Bicycles Are Treated Like Beers

Background Reading



So when Carole Barkley went walking along the Tilikum and was involved in a very serious collision, her husband wrote an account of the situation:

“My wife was hit, hard, by a cyclist near the west end of Tilikum Crossing bridge on Sunday morning about 9 a.m. The collision knocked her down and put her in the hospital for more than two days with four broken ribs, a separated shoulder, a chipped vertebra, lots of cuts and abrasions, and attacks of vertigo.

She was walking our six-pound dog (who was fortunately unhurt), and specifically waited for the pedestrian crossing signal at the east end of the Orange Line MAX platform. Presumably the cyclist had a red light, but my suspicion is that he wasn’t looking for a signal under the presumption that he’d passed the big intersection at Moody and Meade and was free to climb the bridge heading east.

I don’t wish to demonize him; he stayed at the scene, gave us his name and contact info, and seemed very upset and apologetic. What puzzles me is that Portland Police did not respond to the 911 call, and they would not take a police report when I called a few days later. (As a side note, two of the Police Bureau employees I worked my way through on the phone had no idea what Tilikum Crossing was.)

There are plenty of other issues with regard to the signaling at both ends of the bridge (I work part-time for the Portland Streetcar and have observed other red flags with regard to cross traffic and signaling), but I was wondering whether you’d be interested in using my wife’s story as a jumping-off place to discuss them.

What is interesting is the response of Jonathan Maus:

The first photo is from the cyclist’s perspective approaching the accident site. The tiny signal on the big silver light pole is the only bicycle signal at that intersection, with no prior warning that there is a pedestrian crossing coming up, and that pole as well as the power boxes in front of it neatly hide a waiting pedestrian as well as the normal-sized bicycle signal that’s 40 or 50 feet BEYOND the intersection. (So what is it for?)

The second photo, much closer to the pedestrian crossing, shows how near you have to get before the larger, main signal comes out from behind the items that obscure it. And, being so far beyond the intersection, where is a cyclist supposed to know where to stop?

We Treat Bicycles The Way We Do Beers

The article cited above treated the collision in such a clinical way it was striking. This is a far cry from the descriptions of motorists vs. bicyclist collisions here in the Chicagoland area. We pretty much condemn the motorists to Hell in the first line or two and then pile on after that. Talk about demonization.

But this account seemed essentially to imply that it was the bicycle infrastructure itself which was to blame. And so the paragraph that reads:

It has happened. And I hate to say that I’m not surprised.

seems completely understandable.

In short whenever a bicycle is involved in a collision which injures a pedestrian you almost always find that there is a question raised in the account about:

  • The complete inattentiveness of the pedestrian
  • The horrid conditions under which the accident took place
  • or, the overall deficiencies in the infrastructure

Our tendency is to bend over backwards to protect cycling (not just the cyclist). Take for instance this quote from journalist John Greenfield:

Avid biker John Greenfield of Streetsblog Chicago calls that incident the exception. He believes most on two wheels follow the rules without feeling more entitled to the road than anyone else.

He thinks cyclists get a bad rap. Cars, he says, are the bigger threat to pedestrians.

A 200-pound bicycle rider and bike, compared to a 2-ton car – obviously, there’s no comparison in the amount of danger,” Greenfield says.

But as the author of this piece (cited above) notes:

Still, the danger from bikes is there. Online videos from all over the world show how rough a collision can be.

Here in Chicago, the number of citations given to bikers has more than doubled over the past two years. It has jumped from fewer than 1,400 in 2012 to more than 3,600 so far this year. Most of those tickets are for riding on sidewalks and on the wrong roads.

“In modern history, there’s never been anyone killed by a bicyclist in Chicago,” Greenfield argues.

That’s not to say there haven’t been close calls though and not always the biker’s fault. For eight hours over four days, CBS 2 watched a busy intersection in the Loop. Drivers behaved badly, and pedestrians walked in designated bike lanes, putting themselves in harm’s way.

But dozens of bikers rode recklessly, too.

“People are too much in a hurry. Nobody has respect for everybody else,” pedestrian John Arias says.

Collisions with bikes have killed two people in New York this year.

Like beer drinking few folks die from over-indulging. And because beer is so prevalent in our culture we treat it almost like soda pop. When we are playing a game of beach volleyball our television ads show us grabbing a bottle before trying to do battle in the sand.

We even attempt to sell memberships in our favorite bicycle advocacy organization using beers and booze. Alcohol is so prevalent in our culture that we lose sight of its lethal qualities.

There is a fellow sitting right now in a wheel chair having gone out and gotten drunk to celebrate his graduation from college only to find himself paralyzed for life. He did a face-plant on the pavement and the city have him some $1.5M to help him get home treatment from which he will never depart.

People all the time go on bicycle rides and afterwards decide to have dinner and a few beers. Only sometimes they miscalculate just how wobbly they are and end up in the hospital with injuries to the face, shoulder and other body parts.

The point of all this is that bicycles are dangerous. You do not have to be riding at 20-mph to kill someone. In fact you do not have to be anywhere near 200 pounds to kill someone on a bike. You can be a young kid under the age of twelve and riding around a park in Schaumburg and hit a senior citizen who then dies a few days later.

John like so many others is completely oblivious of the physics of the problem we face when people ride bikes and are not observant around pedestrians.

Tri-Met Describes ‘Driver Error’

TriMet has just released a statement about the collision on the Tilikum Bridge on October 11ththat left Carole Barkley with serious injuries.

Read the statement and watch the video below:

As the video was already processed as a Public Records Request, the video is available to be released to the media. We are releasing it to provide greater context to the incident. As the video shows, the bike light turned red several seconds before the cyclist traveled through the red light. We always look for ways to improve safety along our transit system, and we are currently looking into this incident with our partners at Portland Bureau of Transportation to review the signal timing and signal placement to see if there are ways to improve safety.

But while not demonizing the driver of the bicycle it is made woefully clear that he did not observe the traffic signals.

Bicycles Are Not Compatible With Pedestrian Traffic

Here in Chicago we are gaining a new appreciation for the fact that as long as bikes traveling too fast and passing at distances less than 3-Feet from pedestrians we are going to have trouble on the Chicago Lakefront Trail. But because the cyclist is the only one with a clear view of things (especially when approaching from the rear) he has all the blame.

He can argue that the pedestrian did a 180-degree pivot but that simply means that he was traveling too fast and too close to stop in time. And that simply should not be.

The real problem is that the same ignorance that John Greenfield shows is rampant in the Urban Cycling Community. For decades their mantra has been that Cars Kill, Bicycles Don’t. And despite knowing that this was never true, people still ride in and among pedestrians with wanton disregard for their safety.

They simply ignore the sanctity of the protected pedestrian crosswalk in ways that make car parking in the bike lane seem like gift from heaven rather than a violation.

But so long as cyclists are able to deflect responsibility for their failures onto others they will continue to do so and will be backed by journalists with a keen need to keep the general public seeing cycling in the best possible light. That is a shame.

Pedestrians need to be alerted to the fact that a low-speed collision with a bicycle can be deadly. And the killer can be a young kid on a BMX bike of all things.

One More Reason To License Bicycles

The husband was concerned that:

Portland Police did not respond to the 911 call, and they would not take a police report when I called a few days later

Well I would hazard a guess that in the minds of police bicycles and their collisions are treated a bit more casually because there are no licensed vehicles involved. In fact because we cyclists are so adamant about not being licensed the sorts of things that are routinely done for motorcycles and motor scooters are never considered for bicycles. Nobody is required to provide a VIN for bicycles. And one of the more egregious oversights is the fact that a person can ride their bike in and among pedestrians without a lick of vehicle insurance. And in this case I am not concerned with the portion of an insurance policy that takes care of repairing the damaged bike, but rather a damaged pedestrian.

Furthermore we certainly need to get over this notion that infrastructure is the problem when collisions like this take place. We need to stop trying to scapegoat the various DOTs. Sometimes they get it wrong, sure. But we act as if bicyclists are somewhat blameless in situations. They are not.

When you lobby for something like the ability to ignore a stop sign and treat it as a yield, it is dangerous to consider this merely in terms of the convenience factor for the cyclists. This is going to represent yet another opportunity for an impatient bicycle operator to run down a pedestrian in a crosswalk simply because he ‘does not wish to lose him momentum‘.

Bicycles do kill! The sooner we stop treating them like beer and realize that even that alcoholic beverage has been responsible for frat deaths it becomes clear that we are underestimating the lethality of our vehicles.

Further we must stop mollycoddling our fellow riders. John Greenfield subscribes to the fairy tale that goes like this:

He believes most on two wheels follow the rules without feeling more entitled to the road than anyone else.

I am beginning to believe that there is an admixture of both a sense of entitlement and ignorance that is lethal. The result is an arrogance that finds cyclists spending more time video taping motorists or grabbing phone snapshots of bike lane parking violators than minding their manners around pedestrians.

We slice through protected crosswalks with pedestrians still in them, because we can. Unlike anybody else operating a motorcycle or motor scooter on our streets, bicyclists are essentially anonymous.

If I choose to ‘amber gamble‘ and run a red light and slice through the pedestrians now crossing the street ahead of me, I can simply lower my head or pull up my balaclava and ride through the mass of ‘Walking Dreads‘ with impunity. Sure people might swear at me or shout but they are powerless to create a legal problem for me because they cannot identify me. We need to ensure that no longer do scofflaw cyclists have that advantage.

We need to elevate the consequences of collisions between bicycles and pedestrians to the same status as would be existing if the collision were between a pedestrian and any other motorized vehicle. And we certainly need to reconsider the situations in which we allow bicycles to freely co-mingle with pedestrians on MUPs.

Just as beer is indeed alcohol and can be as lethal as booze, so it is true that a bicycle can kill you as easily as a car given the right circumstances.

Busy-Body Cyclists Take Note

We have any number of cyclists here in Chicago who are also pedestrians. One of them likes to take down the numbers of cabbies who plow through pedestrian crosswalks while people are still in them. She makes 311 calls to inform the city and the cab service of the incidences of ‘bad behavior‘. Good on her!

But like a lot of us, she is unable to even report any ‘bad behavior‘ by a cyclist in the very same situation. Why is this even important?

When she has been able to report cabbies she finds that their behavior is often modified in the right direction. That is a good thing! But what recourse do any of us have for cyclists who are ill-behaved and do all the same stupid things as their cabbie counterparts?

Because we have no license plates we are anonymous in our state of behaving badly. And make no mistake many cyclists (in fact the vast majority) recognize this lopsided state of affairs and want to keep it that way. We should not allow ourselves to be enablers for those in our midst who are simply scofflaws at heart.