Cycling in the City

I’m going to re-post this entry from Open Salon, word for word:

in memory of a guy I never met

On Friday morning, as I was walking from the train to the office, I saw a scene I recognized at a downtown intersection – the aftermath of an accident between a cyclist and car.  A woman stood beside her bike, crying a bit, obviously shaken up, talking to a police officer.  A cab was stopped in front of the squad car, and the cabbie was standing next to the woman, talking to the officer.  At first I thought, “what a lousy way to start the day.”  Then I considered the bigger picture – this one didn’t turn out too bad.  The woman is standing, not lying on the pavement waiting for an ambulance.  She looks upset, but she’s not all torn up.  Her bike looks intact.  The driver has not fled the scene.  There’s an officer at the scene taking a report.  The process is actually working the way it should.

I hadn’t yet learned about another crash a few miles away, happening about the same time, one that did end badly.  Neill Townsend was doing his regular bike commute on Wells Street, a major bike route into the Loop.  He never arrived, and his co-workers were wondering why.  As he passed a line of parked cars near a school, a car door opened.  It’s unclear whether the door hit him or he swerved to avoid it.  When he moved outside the narrow space of the bike lane, he was run over by a passing semi and killed instantly.  

A little while later, the first news story about the tragedy appeared and discussion started on a local online bike forum.  This story hit very close to home for many of us who have experienced the “almost” version of this story.  I’ve lived that “almost” several times, when I was hit by a door or narrowly avoided it, then crashed and was spared a death like Neill’s.  Each time, the driver who could have run me over or collided with me head-on was alert, had good brakes and used them.   

Dozens of people I know who are regular bike commuters and year round cyclists have had similar experiences at least once.  Hundreds of us were sharing a collective “that could have been any of us” moment, and wondering if he was someone we knew.

We share so much joy in cycling.  Our city is at a critical point in its progress towards becoming a more bike friendly place.  The city has launched a program to add hundreds of miles of improved bike routes.  Yesterday’s tragedy was a harsh reminder of the progress we still need to make.  We want to educate and encourage cyclists, not scare them away from ever riding again.  The initial version of a news story identifying the victim was classic fear mongering.  

Several of us wrote to the newspaper, expressing our concerns with this version of the story.  Yesterday they ran a revised version, which can actually do some good in laying out the issues that led to the tragedy and educate drivers. 

If you drive, please try to get into the habit of checking your side mirror if you don’t already.  Any time you park on the street, please look for approaching cyclists  and let them pass before you open your door into traffic.  Some European countries encourage opening your door with your right hand, which turns your face towards the side mirror, making it easy to see approaching cyclists.  Taking a few seconds to look can save someone’s life or prevent serious injury.

If you’re driving and you see a cyclist suddenly veer into your lane, there’s probably a good reason for it.  Please try to give them enough room to avoid a crash, either by going to their left (if there’s room) or braking.  They don’t want a collision any more than you do.  

Illinois has a law requiring vehicles to pass at least 3 feet to the left of a cyclist, in order to allow enough space to avoid collisions.  Many states now have such laws, although drivers aren’t necessarily aware of them. 

A vigil was held Friday night at the site of Neill’s death.  A memorial and educational outreach is being planned for next Friday morning at the time and location of the accident.  Trying to spread the word and help more drivers understand that looking before opening a car door can save a life seems like a most appropriate way to remember a guy I never met.

I saw the story first on Twitter, from a friend, who–like me–uses Wells as a daily commuting route. It’s a designated bike route; it has pavement markings for cyclist, but it is a shitty, dangerous route home. Marginally less shitty and dangerous than an average Chicago street without a bike lane (or with a bus, making regular stops in the bike lane). It is marginally more shitty because the bike lane is constantly obstructed by delivery trucks, cabs, and drivers double-parking. Like all streets in Chicago, Wells has too much parking (making the road too crowded), poor road surface (making it harder to control your bike at times), and too many drivers (and cyclists) who blow the stop signs or too many drivers driving too fast for conditions.

As are most cycling routes in the city, the bike lane on Wells is directly in the path of people throwing open their car doors. And that is what killed this young man.

I don’t know exactly what happened, but here is what happens when I drive down Wells. I go pretty slowly, 8-10 miles an hour, usually, sometimes accelerating up to 12mph or so to pass another cyclist, or a double-parked car, or to avoid getting caught in an intersection when the light changes. If someone throws open a car door into the bike lane, I’m 150ish pounds of flesh, bone, and bike steel, moving at 8-10 miles per hour, now faced with a steel car door and human being directly and unexpectedly in my path. Physics, folks.

As a cyclist in this situation, I have two shitty choices: (1) I can hit the car door and possibly the human (decelerating from at least 10 miles an hour), be injured from the impact, lose control of the bike and be thrown into traffic; (2) I can swerve into traffic, hoping and trusting that the cars in the travel lane have room and time to avoid hitting me, hoping I don’t lose control of the bike, hoping I don’t hit a car and get thrown further into traffic. I cannot stop and there is nowhere to swerve away from traffic.

This is the thing I don’t understand in the aftermath of this accident: the general anger directed at cyclists or at cycling infrastructure. There are lots of people better qualified to talk about good infrastructure design, or about the conflicts between cyclists and drivers, or about why American cities seem so hostile to humans and so deferential to motor vehicles. I read what those people have to say and for a minute, I think I get it.

But then, I get on my bike, or I walk to the store, or I drive to my parents’ house, and I no longer understand it.

ImageYou are a driver in a car. You are warm and dry (or cool and dry). You are seated comfortably, exerting no physical effort. You’re not carrying groceries, wrangling a stroller, dealing with an infirmity which slows your walking pace. You cannot get to the next stop light any faster than the six cars in front of you. You are a human being in traffic. One cosseted and protected by a steel cage that insulates you from the weather and the bumps in the road and will cushion you, if another driver causes his steel cage to hit yours.

But that person on a bike, that person in the crosswalk, that is also a human being in traffic. The pedestrian is crossing the street–she’s not in your way. The cyclist is waiting at the red light–she’s not blocking your path. We are all human beings, trying to get from point A to point B. There is no justification for drivers–who are human beings traversing the city–to believe pedestrians and cyclists have any less need or right to be there than the drivers.

It behooves those of us in the big metal boxes to yield to those who are not. The fifteen seconds it takes a cyclist to merge into the traffic lane from the bike lane and move around a car double-parked in the bike lane is not what’s making you late, or making you impatient, or ruining your day. And there is simply no justification for a driver passing too closely to a human on foot or a bike. No justification for running through crosswalks where people are present.

And there is no good goddamn reason not to wait until the cyclist is past before you open your door.


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