October 7, 2012
I rarely rode my bike around Chicago this summer, which was different from all the summers before. I can’t pinpoint exactly why, except to say that cycling on the city streets, which I once did as breezily as Mary Poppins, feels more dangerous than it used to.
Even with more bike lanes and more bicyclists and the mayor’s vow to make Chicago a more bike-friendly city, I’ve never felt less safe behind the handlebars.
My apprehension may not be entirely rational, and it may have more to do with my own reflexes than with the chaos of the city’s roads, but the fear is reinforced every time another cyclist dies while biking.
It happened again Friday morning, on North Wells Street on the Near North Side.
Neill Townsend, a 32-year-old attorney, was cycling to work when the door of a parked car swung open in front of him. Swerving to avoid it, he wound up in the path of a semitrailer.
“Haunted by this,” a friend, an ardent city cyclist, posted on Facebook, “and all the other cyclists killed.”
People die in car accidents every day, and yet the death of a bicyclist, a much rarer occurrence, tends to feel more haunting than the death of a motorist. It’s certainly more newsworthy.
Townsend’s death was the lead story on the websites of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times for most of the day Friday. It was widely reported on TV and talked about on Facebook.
There are several reasons that the deaths of cyclists make bigger news than the deaths of drivers.
For one thing, there is a community of cyclists, and a cyclist’s death in the city reverberates widely.
For another, cyclists tend to be young, and an early death always feels especially notable, regrettable, avoidable.
There’s the fact, too, that it’s so easy to recognize a cyclist as a person. A bicyclist is a lone human being, exposed to the elements, undefended except maybe by a helmet, no match for the metal machines that dominate the road.
The freakishness of that mismatch — the big, hard machine vs. the small, soft body — is part of what draws our attention and turns cycling accidents into bigger news than car accidents.
But the main reason that cyclists’ deaths make as much news as they do, I think, is that every time a cyclist dies, a larger fight is engaged.
Even before Neill Townsend’s name was known, with the facts still sketchy, his accident incited the usual blame battle:
Cyclists vs. drivers. Who’s worse?
When a cyclist dies, we quickly leap to a team. Defend the virtue of our team. Decry the lunacy of the other.
Many of us, of course, belong to both teams. We drive and we bike. We’re both victims and perpetrators.
Admit it, driver: No matter how disciplined you try to be about checking your driver’s mirror before you open your car door into a bike path, you’ve blown it more than once.
Admit it, cyclist: No matter how rude drivers are to you, you’ve done your share of illegal, dangerous maneuvers.
Is Chicago more dangerous for cyclists than it used to be? Some people would say it’s gotten better.
But there are enough bad roads, bad traffic signals, bad cyclists, bad drivers, along with good cyclists and good drivers who sometimes behave badly, that it’s still too dangerous, more dangerous than it has to be.
We face that fact each time a cyclist dies. And each time, we see the shadows of the deaths to come.