Controversy veers: Belmont Bridge fence could pose bike hazard
Controversy has erupted again on the Belmont Bridge, and this time it's bicyclists who might be getting the short end of the sidewalk, as a new fence– designed as a safety boon– could be creating a safety hazard.
"That pushes the bicyclists further out out into the traffic," says safety expert Dean Sicking. "That would be a concern for me."
Sicking explains how the fence, erected in late May to keep pedestrians from walking over the Bridge's crumbling eastern sidewalk, has been located so close to the vehicular lanes that the natural tendency of a passing bicyclist is to steer away from such an obstacle– and out into motorized traffic.
Belmont Bridge has two vehicular lanes on its eastern side but no lanes dedicated exclusively to bicycles. And that's why Sicking, who directs the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska, isn't sure the fence was a good idea.
"The concern I would have," says Sicking, "is that it might make a biker shy away from the fence and be more likely to be hit by a car."
Researcher Sicking provided safety tips in the wake of a group of fences built inside tunnels in Boston's "Big Dig." There, the fences were blamed for deaths and grisly, dismembering injuries that might not have happened with horizontally-oriented bars.
He says the Belmont Bridge fence might not dismember or decapitate a bicyclist thanks to fairly close spacing of the vertical bars, but he does note that vertical bars are far less forgiving than horizontals.
"If you get a hand or a foot in there," says Sicking, "it's gonna break."
It's not just academics who find an inches-from-the-road fence a potential danger.
"You want to get away from it," says avid bicyclist Gerry Newman, "because getting your handlebar caught on it is scary."
Asked what safety testing was conducted prior to the installation of the fence, City engineer Tony Edwards said that he would look into the issue and pushed the question back on a reporter.
"Did you understand that some testing needed to be done?" asked Edwards.
Virginia Department of Transportation spokesperson Lou Hatter says he knows of no road standards that have been violated by the fence erection, but according to Hook legal analyst David Heilberg, a newspaper article outlining potential dangers could be used by a plaintiff's attorney to overcome the government's built-in protection against liability.
"Your article," says Heilberg, "will become part of the case to overcome sovereign immunity."
Mayor Dave Norris was on record opposing the fence even before the potential danger of the fence became known.
"I'd like to see the fence taken down, the sidewalk repaired and opened to pedestrians," says Norris, who– along with Holly Edwards– was one of two anti-fence votes in an April 4 City Council vote. (Councilors Kristin Szakos, Satyendra Huja, and David Brown voted in favor of the $14,530 fence.)
Independent City Council candidate Bob Fenwick, in comments for a prior Hook story, urged Council to purchase some plywood forms, a few dozen bags of quick-setting concrete, and just fix the sidewalk. Democrat James Halfaday has publicly concurred with the repair-the-bridge concept.
Researcher Sicking says that whatever happens, he just hopes that no Charlottesville bicyclist veers away from the fence– and into motorized traffic.
"The bicyclist," says Sicking, "always loses in that interaction."This story is a part of the Which way for Belmont Bridge? special.Read more on: belmont bridge