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The highway to (and from) hell

May 4, 2012
By BOB SEIDENSTEIN ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Today I drove to Lake Placid and back, something I hadn't done in daylight for months. And, boy, did my eyes get opened!

And if, following Dharmic tradition, I have a third eye - it was open as well.

But although my eyes were open, they could not believe what they were seeing - namely, the condition of Route 86.

Three questions immediately popped into my head:

One, is this the most travelled road in the Adirondacks?

Two, is this the main thoroughfare between the two focal Blue Line towns?

Three, is this overseen and maintained by an official New York state agency?

The answer to all of them is yes. But it sure doesn't look it could be.

If anything, that stretch of Route 86 looks like a Third World truck trail that the 10th Mountain Division uses for mortar practice.

It's got humps, bumps and lumps, pits and slits and more patches than a hillbilly's bibs.

But I was fine with that. After all, I was in my Volvo, protected by four new tires, shock absorbers and springs, and the best upholstery Sweden has to offer. But when I thought of someone naive or crazy enough to ride a bicycle on that mess, I got a world-class case of the willies.

Either I'd forgotten how bad it was, or it'd gotten worse over the years - something I thought would be impossible when I quit riding my bike to Placid, lo, 10 or 15 years ago. Either way, as bad as the road itself was, the shoulders were even worse. And of course the shoulders are where bikers are supposed to ride.

During summers I ride my bike almost daily. Usually, I ride 20 miles, but I'll go 30 or so pretty often. Sometimes I go to Vermontville and then over to Gabriels and back home on 86. Other times I go to Bloomingdale, then over to Paul Smiths and Lake Clear and then come back on Forest Home Road. Occasionally, I'll go to Tupper and back. Or I might do any combination of them.

But one thing I never do is ride my bike to Lake Placid. I admit my motive is selfish: I want to stay alive.


The right to get flattened

But guess what? Although the Lake Placid-Saranac Lake road is a horror show, it's going to be redone this summer. Great news, isn't it? Indeed it is but there's a dark lining in that silver cloud: The DOT is not going to add a bike lane.

There's a petition going around and an area initiative to widen the shoulders, but the DOT says no because it'd add too much expense. While I was saddened by this response, I wasn't surprised.

When it comes to bikes, the U.S. is at best ignorant and at worst hostile. Bikes are seen as children's toys - either for real children or overgrown ones. Most Americans quit riding bikes after childhood, which only reinforces this attitude. As a result, riding a bike almost anywhere in the States puts you at the mercy of car drivers who either don't understand bike riding, don't care about it, or downright don't like it.

Ride a bike for even a little while and you'll be on the receiving end of drivers' near-misses, horn-blowings, finger-flashings - you name it. All of which is hairy enough on a good road, but on the Saranac-Placid road is A Biker's Worst Nightmare.

Now catch this: Bikes are legally defined as vehicles and as such have access to all our roads, unless specifically prohibited (like on the Thruway). But here's the clincher: If the shoulders are obstructed, bicyclists have the right to ride on the road itself.

So what does this mean? Just this - if the shoulders are as crapped up as the Saranac-Placid road's, bikers have the right to ride in the car lane. Of course this is hardly a right like freedom of speech, religion, assembly. Uh-uh, this right only gives you the chance to get flattened from behind by some jamoke in an SUV who's texting his bonehead buddy in the car behind him.


When history repeats itself

Of course when the road's redone, there'll be good shouldersfor a while. But if history repeats itself (which in this case I'm sure it will), within a few years, the road'll be as dangerous as before.

If a bike lane wouldn't solve this problem, it would certainly alleviate it. But it doesn't appear that's going to happen, due to the DOT's sense of frugality. And while I'm all for cutting government overspending, in this case I've got serious doubts about any organization that's more concerned about the cost of asphalt than human life.

And there's a supreme irony here, which is if a bike lane were built and if people were encouraged to use it, in the long run it'd actually save money, since the road would be less degraded. It'd also be groovier for the environment, what with lessened gas consumption and pollution.

I know nothing about who's in charge of the DOT and who makes the decisions about such things as bike lanes, but I doubt that any of them ride bikes. Certainly, The Amazing Vanishing Bike Lane on Lake Flower Avenue is a perfect example of poor design: It starts at the traffic light by the town hall, and by the curve by Madden's it disappears. Yep, that's right - one second you're safely separated from the auto traffic and the next second you're right in the middle of it, with no warning whatsoever.

Then, after it appears again, by Mountain Mist, it has cars parked on it, as it does by the tennis courts and other places. Bike lane, schmike lane.

Don't misunderstand me. I don't think the DOT has sinister motives. In fact, I assume they have only good intentions.

Then again, according to the old cliche, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

If that's true, and if a road to hell ever gets built, I've got faith our state DOT are the guys to build it.



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