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