Kirke Johnson’s BikePortland comments are chilling and inspiring

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on November 24th, 2014 at 1:35 pm

Source: Bike Portland


It turns out that Kirke Johnson, the man killed last Thursday when a truck driver turned his vehicle into Johnson’s path while he rode on NW Cornell Road, was a regular commenter here on BikePortland.

It turns out that Kirke Johnson, the man killed last Thursday when a truck driver turned his vehicle into Johnson’s path while he rode on NW Cornell Road, was a regular commenter here on BikePortland.

Given how involved Kirke was in the regional bike advocacy scene, I thought he might have sent us an email or two over the years. When I checked my inbox archives, sure enough an email address belonging to “kirkej” popped up; but it was only a CC’d message, not one directly to me. Then, out of curiosity, I copy/pasted his email address into our comment database. A few seconds later I was reading the 100 or so comments left by “bikesalot” — which was Kirke’s screen name here on BikePortland.

Starting in January of 2009 Kirke commented about once a month at first. By 2012 he was commenting a few times a month. Kirke left his last comment just over a month ago. His contributions to our discussions match with the helpful and engaged advocate that I’ve been learning about from his friends and acquaintancesin the past few days: He weighed in on advocacy issues, shared recaps of meetings he’d attended, offered insights on road conditions, and so on.

By way of remembering Kirke and his contributions to our community, here are a few of his comments that really stood out to me:

In his first-ever comment, Kirke writes about using his own shovel to clear leaves from sections of NW Cornell road (the same road he was hit on)…

“I started tonight cleaning off some of the narrow areas on the south side of Cornell Road where it is climbing from the west side of the mountain. Over recent years I have swept much of about two miles of Cornell, some places several times…

I submit that if each serious rider got out with a flat blade shovel and a wide push broom, we could together make quite a difference.

Just dress in brightly visible clothing, work facing traffic, and don’t get hit!”

On July 13th, 2009, he shared what it was like doing the Seattle-to-Portland ride “fossil fuel free”…

“Did the round-trip STP for the second time, riding three days up and two back. It feels great to have a fossil fuel-free STP. We used to do a gasoline-free STP by taking Amtrak to Seattle, but the round trip by bike is much better!

On the return trip we made Longview the first day. It is a long ride, but we missed the thunderstorms that hit the Centralia area. Got to the finish line dry and happy, then got totally soaked riding over the mountain to get home.

This was STP number 8 for me. Don’t know how much longer I will keep it up, but this one was thankfully free of any bicycle or auto accidents where I was riding. I worry about the congestion during the first 50 miles or so.”

On May 7th, 2012, Kirke commented on a link we shared in the Monday Roundup…

“The item on the fatality on Hwy 1 in California makes me fear it is just a matter of time until many of us lose our nerve for cycling in traffic. I rode that section of highway just a year ago by myself during a small group tour from San Francisco to the Mexican border. Are the odds getting worse, or is all this just getting reported more?”

On February 20th of this year he shared insights about the Salmonberry Corridor trail and urged other readers to join him at meetings to support the project:

“+1 regarding the City of Garibaldi – Salmonberry Corridor: Garibaldi to Barview proposal! We were at the Salmonberry public meeting last night in Banks, and this specific location was mentioned several times as a real trouble spot. Personal experience matches with that: the hiker-biker camp in Barview Jerry County Park is our favorite one anywhere, but the highway getting to Garibaldi is an immense obstacle to riding into town (not very far away) to get dinner or provisions. It was also awful riding it in the morning fog to continue down the coast.

Another note from the meeting: we were appalled by the lack of attendees supporting the trail for cycling. The meeting was really dominated by local property owners who opposed the trail. They don’t want anything to change there and spoil their solitude. Economic issues were of no apparent concern to that group. Apparently this was a dramatic contrast from the corresponding meeting on the coast, where everyone seems to “get it” about the potential benefits from the trail.”

And the last one I’ll share is Kirke’s last comment that he left on October 18th of this year…

“Turning 70 early next month, retiring from work at the end of this month. I am on track for another 10,000 mile year, as I have done for most recent years. It will be interesting to see what changes in retirement. (Hint: my wife is planning a ride for us from San Diego to Florida, as soon as we get this potential El Nino weather thing resolved.) Lots of things to see around the country by bike where the logistics were difficult on limited annual vacation.”

Our community has lost a wonderful person and a dedicated advocate for better bicycling. He died doing the thing he loved on the same roads he worked to make safer for the rest of us. Our hearts go out to his family and friends.

Anyone who would like to pay their final respects to Kirk, is welcome to attend the memorial service just announced by his family:

Kirke Johnson Memorial Service
December 6th, 1:00 pm
World Forestry Center, Cheatham Hall (4033 SW Canyon Rd, Portland)

Kirke’s daughter Heather Johnson also wants everyone to “Please feel free to dress casual, Kirke didn’t believe in dressing fancy.” In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting that people make a donation to the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in the name of bicycle safety.

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Sorry to see that a fellow Easy Racers Tour Easy rider has ‘left the building‘. These bikes are among the most enduring testimonies to the life of a committed cyclist. It is difficult to explain to anyone who has not ridden an Easy Racers bike just how wonderful a gift they were from their creator Gardner Martin.

Evidently it was a ‘Right Hook‘ that ended Kirke Johnson’s life:

A man riding a bike died Thursday in a collision with a FedEx truck near the corner of Northwest Barnes Road and Cornell Road (map).

Details from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office are scarce at the moment but according to KGW-TV, “both the truck and bicyclist were eastbound on Cornell Road when the truck driver made a southbound turn onto Barnes Road and hit the bicyclist.”

This is one of those collision types that requires constant vigilance on the part of the cyclist. Protected Bike Lanes do not eliminate the problem. In fact it is my considered opinion that many riders fail to understand the nature of the Right Hook and how to avoid it, believing that the bicycle infrastructure in place is sufficient to protect them. It is not.

Like so many of you it is frustrating to be on roadways that are notbike-friendly‘. And yet the vast majority of the roads outside of metropolitan areas have no visible bike lanes whatsoever. It is for this reason that much of the controversy over such lanes is a moot point for many. Knowing how to ride in these areas is vital and in fact essential. But again several of the most memorable Right Hook accounts I have read occurred at intersections where Bike Lanes were present.

SF Bicycle Coalition Right Turn Diagram

SF Bicycle Coalition Right Turn Diagram

However even when lines on the pavement are dotted to indicate that cyclists approaching the intersection should expect drivers to merge into the bike lane before making a turn few cyclists I have spoken to knew this. Another sign that infrastructure while helpful needs an explanation.

As a longtime software engineer I have very little faith in software designs that do not come with at least rudimentary instructions. Nothing is completely ‘idiot proof‘. And the quicker we cyclists get that message to understand the physics of a Right Hook the better.

Nothing Is Really ‘Safe’

We cyclists talk a good game about how much safer we feel when riding in newly installed infrastructure. And yet the data shows that there has been an uptick in the number of deaths and some of it seems associated with BUI activity.

Having a Protected Bike Lane is a bit like carrying a concealed weapon. You can be lulled into believing that you have all your bases covered when in fact you are still vulnerable. And frankly there are lots of mixed messages out there about what sorts of things we ‘should not have to do‘ because somehow bike infrastructure will magically take care of it.

I have read with complete disbelief that many cyclists refuse to dress in loud garish clothing believing that this is an imposition from the days of Vehicular Cycling. They have instead decided to wear street clothing that is stylish and frankly not very practical for riding a bike, but that is the new trend. I welcome the loud clothing both in my own case and on others.

I welcome riding with bright headlights and taillights and reflective SMV triangles and all the rest. Being both a motorist and a cyclist has taught me the value of never taking my visibility for granted. Were anyone to ever ask me, my mantra is ‘assume no one can see you‘. When approaching intersections, especially when accompanied by trucks allow them to precede you into the intersection. In short keep them in your view. Never let the rear end of the truck trail you as you approach the intersection.

And for goodness sake, as often as we rant and complain about drunken motorists, we certainly should be known for our aversion to the drinking of alcohol while biking. But sadly we are not. Just the opposite is true. We even have alcohol-themed fundraisers where we encourage people to give to bike advocacy group on the theory that we are helping to keep people safe! That is the height of mixed-messaging in my view.

I wish that I had gotten a chance to meet Kirke. Perhaps we met at some time in the past on a forum dedicated to recumbent bicycling?

I certainly hope that each of us takes time to renew our vigilance on the roadways. Never take for granted that your surroundings are safe. Even the dedicated trails have been shown to be unsafe. We lost a few folks in the past two years to collisions with bicycles on trails! These were situations where a cyclist killed another cyclist or a pedestrian and not a single automobile was involved.

That too is another reminder that sometimes we are our own worst enemies. We spend so much time focusing on motorists as the supreme danger that we end up dying at the hands of a fellow cyclist or worse yet running over an unsuspected jogger or walker. This is really inexcusable but it is fact.