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by Peter Flax
September 15, 2017
Photography by Peter Flax
I’m not ashamed to admit that I spent a lot of time thinking about how and why people hate cyclists.
I see and hear the rancor when I’m pedaling around my adopted hometown of Los Angeles, or debating the merits of bike lanes with my neighbors, or reading the comments sections of news stories.
Surely my life would be more tranquil if I muted this acrimony, but when people threaten my way of life I find that watching funny cat videos or simply celebrating the awesomeness of cycling isn’t enough. I need to know what we’re up against.
Anyway, I had a Twitter exchange one early morning this week that really hit me hard. I had screenshot and then tweeted comments from four people, all expressing emphatically that they disliked bikes and wanted them off the road. (My favorite: “I hate when ppl ride bikes in the street like they cars…plz get hit.”)
Whenever I post this sort of stuff or share links about cyclists getting hit by cars, I typically get some pushback, sometimes genial and sometimes irritated, from people who feel like I’m being too dark. I’m used to it. In this case, a friend in the bike industry responded that my effort “seemed like a big waste of time” and that I should “go get a cup of coffee” because “we’re making progress.”
I think this idea of progress is at once empirically true and obvious bullshit.
In the plus column, I know that participation rates are rising faster than injury rates and I know that bike lanes are going in at a record pace. I believe religiously that bikes are the greatest invention on Earth, able to transform lives and cities, capable of being useful and joyful at the same time.
But I also know that there is something fundamentally broken about our streets and our culture — otherwise I don’t know how to explain how so many cyclists are getting hit and killed, or why so few people seem disturbed by it.
I know that drivers, many of whom are speeding and distracted by smartphones and fancy dashboard touchscreens and hating their ever-present congestion, seem more annoyed by the idea of cyclists slowly rolling through stop signs than by the institutional and moral breakdown that has put their neighbors, who happen to be riding a bike, at mortal peril.
I perceive an increasing number of cyclists are riding gravel bikes and racing cyclocross and returning to singletrack because they’re worried about their safety on the road. People are afraid because they have reason to be afraid.
I feel like I need two pints of coffee every morning to brace myself for a war. Because whatever progress we’re making — to protect cyclists from disdain and wayward vehicles — is not happening fast enough.
Like it or not, cyclists are engaged in a civil-rights battle — about whether we deserve a truly safe place on the road, whether people who kill us with cars should face the same legal consequences as people who kill with other weapons, whether hundreds of human lives represent acceptable collateral damage in a properly lubricated car-focused economy.
I love riding fondos and ogling handbuilt frames, but there is actual blood in the street and people need to decide where they stand. You have to decide where you stand
Much as in the Black Lives Matter movement, which leveraged cell-phone video and social media to broadcast the historic problem of police violence toward African Americans to the uninformed masses, technology is enabling cyclists and the general public to digest the breadth of the crisis. More people who ride bikes need to be woke about what’s happening.
If you think I’m being melodramatic, please consider the following new stories that have surfaced through social media, Google news, and advocacy blogs. To make my point, I’ll stick to a purposefully abbreviated list of incidents that have happened in just the past week, just in the United States.
(Not to state the obvious, but similar problems are unfolding in Great Britain, Australia — basically everywhere that isn’t Scandinavia.)
Last weekend, just as the annual NYC Century Bike Tour was beginning, an allegedly drunk and unlicensed driver plowed into a couple dozen cyclists waiting at a traffic light in Brooklyn, crushing several off them, including one 55-year-old woman who got pinned under his Dodge Grand Caravan. Her name is Nancy Pease. A few days later, Pease is fighting for her life — while at the hospital her heart stopped beating for a brief period and she since has been put into a medically induced coma.
Meanwhile, the driver, Antonio Pina, has been charged with vehicular assault and other felony charges. Police recovered a Coors Light can in the minivan and then gave Pina a Breathalyzer test at the scene. Legal documents now allege that Pina had a blood alcohol level of 0.287 — three times higher than the threshold New York sets for DUI. To put that in perspective, consider that a 200-pound man would have to drink roughly 21 cans of Coors Light in three hours to reach a BAC of 0.287. The incident happened around 9:30 am on a Sunday.
One day later, a 27-year-old woman riding a Citi Bike (New York’s bike share system), was run over by a dump truck driver in midtown Manhattan. The woman was riding eastbound on West 30th Street around lunchtime and stopped at the traffic light at the intersection with Seventh Avenue. Numerous witnesses indicate that when the light turned green and she began to pedal forwards, the driver initiated a right turn that left the woman pinned under the bright green dump truck. The cyclist had severe injuries to her legs — witnesses say they saw bones protruding and likened the scene to a horror movie — but officials say the injuries are not life threatening. When the driver of the truck climbed down to the street to survey the chaos, he reportedly exclaimed to the wounded woman “You came out of nowhere! You were in my blind spot!”
The problem is hardly confined to New York. In Los Angeles, a woman was killed riding her bike on Sepulveda Boulevard in Van Nuys last week. A LAPD spokesperson says she was crossing the road when she was hit by a car traveling at a high rate of speed. Her body traveled 120 feet from that impact, and when it came to rest, a second vehicle ran her over. Neither driver stopped to lend assistance or take responsibility. Her name was Tracy Adams. She was pronounced dead at the scene. (Within days, two suspects were arrested.)
Roughly 200 miles north of Los Angeles, in the agricultural community of Hanford, a cyclist was hit on Sunday at 4pm by an allegedly drunk driver who left the scene. Local police were able to quickly track down the driver, Arturo Limas, who was so intoxicated that he reportedly couldn’t stand on his own, because the rear bumper of his Nissan Pathfinder, with the license plate still attached, came off at the scene of the crime. The cyclist suffered major leg injuries.
Remember, this is all just one week, in one country.
On a Saturday morning ride in Plano, Texas, an experienced triathlete named Ken Chan was killed by a driver who told police he didn’t see Chan.
On Sunday night in Phoenix, a 14-year-old boy who was riding his bike was hit by the driver of a silver Nissan Sentra who had just run a red light. Despite the injured child and a smashed in windshield, the driver left the scene.
On Monday, a cyclist in Homer, Alaska, was injured by a hit-and-run driver and an 82-year-old cyclist in Boulder, Colorado, was hit by a car and transported to a local hospital with serious injuries. In Pensacola, Florida, a 54-year-old cyclist was killed by a hit-and-run driver, and although local police had found the Dodge Neon involved in the fatal crash, they still were searching for the driver. A man in Maryland was charged with negligent driving and other felonies after allegedly killing a 21-year-old cyclist in a hit-and-run crash.
I could go on, but I suspect you get the point.
The problem goes deeper than all these crashes. My feed is also full of stories about battles over police enforcement and bike lanes and road diets — like the story last week of a protected bike lane in Tempe, Arizona, that is being removed because area residents are aggravated about traffic.
In these stories, on social media, in community meetings, I see countless people who are furious at cyclists — for demanding bike lanes, for using existing bike lanes, for taking the lane, for riding on the sidewalk, for riding slow, for riding fast, for being entitled, for breaking rules, for being self-righteous, for riding two abreast, for wearing spandex or looking like hipsters. People are so mad that they will post tirades in the comments sections of stories about people who have just been killed.
I regularly engage with educated people who angrily refute the underlying science behind Vision Zero — 20 years of data demonstrating that slowing down vehicular traffic saves lives — in a manner that calls to mind climate change deniers brushing aside melting icecaps and madcap hurricanes. I see legions of people complaining about naughty cyclists, seemingly inured to the human costs of distracted, drunk, drugged, speeding or otherwise law-breaking drivers.
The recent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, illuminated how the expression of hate — especially about race but also about religion, sexuality, gender and even political orientation — suddenly has been normalized to a disturbing degree. I see a lot of that same hate directed toward cyclists, and an equally disturbing sense of apathy in the general public about that hate. This hate is dangerous and it has consequences.
On one morning commute across Los Angeles this week, I stopped by the corner of Olympic Boulevard and South Ridgeley Drive. Less than a week earlier, a 52-year-old cyclist named John Daniels had been killed trying to cross this stretch of Olympic, a six-lane roadway on which many drivers attain highway speeds. Daniels is the 30th cyclist in Los Angeles County to be killed by someone driving a car this year. His death was not reported by the city’s dominant newspaper, nor covered by a local newscast.
The previous night, a crew had come by and installed a hardtail mountain bike, spray-painted white and festooned with rainbow ribbon. Ghost bikes like this are intended to memorialize a cyclist who has been killed and capture people’s attention about the issue. On this particular Wednesday morning, I stood beside the ghost bike honoring John Daniels’ life — and death — as high-speed congestion raced by.
This is not what I call progress. This is what we’re up against.