+Street Safety in the Here and Now
Guest blog post by: Bethanie Johnson
Yesterday morning pretty much began with the cycling community on facebook posting a photo and news story about a cyclist who was hit on Wendover fairly early in the day. The first thing cyclists ask whenever there is a bicycle down in Charlotte (and, I imagine, everywhere else), and someone posts a news story, is this, “Who’s bike is that?” Cyclists are generally known best for their bikes. For instance, it is well known among my cycling friends that I don’t ride a “real bike” most of the time. I’ve got an old trek–a 96 model, blue, single track 930. When I’m not riding that one—when it’s not rainy, snowy or sleety with slippery roads, I ride an old red and white Schwinn, circa 1983. I usually sport mismatched panniers from Target. So yesterday, when someone looked at the photo closely and noticed that the child carrier attached to the bike in the photo was yellow, they asked if it was Marley’s bike and I said, “No, Marley’s Peugot is red and white.” Someone mentioned that the child carrier looked a lot like one that’s been at the Tuesday Night Ride recently, and my friend Pamela confirmed that it did belong to that person. Anna is her name. She’s a wife and mom and this year she decided to go car free. I remember this because we talked about it at the grand opening of a local bike shop called The Spoke Easy a few months ago. I’d never met her before that but we sat and talked about what it was like not to drive. She asked me questions about how I managed and we talked until the ride was leaving. What I liked about her was what a down to earth and sweet person she is. No facade, just real.
Yesterday she got hit by a driver who ran a red light. She was stopped and waiting for her turn to go, and the motorist ran a red light and drove into her. We found out later that there weren’t any serious injuries. Her child who was in the carrier at the time was fine. Ana has a broken nose and some scratches. I was frustrated. I was frustrated because once again, no immediate charges were filed, and because I feel very often cars don’t see us, and even more often aren’t paying attention to the road. Later when Pamela Murray looked at the comments section of one of the articles that was posted about the story, she noticed a deluge of negative comments about cyclists. Here, a cyclist following traffic rules who was hit by a motorist breaking the law, was being criticized online for what? For the act of riding a bike?
Yesterday Anna was fine, and I breathed a sigh of relief for her and for her child–and for her husband. She was also not at fault, since the driver ran a red light at an extremely precarious intersection. But every time I see a cyclist down around Charlotte, I know that it really could happen to any of us. I know this because I rode all summer. I know this because as I ride I often pass drivers who are distracted. Or drivers who are distracted pass me–often too closely. When I ride my bike I have all my antennas on high alert. Sometimes I give lights an extra few seconds to judge the next move of any car that’s close enough to hit me. When I ride downtown in the right lane, which doubles as parking in Charlotte, I watch each car I pass for “what if” scenarios…what if that car pulls out…what if someone opens a door? Any time I post online about riding at night or near misses or a friend who gets hurt, I’m told to “be careful.” I have to say, I don’t think I could possibly be any more careful than I general am. I now know a whole lot of cyclists, and I don’t know of even one who has a death wish. We like life and the living of it. It’s probably the reason we are mostly so passionate about riding bikes.
To be honest, I do a lot of my riding on the greenway. When I commute to work, at least half of my ride is there. I’d rather not ride in rush hour traffic. I am lucky in this since the greenway starts at the bottom of my street and literally ends at my school. I hardly ever have to deal with cars during the school year. I can really do a lot that I need to do from the greenway since I’m close to it and most of the shopping I need to do is conveniently located close to it as well. It’s a terrific situation for me as a car free mom most of the time. But everyone can’t ride the greenway all the time, because the greenway doesn’t go everywhere. Also on nice days it can quickly become congested with pedestrians and thus dangerous for cycle commuters trying to get from point A to point B. On rainy days it very often floods, so then an alternate route is necessary and as I discovered this winter, on snowy/icey days it can stay covered in snow and sheets of ice for several days longer than main roads.
In the summer I have a longer commute that isn’t on the greenway, it’s a 26 mile round trip of a combination of greenway, bike lane and riding on the rode. I rode that trip every day I worked this summer without incident. But again, I’m careful. Like Anna and myself, and of course Pamela Murray, if you are a mom, you are careful. I have a kid and I would love to hang around and see what happens to her, so I’m as safe as can be, and that’s how I know that Anna was being safe as well, outside of the news report. She was towing her child and she was following the rules, because if you are a Mom, that’s what you do.
This year of biking I’ve met so many people who are car free and what we have in common is that we will always try and find the safest routes to and from where we are going. Greenways, neighborhood streets, quiet roads.
But sometimes, as Anna did yesterday, we have to get on a busy street. She was going to Home Depot. She was riding with another mom (safety in numbers) who was towing another child. She was following traffic rules. And inspite of negative comments, she has the right to do that. In North Carolina, bicycles are legally defined as vehicles. That’s from the NCDOT website, and I just looked it up yesterday because I wanted to make sure I was not misunderstanding. As vehicles, cyclists are asked to follow all traffic laws, wear helmets, and have a front and back light mounted for night riding. They are asked to make their turns clear by signaling. Those are the rules. Many of our advocates now fully support what is called “control and release” because that’s the best way to be seen on the street. Much of the time drivers aren’t paying attention to the roadside, or if they are, they are not sure how much room they should leave us when passing (3 full feet of passing room is the rule of thumb and the law in many states, but not ours–because we are designated as vehicles in NC and can take the whole lane if we choose to do that). I’ve learned to become comfortable with getting out into the lane myself, even though it goes against my personal philosophy of not taking up too much space and not being a bother to people. I became very comfortable with it earlier this winter when, twice in the same week two different drivers made illegal left turns right into me when I had the right of way. I want to be seen by traffic, and in being seen, safe.
I was so upset yesterday when I heard that it was Anna who was down in South Charlotte, and so relieved to know she wasn’t hurt. One of my fellow riders commented on the strong community we’ve developed, and how amazing it is to be part of cycling in Charlotte where our community cares what happens to us and will reach out and help. It’s so true, and I’m grateful for that every day. But yesterday’s accident made me think hard about the rules of cycling, about riding on roads with cars (in an accident the car is going to win), about being present and paying attention. I believe what’s at the heart of our problem is the here and now and our increasing inability to be present in the moment. One of the reasons I love to bike is that it sets you down right in this moment right here and makes you be right here and right now. It’s nearly impossible to talk on the phone while riding a bike. It’s also unlikely that you can text friends or check messages. That would be dumb. As a person in the moment on a bicycle, I am paying attention. As a cyclist, I continue to believe that the rush, the need to be two steps ahead of ourselves, and the need to be part of an electronic web of everything at all times keeping us from doing our best to keep ourselves, and one another, safe.
I am so thankful that my new friend Anna is safe and well this evening. I would so like the future of cycling to be one where we are accepted as the vehicles we already have the legal right to be, and that both motorists and cyclists can do our best to be present in the here and now and thus keep the roads safe for all of us.