Cyclists Shouldn’t Have To Risk Their Lives Just To Use The Road

A crash that killed five cyclists in Michigan has activists calling for streets that are safe for everyone.
A makeshift memorial on North Westnedge Avenue north of Kalamazoo, Michigan, where a driver killed five bicyclists and injured four more on June 7, 2016.
A makeshift memorial on North Westnedge Avenue north of Kalamazoo, Michigan, where a driver killed five bicyclists and injured four more on June 7, 2016.
Robert Allen/Detroit Free Press/Getty Images

Last week's horrific crash involving a pickup truck driver who mowed down nine cyclists, killing five of them, shows that many rural roads fail to account for bicycle safety, advocates said.

The driver struck the cyclists -- all experienced riders -- from behind on a rural, two-lane road a few miles north of Kalamazoo in Cooper Township, Michigan. Authorities said the driver, Charles Pickett Jr., was caught trying to escape on foot after the front end of his truck was demolished. Police in three jurisdictions had been searching for his vehicle after receiving multiple reports that he was driving erratically.

Pickett, 50, was charged last week with five counts of second-degree murder and four counts of reckless driving causing serious body impairment. Authorities haven't disclosed whether he was impaired at the time and haven't speculated on the cause of the crash.

The cyclists were part of a group called the “Chain Gang” and rode together regularly, according to The Associated Press. Those killed were Debra Ann Bradley, 53; Melissa Ann Fevig-Hughes, 42; Fred Anton “Tony” Nelson, 73; Lorenz John “Larry” Paulik, 74; and Suzanne Joan Sippel, 56. Two men and two women were hospitalized.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh no, not again.’ This happens all too often throughout the state and the country,” said Jim Ferner, founder and director of the Complete Streets Coalition of Kalamazoo. “We’ve got … a cultural paradigm of ‘drive or die’ in this state.”

The Dangers Of Rural Roads

North Westnedge Avenue is a rural and hilly two-lane road. Just beyond the crash site, the speed limit increases from 35 mph to 50 mph. A neighbor told the Detroit Free Press that drivers often speed up there, anticipating the higher speed zone.

The shoulders are “pretty much non-existent,” said Ferner, who knows several other bikers who have been hit on the same road.

“We’ve got … a cultural paradigm of ‘drive or die’ in this state.”

- Jim Ferner, Kalamazoo biking advocate

The majority of bike crashes occur on urban streets, where cyclists compete with a dense melange of cars, taxis, buses, trucks and pedestrians. Recreational cyclists often seek to ride outside those urban confines on suburban or rural roads with light traffic and scenic beauty.

But the features that make those roads attractive can also make them deadly. Roads like Westnedge are particularly dangerous for cyclists, according to Bill Schultheiss, a principal engineer with the Toole Design Group who works on improving street design for cyclists and pedestrians in projects around the country. While motorists in cities are more accustomed to sharing the street with cyclists and pedestrians, drivers on rural roads don't always have the same awareness.

“Two-lane rural roads have higher fatality rates for cyclists than even a lot of urban streets, because of the higher speeds,” Schultheiss said. “The expectation on those, from most drivers, is that they have the whole road to themselves.”

Bike Advocates Face An Uphill Battle

There's no indication that a different street design would have prevented the Kalamazoo crash. But in general, Schultheiss said, infrastructure changes should be the primary method of reducing bike fatalities, rather than simply educating motorists or admonishing cyclists to be cautious.

"Every newspaper article, almost without fail, will tend to say, 'Was the bicyclist wearing a helmet?' anytime there's a crash. 'What color clothes were they wearing?'" Schultheiss said. “That’s victim-blaming.”

Both Schultheiss and Ferner said widening the shoulders on Westnedge to give bikers a separate lane should be the first priority to increase safety.

Like many cities, downtown Kalamazoo is expanding bike lanes, and the region has a network of trails. But advocates have struggled to rally support for safer bike infrastructure on county roads, according to Ferner. The road commission, tasked with maintaining Westnedge and other county roads, has essentially done nothing to address cyclists’ safety concerns, he said.

“When you start talking about bicycle facilities, especially the rural areas … you really get shouted down,” Ferner said. “They just don’t get it.”

Joanna Johnson, managing director of the Kalamazoo County Road Commission, said it wouldn't be prudent to comment before the crash investigation is complete, but said the commission was deeply saddened by the tragedy.

“Our mission is to provide safe and convenient roadways for every member of the public,” Johnson wrote in an email. “We remain committed to that mission, and are proud of our organization and stand with our community partners who share this objective.”

Schultheiss said he often hears from officials that they don’t have the funding to improve roads for bikes and pedestrians, even as states spend hundreds of millions on major interstate highway projects focused on cars and trucks.

“We accept a lot of deaths on our roadways. ... It takes something really dramatic to open people’s eyes.”

- Bill Schultheiss, transportation engineer

“We have a lot of problems with our infrastructure design that can be corrected if we’re willing to tackle the design issues and put some money toward fixing them,” Schultheiss said.

“We have the proof that this works," he added. "Countries like the Netherlands and Sweden, where … they’ve actually spent their money on infrastructure [for bicyclists and pedestrians]."

How Communities Are Rallying For Cyclist Safety

Many U.S. cities are following European examples and spending money to make their streets more bike-friendly and walkable. Last fall, Portland, Oregon, opened Tilikum Crossing, a bridge over the Willamette River that is closed to cars but open to bikers, pedestrians and public transit. New York City has added hundreds of miles of new bike lanes in the last decade and witnessed a major increase in bike ridership, along with a decrease in risk for cyclists.

Nationwide, bike commuting jumped 60 percent between 2000 and 2012, though it still accounts for less than 1 percent of all commuting trips. The increase has been greater in some bike-friendly cities -- over 7 percent of commuters in Portland, Oregon, are cyclists.

In the last several years, the U.S. Department of Transportation has begun to look more closely at alternative transit, stating in a 2010 policy brief that "transportation agencies should plan, fund, and implement improvements to their walking and bicycling networks."

In May, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx told that an effective transportation system needs a mix of options. “It includes the automobile, but it’s not exclusive to the automobile,” he said.

The promotion of cycling has led to economic and health benefits for many cities, but most rural areas have not made the same investments in infrastructure, despite interest from local riders.

There are some exceptions. Last year, Florida made it standard for all state roads to include wider bike lanes with a buffer from car traffic. Lanes will be added as roads are repaved or undergo construction.

Responding To Tragedy

In some cases, bike fatalities have motivated communities to make roads safer.

“We accept a lot of deaths on our roadways. It’s just normal,” Schultheiss said. “It takes something really dramatic to open people’s eyes.”

The community response to the tragedy in Michigan was immediate. The day after the crash, about 600 mourners gathered in Kalamazoo for a silent bike ride for the victims, and a donation fund was quickly set up to support their families.

On Tuesday, Lance Armstrong joined hundreds of bikers in Kalamazoo to "finish the ride" the Chain Gang cyclists started before the crash.

The crash has also drawn attention to ongoing safety issues. The National Transportation Safety Board, which does not usually address bike incidents, began investigating the Michigan crash last week. A bipartisan bill package introduced into the state Senate would impose harsher penalties on drivers who kill or injure cyclists or pedestrians.

“This is going to cause us to double down on our efforts,” Ferner said. “We want to make sure we’ve done all we can do to get the local government and the state government to consider bicycles and pedestrians and get these streets safe for everybody.”

Kate Abbey-Lambertz covers sustainable cities, housing and inequality. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.

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