Back in 1984, Sammy Hagar recorded “I Can’t Drive 55”, just before ruining Van Halen (my wife’s telling of the story). I recently spent a very long crossing of the Big Dam Bridge singing my own little version of this song in my head. You see I’m one of those people who knows the dirty little secret that the posted speed limit for bikes on the Big Dam Bridge is 5 mph. I’ll admit, I usually average about 12 – 15 mph going across the bridge, a little slower on the climb, a little faster on the decent. This is a speed that I have become comfortable with while in the crowds on the bridge. I can pretty much stop as fast as I ever need to, I can get past groups a little quicker and away from unpredictable dogs and kids in a timely manner.
On this particular Wednesday night I decided to attempt to keep my speed at the suggested (I don’t think that the limit is an actual law or that I could be ticketed for not following it) 5 mph for my entire ride across. I left from the Little Rock side going north to Cook’s Landing in North Little Rock. Slowly I climbed, trying to guide my bike around the groups, very slowly. It took a while but I was soon on the top where the real challenge would be. You see, going up or down the Big Dam Bridge, people tend to mind the intuitive laws of being in traffic. They stay mostly to the right, they don’t stop, the goal is to get to the top of the bridge after all, and particularly going up, they are expending enough energy that they are not talking as much and paying a little better attention. But now I was on top with the big crowd that mills about.
At 5 mph I found that I have way less control of my bike. I tend to weave a bit more to stay upright. Quickly moving to adjust for anyone who suddenly changes direction was nearly impossible. I started trying to envision what would happen if I actually hit someone or they hit me. Would it be any less harmful at this speed than at at say, 10 mph? I feel like it would hurt me just as much at either speed 5 or 10 mph. A pedestrian might be harmed more but I’m not sure. I opted not to experiment with that. I did feel like my chances of hitting someone increased as I rode slower. It was that whole, not being able to control the bike, thing.
Then came the downhill. At 5 mph I will probably be buying new brake pads on a weekly basis. The best I could do was to keep it at about 7 mph. At this I still was braking the entire time. I had even less bike control than I had on top. Having a strip of rubber rubbing against both wheels really takes away bike handling ability. About halfway down I gave up on the experiment. Mainly because it was feeling very dangerous.
A few observations:
- Runners are going faster than 5 mph across the bridge. I’m a slow, slow runner and run faster than that, particularly across the top and on the downhills.
- People react no differently to cyclists who are going slower. Many pedestrians on the bridge are not aware of their surroundings, lost in thought or conversation they are startled by bikes and other pedestrians.
- A slow speed does nothing to change the fact that animals and kids (and many adults) are highly unpredictable pedestrians. Cyclists on the other hand are fairly predictable on the bridge. They are going from one side of the river to the other in as straight a line as they can follow. It is only when they stop on the bridge and get off their bikes that they become a part of the unpredictable masses.
I don’t know what the solution to the problems of mingling bikes and pedestrians on the Big Dam Bridge is but I know it’s not a 5 mph speed limit that will only be ignored. I do think the bridge could use a speed limit (or suggested speed) but it should be something realistic. Also, training or signs for both pedestrians and cyclists. Maybe we need more rules so that we will all get along. It would be a great study for a sociology/traffic planning manager to undertake. All I know is “I can’t ride 5!”