has been through the downtown area. The Woodland, Briggsmore-Carpenter and Pelandale overpasses are not the least bit safe for bicycling. This is one reason for the new bike lanes connecting the two MJC campuses.

How has the Modesto area changed for bicyclists in the past decade?

When I started riding seriously 10 years ago, I became aware of an apparent lack of interest in bicycling in general. But that was true for not just Modesto but so many other cities as well.

Bicycling was mostly considered a recreational activity, and even that was not widely popular. Roads were there for cars, not bicycles. That sentiment has since changed dramatically. People are starting to recognize the benefit of bicycling as an alternate mode of transportation, not just for recreation, health and fitness, but economically as well.

More and more businesses are installing bike racks and even dedicated bike parking areas. There was even a recent article in “CNN Money” that declared bicycling as the new “golf” for business networking. Modesto is right in line with this trend.

How are bicyclist-motorist relations?

My own experience has been mostly positive, although I know a few other bicyclists who might have a different view. I find that if I respect drivers while I’m riding, they will return the favor by waving me through stop signs and passing with plenty of clearance.

I get lots of waves and head nods as well. Occasionally, I’m buzzed a bit too closely by a passing big-wheel pickup truck, and once I was hit on the back by an empty plastic soda bottle. But incidents like those are rare considering how often I ride. However, I often see other bicyclists behaving very badly when in traffic. I’m not sure whether they don’t know how to ride safely or they simply have no respect for drivers and don’t care. It’s not surprising that a few bad apples like that can create a negative stereotype of all bicyclists.

Where do you think Modesto will be in another decade in terms of what it offers bicyclists?

That depends on who is in the driver’s seat (pardon the pun!). Right now, we have a mayor who is committed to improving Modesto’s bicycle friendliness and a fantastic city staff that is motivated to make it happen.

I have faith that the next administration, whoever that might be, will not be pedaling backward.

We still have lots of room for improvement. Goals I would like to see accomplished include a formal bike safety education program for kids and adults, more safe bike routes across the freeway, bike paths along the Modesto Irrigation District canals and completion of the Virginia Corridor all the way to the city’s edge.

Modesto’s improved bicycling friendliness will bring more riders, which will create more incentive for improvements and bring yet more riders.

I predict Modesto will be the envy of other Valley communities for its bicycle culture.

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