Is it safe? : Part 1

photo credit: Joshua Hoehne via 

One of the most frequent questions I get about bike commuting is about safety. So, early on in this blog series, I intended to write a post about my decade long transition from terrified of riding city streets in bike-heavy Berkeley, California to my current confidence as a street biking commuter in Elgin, IL. I intended to write about how statistically I'm more likely to make it home on my bike than you are in your car. I intended to write about how riding on the sidewalk is technically more dangerous than riding on most streets. I intended to write about how riding your bike even on city streets is actually safer than sitting on your couch. I would still like to tell you about all those things, but today, December 4th, my spouse, Parker, was run off the road by a U-46 school bus on his way to work. So, I'm going to start by writing about that.

Five mornings a week, Parker is up and out the door before dawn to get to his job at Arabica Cafe (which he loves). On the sixth morning he bikes across town to get to a 7am breakfast group. On the seventh morning he bikes across town to get to church. After he comes home, more often than not he hauls out the big green Yuba Mundo and bikes the kids to the library, a park, the grocery store, or back down to Arabica Cafe. In short, he's my pretty much my bike commuting hero.

If Parker didn't choose the sidewalk as often as he does when trying to creatively navigate a town not quite built for bikes, we could call him a "vehicular cyclist." In other words, he drives his bicycle like it's a car. He takes his full space on the road, which is helpful for visibility and safety. Riding in the gutter too close to the sidewalk can mean being unable to safely maneuver around debris. It can also mean that you are not as visible as you would be if you were riding in the place where the right wheel well would travel for a car. It also means you're less likely to get "doored" a common cause of serious injury for cyclists, which happens when a car door suddenly opens in your path of travel. Finally, it also means drivers are more likely to assume that you don't think you belong on the road either and may try to pass you much too closely. Vehicular cyclists don't often balk at traveling streets with high car traffic or without separated and marked bike lanes. Vehicular cyclists are much more likely to be men. Women and children who have either been taught to take up less space or who physically take up less space are at a significant disadvantage in terms of mobility, visibility, and safety in cities that lack "complete streets" or infrastructure that is thoroughly designed for the safety of all users.

When I moved to Elgin two years ago I had to take a written exam to get an Illinois driver's license. Perhaps fittingly, one of the questions I was randomly assigned was how to pass a bicycle on the road. The answer? Take your time. Wait until oncoming traffic is clear and it is safe to pass the bicycle with at least three feet of distance. That's the law in Illinois at least in my own words. And, contrary to what has often been screamed at me from passing cars, bicycles are permitted users of city streets in Elgin.

Our city is lucky to be represented in the state legislature by State Representative Anna Moeller, who has passed several pieces of legislation in her tenure that support the safety of bicycles on the road, including "Dennis's Law." In 2015, local competitive cyclist and community leader Dennis Jurs was killed while riding his bicycle by a vehicle that failed to yield the right of way. At the time, any citation the driver received was dismissed by a judge who read a lack of clarity in state law about whether or not bicycles had the same rights as motor vehicles. Dennis's Law now ensures that bicyclists receive the same rights to the "right of way" as drivers of motor vehicles.

There are days I have to remind myself of these facts, and usually it's Parker who offers that reassuring reminder. So, when he pulled up first to the stop light at Channing Street traveling westbound on Chicago, Parker understood himself to have every right to be on the road.

The way he tells it, the first U-46 bus pulled up next to him, close. As he waited for the light to change, Parker made the calculation that the safest move was to take advantage of his opportunity to be "faster off the block" and "take the lane" so that he would not hopefully get squeezed into the "door zone" of the parked cars. As he took his space, the multi-ton yellow school bus began sounding its horn loudly behind him. After lumbering off the stop, the bus picked up speed quickly and angled toward Parker so hard that fearing that he would either be hit by the bus or be forced to slam into a parked car, Parker mashed the brakes and went flying over the handlebars, which resulted later in stiffness, soreness, and minor abrasions.

He was lucky. As much as Parker reads about bikes and active transportation safety, he knew the first most imminent danger was getting caught by the bus's back tires as he fell and being dragged under. The next most likely danger was getting smashed by the second bus behind him, which did indeed slow down while the driver looked Parker over but didn't stop. The third vehicle that could have hit Parker as he lay in the street beside his downed bike was a woman in an SUV. She stopped her car, rolled down the window, and asked, "Do you need me to call an ambulance?" As he lay on the pavement, adrenaline pumping, realizing he was still alive, he thought two things "I have a 'Joe-to-Go' that needs to be out of the shop by 7am" and "An ambulance is really expensive." So, he got up and finished riding to work.

This is not, for the record, what any of us should do in a crash. In her book, Holy Spokes, clergywoman Laura Everett wrote about being tossed over the hood of a car right outside her home. Despite being hit, she felt remarkably fine and rode to work anyway. When the adrenaline gave out her back did too, and she experienced a long struggle with pain and back spasms. In her book, she advocated, as do others who have had this experience, when you're hit, do not trust your body when it tells you nothing is wrong.

Parker made it through three hours of his six hour shift before he clocked out, came home, and crashed on the couch from all the stress his body had been through. Later he felt stiff, sore, and slightly ill. But he still hauled out the Yuba and went grocery shopping later this afternoon.

This story could be worse but it could also be better. I'm glad Parker is alive and not more hurt. But I also know there are a number of actions that could be taken to make sure many fewer people are injured or killed on the roads.

In New York City, they're working on a project called Vision Zero, which aims to completely eliminate traffic-related deaths. In fact, active transportation advocates often prefer to refer to what most of us call "traffic accidents" as "crashes" because it acknowledges more clearly that the design and education we have chosen as a society have directly resulted in those collisions. Indeed, between 2001 and 2013, writes Guardian journalist Peter Walker in his optimistically (and perhaps obnoxiously) named book How Cycling Can Save The World, "3,380 American citizens died due to terrorism at home or abroad, the great majority in the September 11 attacks." Walker continues, "over the same period a shade over 501,000 people died on US roads, or the cumulative terrorism total roughly every month." The difference is one of these causes of violent death is normalized.  

In the Netherlands, the prominent death of a six-year-old girl who was hit by a speeding vehicle as the girl pedaled down a quiet country road on her way to school sparked a movement that transformed the country's traffic laws and its infrastructure. In doing so, it also transformed its statistics on the number of folks who choose active transportation (bike, walk, bus, train, etc.) over the personal car. Today,  around 30 percent of all trips in the Netherlands are made by bicycle. In cities like Amsterdam and Utrecht as high as 50 and 60 percent of all trips are made by bicycle (How Cycling Can Change The World, 34).

Our choices as individuals, governments, and other institutions have direct consequences. We could make different ones.

This story could be better because this morning is not the first time Parker has had a negative interaction or been forced out of his lane by a U-46 school bus on his morning commute. The last time it happened he was fed up and emailed the U-46 Director of Transportation. He never got a response.

This is actually a Ride Illinois photo of a Kane County sign
Now, I still have a car, and even if I do decide to sell my car, I will probably still have occasion to be behind the wheel. If I had never been a bicycle navigating my way through traffic, I might not be able to fully comprehend the way it feels like a death threat every time a car honks it's horn at you (even if it turns out to be someone I know trying to be friendly!). Indeed, I know before I was a bike commuter there were times I came much too close to bikes on the road. I can still recall one snow storm when I made a poor decision and forced a bike rider up onto the sidewalk. Education, the experiential kind, has made me a much kinder driver. When I see a rider up ahead, I know how scary the size and power differential can be, and I try to be a responsible caretaker of my size and horsepower advantage.

A few years ago, Jeremy Dowsett's blog piece "what my bike has taught me about white privilege" went viral at least among those in my social media thread. He talked about how on a bike he, as a white man, could experience a taste of what it's like to live in a world that may permit you but is not designed for you and cannot be assumed to factor in your health and safety in its planning, operation, or rule enforcement. The difference is, as he noted, he can get off his bike and step into a car. In some ways Dowsett's analogy breaks down, but I think about his blog piece often as I ride my bike or drive my car, navigating the imbalance in design of our "shared" road. I think about it too as I navigate my world as a white person. Whether the privilege has been granted to me by racist societal norms and structures or physics aided by road design, how do I handle it? And then, how do I work to change it?

While experience is a helpful teacher, it is not of course the only means of education. The Midwest offices of Waste Management have adopted a proactive approach to educating and reminding their drivers about how to share the road. People for Bikes reported that WM's anchor bicycle and pedestrian safety program is called "One Hundred Days of Summer Safety" (summer is the season of bike love!), and includes education and training on how to be a safe driver and a safe cyclist. The program even put bicycles on display in 82 Midwest offices in 2017, so that every driver "launching" their shift for the day would have that visual reminder. According to their own records, "the proactive approach has yielded Waste Management Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR) numbers consistently below the industry average and increased its Vehicle Accident Recordable Rate (VARR)—the number of hours driven between incidents like a crash or hitting a sign post." In a garbage truck vs. bicycle or pedestrian collision that translates into lives saved. 

Area Safety Manager for Waste Management’s Wisconsin/Minnesota/Dakotas region, Ted Leaman told People for Bikes, “When it comes to bicycles, we have to safely share the road and we are going to make sure we do it right on our end.” 

I wonder what training U-46 school bus drivers go through regarding bicycles and pedestrians. I wonder if the driver of that bus understands that to Parker what happened felt life threatening. I wonder if the driver understands the safety calculations made when a cyclist chooses to take the lane and the opportunity to get out ahead of a motor vehicle. I wonder why the second school bus driver did not stop. I wonder why the Director of Transportation never got back to Parker last time.

Parker and I plan to address today's incident with U-46 leaders (as the daughter of a public school teacher and as a former public school teacher myself, I'll still be an all-in supporter of public schools in the morning). But tonight, we're resting, grateful to be together and grateful to look forward to riding another day. Tonight I'm writing and reflecting on how to help make the streets of my city safe for riders age 8 to age 80.

Is it safe out there? No. But neither is sitting on the couch or riding in a car. Is it safe out there? Not yet, but it could be. Is it safe out there? Safe enough for me to get back out there tomorrow.


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