Is Booty Loop ‘the most dan­ger­ous 3 miles to ride a bike in Char­lotte’?

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Insight - BY THÉODEN JANES [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

As Na­dine Ben­nett walked up to the emer­gency ve­hi­cles on Sel­wyn Av­enue, she found her­self say­ing the words in her head, over and over again:

Please don’t let it be a cy­clist. Please don’t let it be a cy­clist.

But as she got closer, on that Satur­day morn­ing in April, she saw the car, and the bike, and the woman on the stretcher: Stacy Stran­ick, also 55, a wife and mother of three adult chil­dren — was pro­nounced dead less than half an hour later and the car’s driver was ar­rested for fail­ing to yield the right of way, and mis­de­meanor death by mo­tor ve­hi­cle.

The news sent a chill up the spines of Ben­nett and count­less oth­ers who fre­quently ride the city’s famed Booty Loop, the 2.85-mile route Stran­ick had been do­ing laps on, cir­cling well-kept neigh­bor­hoods and Queens Uni­ver­sity of Char­lotte.

Ben­nett, an avid cy­clist who’d ridden the Loop mul­ti­ple times a week for a decade, was par­tic­u­larly shaken.

“I was so scared about get­ting out there again — even though I con­sider my­self re­ally safe, and I fol­low all the rules,” she says. It took her three weeks to work up the nerve to ride her bike again, and that day a car swerved around her, then sud­denly braked.

“I got off right then. I thought, ‘This is not worth it to me. I’m not do­ing this any­more.’”

Along these 2.85 miles are about 20 traf­fic in­ter­sec­tions (depend­ing on how you count), where cy­clists cross in front of on­com­ing traf­fic or cars turn onto side streets. Two are con­fus­ing and po­ten­tially chaotic five-way in­ter­sec­tions: one where East Boule­vard, South Kings Drive and Queens Road West con­verge near Free­dom Park, the other next to Myers Park United Methodist Church at Queens and Prov­i­dence. Also on the route: pedes­trian cross­ing zones; storm drain grates on the shoul­der; par­al­lel-parked cars on the shoul­der; and blind spots.

“The gen­eral im­pres­sion that peo­ple have of the Booty Loop,” says Jeff Vis­count, a high-pro­file Char­lotte cy­clist ad­vo­cate who owns the web­site Week­lyRides.com, “es­pe­cially when we talk about new cy­clists — be­gin­ners, or cy­clists that are just learn­ing — is that this Booty Loop is this mag­i­cal place where I can go and I can do no wrong and I can be safe and not have to worry about any of the things that I would nor­mally worry about if I were to ride my bike out on the road.

“The re­al­ity is that, in some ways, it’s the 3 most dan­ger­ous miles to ride a bike in Char­lotte.”

A BRIEF LOOP HISTORY

The Booty Loop isn’t a for­mal name, and as such, it doesn’t have a for­mal history.

City of Char­lotte of­fi­cials speak of it ad­mir­ingly, but keep no of­fi­cial in­for­ma­tion on it. The Myers Park Home­own­ers As­so­ci­a­tion clearly views the Loop as a cov­eted amenity for res­i­dents, but the MPHA web­site makes vir­tu­ally no men­tion of it.

In fact, the Loop is most widely known for the an­nual “24 Hours of Booty,” in which more than a thou­sand cy­clists cir­cle it for, yes, 24 hours ev­ery July, rais­ing money for cancer char­i­ties.

That event’s founder, Spencer Lued­ers, re­counts its history — a bit re­luc­tantly.

“Some of this stuff I’ve gotta be a lit­tle care­ful about,” says Lued­ers, who is con­sid­ered an author­ity when it comes to the ori­gins of the Booty name.

Then, care­fully, he ex­plains the history that the 24 Foun­da­tion’s web­site omits: Back in the early ’90s, a group of se­ri­ous cy­clists — all male — used to do train­ing rides on a loop in Eas­tover, he says. Af­ter a time, as “they were get­ting kind of run out of there by the neigh­bors,” some­one turned them on to this scenic, clock­wise-run loop in Myers Park that walk­ers, run­ners and cy­clists were fre­quent­ing. These guys quickly de­vel­oped an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the, um, fit­ness lev­els of women ex­er­cis­ing on that loop and the co-eds hang­ing out on the cam­pus of Queens Uni­ver­sity of Char­lotte on Sel­wyn.

The Booty Loop was born. A quar­ter-cen­tury later, the con­sen­sus among many who use it reg­u­larly is that the name now refers to the ath­letic-look­ing booties of women and men.

But you’ll still oc­ca­sion­ally hear a com­plaint. Just last week, in a thread about the Booty Loop on Weekly Rides’ Face­book page, a com­menter wrote: “As an en­light­ened male, I have to say, I am em­bar­rassed by the name of the loop! I sug­gest we all agree to re-name it in a way that is less of­fen­sive to­wards women, and more in line with pro­gres­sive 21st cen­tury thought.”

In re­sponse, Lued­ers posted: “I can think of 21 mil­lion (and count­ing) rea­sons why this should not hap­pen” — a nod to the $21 mil­lion that 24 Hours of Booty has raised since 2002.

The event returns July 27-28, and from 7 p.m. that Fri­day till 7 p.m. that Satur­day, the Loop will be closed to mo­tor ve­hi­cle traf­fic, with the ex­cep­tion of the left lane on a stretch of Queens Road West, which will be open for most of Satur­day.

But what about the other 364 days of the year?

THE AL­LURE OF THE LOOP

Take a spin around it in a car and — un­less you are out there when lots of cy­clists are — you might not even rec­og­nize that the Loop is a thing.

One of the three yel­low “Share the Road” signs on the route is al­most en­tirely ob­scured by a tree, and a sin­gle

“Re­spect the Loop” sign that hangs un­der an “Adopt-a-City Street” sign near Queens Uni­ver­sity is so dirty it’s dif­fi­cult to read, un­less you pull over.

There are four con­sec­u­tive “shar­rows” (images, painted on the road, of a bi­cy­cle un­der two wide ar­rows, in­di­cat­ing that cy­clists and mo­torists must share the road) in front of the Queens cam­pus — one of the Loop’s di­ci­est sec­tions, be­cause the shoul­der can be lined with par­al­lel-parked cars. But there are no mark­ings on the road any­where else. Along the mile and a quar­ter from Myers Park United Methodist Church’s park­ing lot to the four-lane part of Queens Road West, there isn’t a sin­gle speed-limit sign. (The le­gal limit there is 35, as it is on Queens Road West.)

Yet bikes con­tinue to be drawn to it. Why?

Says Joel Fer­ris, a life­long bi­cy­cling en­thu­si­ast who moved to Char­lotte about three years ago: “I cy­cle the Booty Loop be­cause I find it ... the safest, most pleas­ant, real road bik­ing that is clos­est to the city.” He likes that most of the roads along it are two lanes wide, and that there aren’t many places where traf­fic must stop — there are just two lights, two yields and one stop sign on the Loop.

Says Rob Sch­weitzer, 32, who’s been rid­ing road bikes for nine years: “I like rid­ing it be­cause the roads are gen­er­ally well­main­tained — clean of de­bris, free of pot­holes, smoothly paved — not very hilly, and, since cy­cling is so com­mon on the Loop, most driv­ers ex­pect cy­clists and are used to driv­ing around cy­clists. ... Most of the time it’s about the least-stress­ful rid­ing you can get on a pub­lic road.”

Then, of course, there’s Queens Road West.

Cov­er­ing roughly 1 mile in the heart of Myers Park, with two lanes the whole way, it’s a chance to ride along­side mil­lion-dol­lar houses with im­mac­u­late lawns that look like they’d take all af­ter­noon to mow, and un­der­neath stately, hun­dred-year-old wil­low oaks. The mam­moth trees line the me­dian, both sides of the road and the home­own­ers’ yards, form­ing a canopy that is lit­er­ally a very cool fea­ture on hot sum­mer days.

Why wouldn’t a cy­clist want to ride here? The an­swer is one you might not ex­pect.

LOOP TEN­SIONS

James Howell is se­nior pas­tor at Myers Park United Methodist Church, which sits across from the Booty Loop at Queens and Prov­i­dence. He’s also an ex­pe­ri­enced cy­clist who’s been rid­ing in Char­lotte for three decades.

Howell, 62, says he rides for 45 min­utes to an hour ev­ery day on res­i­den­tial streets in Myers Park, “but never on the Booty Loop, for even 5 feet.”

He says it’s be­cause he grew tired of boor­ish be­hav­ior — by fel­low cy­clists. Tired of see­ing them hog lanes on the Loop by rid­ing three abreast, even in heav­ier traf­fic. Tired of hear­ing about a cy­clist snap­ping at mem­bers of his church to get out of the way as they tried to walk across Queens from the park­ing lot.

On any sum­mer even­ing, you might see what an Ob­server photograph­er recorded Tues­day at the stop sign at the top of Hope­dale: Cy­clist af­ter cy­clist rolling through as if the sign weren’t there, over the course of about an hour. Once, a biker passed to the right of a sedan stopped at the in­ter­sec­tion, mak­ing the turn with­out even slow­ing down.

It’s also not un­com­mon for cy­clists to skip the line of cars wait­ing at the stop­light at Sel­wyn and Queens Road East, or blow the yield at the bot­tom of the hill where Queens Road West meets Sher­wood Av­enue, in front of driv­ers with the right of way com­ing through green lights off East Boule­vard or Kings Drive.

“Hon­estly,” says Week­lyRides.com’s Vis­count, “on the Booty Loop, I see more con­flicts cre­ated by cy­clists than I do by mo­torists.”

But mo­torists can get out of line some­times, too, many cy­clists say.

“Queens Road ... that’s where peo­ple re­ally get im­pa­tient, ‘cause there’s a short area that’s one lane, and so if I’ve been yelled at, that’s where it is,” says Ann Groninger, an at­tor­ney for North Carolina Bike Law who rep­re­sents cy­clists all over the state. “Or buzzed. Peo­ple tend to get re­ally im­pa­tient in that area, and they try to squeeze you out of the lane, or try to squeeze be­tween you and another car that’s on­com­ing. So it can get a lit­tle sketchy there. And I would tell peo­ple that are driv­ing, ‘Just wait a few sec­onds, you know? It’s gonna open up to two lanes, and you’ll have plenty of time to get where you’re go­ing.’”

Cy­clists, she re­minds peo­ple, have ev­ery right to be out on pub­lic roads. What, though, could make these par­tic­u­lar roads safer?

CAN IT BE SAFER?

“That’s a great ques­tion,” Vis­count says. “I’m sure some in­creased sig­nage in key ar­eas would help.”

The Char­lotte De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion plans to add shar­rows along two blocks of Sel­wyn Av­enue be­tween Welles­ley Av­enue and West­field Road, where Stacy Stran­ick was killed in April; this was in re­sponse, says Amy Mitchell of CDOT, to feed­back from a res­i­dent and a sub­se­quent eval­u­a­tion by the de­part­ment. (No date has been set yet for paint­ing to take place.)

But Vis­count says shar­rows can be mis­un­der­stood by both cy­clists and mo­torists, who of­ten be­lieve they in­di­cate where a cy­clist should be rid­ing. They don’t: They sim­ply mean bikes and cars should be shar­ing the lane of traf­fic.

What about bike lanes? “I’m not against bike lanes. I un­der­stand they are needed to get peo­ple started,” Vis­count says.

But “bike lanes, in­clud­ing ‘pro­tected’ bike lanes, of­ten pro­vide a false sense of se­cu­rity. They po­si­tion the cy­clists on the far right, where they are of­ten screened by other in­fra­struc­ture and pass­ing ve­hi­cles.” He also says bike lanes collect de­bris pushed aside by pass­ing ve­hi­cles and are of­ten blocked by parked cars, trash cans and yard waste.

More help­ful, Vis­count says, would be lower speed lim­its. “A 20 mph or 25 mph limit would go a long way.” But he says Sel­wyn and Queens are con­sid­ered pri­mary roads, and that the cur­rent 35 mph speed limit is al­ready con­sid­ered slow by many. “Based on the ac­tual speeds we see, mo­torists would prob­a­bly pre­fer if they were 45 mph.”

Last month, the Char­lotte City Coun­cil ap­proved a bud­get that in­cludes $4 mil­lion for the Char­lotte BIKES plan, adopted last year by the City Coun­cil in an ef­fort to build a bike-friendly city. Adam Roskoskie, chair of the Char­lotte Meck­len­burg Bi­cy­cle Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee and a huge pro­po­nent of the Booty Loop, says the plan doesn’t yet in­clude a com­pre­hen­sive list of projects. So he’s un­sure what may or may not be planned for the Loop.

So for now, the only tan­gi­ble re­minder to mo­torists and cy­clists to be more care­ful is a col­lec­tion of flow­ers, a photo and bike hel­met that are strapped to a stop sign at Sel­wyn and Buck­nell av­enues: a me­mo­rial for Stacy Stran­ick.

Ben­nett — the cy­clist so spooked by Stran­ick’s death that she stopped rid­ing al­to­gether — says she thinks about Stran­ick of­ten. She fi­nally got back on her bike to take to the Loop again on June 30, ex­actly 10 weeks af­ter the ac­ci­dent, and cred­its the re­gain­ing of her con­fi­dence to a Cy­clingSavvy traf­fic cy­cling course de­signed to teach the prin­ci­ples of mind­ful bi­cy­cling.

Also out there rid­ing reg­u­larly: Frank Stran­ick.

Stran­ick used to get off work and bike with his late wife, he says, and he’d usu­ally be be­hind her, “be­cause she was so blasted strong.”

Does he worry more or less these days about his own safety as he rides the Loop?

“In­ter­est­ing ques­tion,” he says. “I sup­pose I am even more dis­trust­ful of the id­iots out there on the road. ... But this is not lim­ited to the Loop ... The Loop it­self was not, per se, the is­sue.”

Stran­ick pauses. “I still con­sider the Loop a safer ride be­cause there is so much con­stant cy­cling on it... Even with her death there, it’s still, for me, when I ride it, a place that gives me peace and plea­sure — be­cause I know that she was so happy when she was out there, and I was so happy when I was out there with her.”

He says “Hi, Stace” each time he passes the flow­ers.

I CY­CLE THE BOOTY LOOP BE­CAUSE I FIND IT ... THE SAFEST, MOST PLEAS­ANT, REAL ROAD BIK­ING THAT IS CLOS­EST TO THE CITY.

Joel Fer­ris, a life­long bi­cy­cling en­thu­si­ast who moved to Char­lotte about three years ago

DAVID T. FOSTER III dt­fos­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

“The gen­eral im­pres­sion” cy­clists (es­pe­cially new ones) have of the Booty Loop, says cy­clist ad­vo­cate Jeff Vis­count, is as “this mag­i­cal place where I can go and I can do no wrong and I can be safe and not have to worry about any of the things that I would nor­mally worry about.”

Belling­ham Her­ald file photo

This is a “shar­row”: Con­trary to what many think, it does not in­di­cate the area cy­clists should be on the road. It means bikes and cars should be shar­ing that lane of traf­fic.

Cour­tesy of Frank Stran­ick

“I don’t have neg­a­tive feel­ings to­wards the Booty Loop at all,” says Frank Stran­ick, pic­tured with his late wife, Stacy. “She died there, but she was do­ing what she loved.”

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