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kissbike

outrage

This afternoon, A woman riding her bicycle was struck and killed by a cement truck in downtown Portland. You can read all about it at these articles from the website BikePortland.org (listed here in order of their appearance):

1. http://bikeportland.org/2007/10/11/cyclist-killed-at-w-burnside-and-14th/

2. http://bikeportland.org/2007/10/11/police-truck-driver-will-not-be-cited/

3. http://bikeportland.org/2007/10/11/memorial-ride-planned-for-friday-night/

In each of these articles, information about the collision is presented, and then readers react by posting comments below the articles. The articles mostly did their job of informing. However, I would suggest that posting a picture that includes the woman's body lying in the street under a coroner's tarp potentially crosses the line from informing to inciting. And if you read the comments you will see they mostly run the gamut from incited to, well, incited: against cars, car drivers and car culture.

I want to be clear: I am someone who rides a bicycle primarily for transportation, nearly every day. I have lived without a car of my own for nearly 18 years and plan to live this way until I die. I understand that car culture is messed up and crazy-making for us as individuals and as a society. I sympathize with other bicycle riders who feel angry and frustrated at the senseless death of a young woman. And yet, the responses of several readers of each article are so threatening and menacing that I just can't feel included in their number. Someone who wants to block traffic and viscerally menace every car driver in sight is not representing my interests as a bicycle rider.

The truth of the matter is that I, and you, and everyone else in this country, lives in a car-based landscape. Yes, it's messed up, and yes, it's frustrating, but it's also too late to totally upend the whole thing and start from scratch. Even a violent revolution wouldn't upend the whole thing now. We are firmly entrenched in automobile use. Cars will be with us all for some time to come, whether powered by gas, electricity or, God forbid, hydrogen.

The roads we have were designed for automobiles. The sidewalks we have -- where we have them -- were designed for pedestrians. Sometimes, the powers that be remember to design a right-of-way for bicycles, but sometimes they don't. It's slowly getting better in some places but there is still a long, long way to go. And because we can't completely destroy what we've created so far, what we're left to contend with is an absolute clusterfuck of throughways and byways and no-way-at-alls that don't always allow bikes and cars to play well together.

"Sharing the road" is a lovely idea that, sadly, doesn't always work. Along with upending the car culture, you also can't upend the laws pf physics. My bike weighs thirty pounds. A car weighs a thousand, or more. There isn't even any math to DO here, it's so obvious. Today, it became painfully obvious for two people whose bicycle and truck collided at an intersection where one most likely didn't see the other until it was too late.

Striping West Burnside -- one of Portland's busiest streets -- with a bike lane is a bad idea. Allowing bicyclists to occupy a driver's blind spot (alongside the car) means they run the risk of getting hit if the driver doesn't see them. This is not a question of fault. This is a question of poor planning that can and should be fixed. Lose the bike lane, post a lower speed limit and instruct bicyclists to *take the lane* in front of or behind the motor vehicle so that they can be seen. If this doesn't work -- either because cars and bikes won't play nice there, or because West Burnside eventually becomes the higher-speed backdoor to Beaverton known as Cornell Road, then reconsider the function of such higher-volume, higher-speed roads. Bikes belong some places better than cars do. Cars belong some places better than bikes do. This isn't rocket science. It's planning, and until there are no more cars in the world that planning has to work both ways.

So, while my prayers are with both the the anguished truck driver and the family of the young woman who was killed, I will not join with the supposed throng that is gearing up to descend on downtown Portand tomorrow night and block traffic, light candles, or whatever else is planned. Today's event was not an assault on my right to ride a bicycle, and it was not a conspiracy by the car culture-mongers. This was a tragic accident, period. Igniting fires of indignation and righteous rage before all the facts of the case are in does no one any good.

Let's all just please be careful out there. Slow down a little, follow the traffic signs and signals, and let's all look out for each other, no matter what vehicle we're operating.

Comments

I didn't follow your links, but I did see the article at the Oregonian's Oregonlive site. I was shocked that they included a photo of the accident. Very traumatic. The headline and photo felt designed to evoke maximum outrage and to make biking seem unsafe, as if to lead the reader to ask, "What sense does it make to be on the streets on a tiny bike when you could get run over by a cement truck any time?"

(Anonymous)

A very well-written piece. Without regard to this incident, outrage would be curtailed if drivers were held accountable for negligence. I read many such stories as the one above and almost always, unless a driver is drunk or a felon, no punishment is doled out. There was a case, IIRC, where a teen-aged girl mowed down a cyclist in bike lane from behind. She had veered onto the lane because she was inattentive. She cried for the judge and walked. It's hardly fair to hold cyclists to such a high standard of behavior when drivers can kill and walk at will. --Perry

(Anonymous)

Perry,

You are spot-on correct. You have captured the essence of it, that motorists can and do kill cyclists and walk with a ticket. Unimaginable.

(Anonymous)

I agree with your sentiments. I'm a car driver and avid cyclist, and while I have no patience for drivers who endanger cyclists, I also have no patience for cyclists who refuse to acknowledge that tragic accidents do happen.

As a cyclist I find this "us versus them" mentality to be tremendously counter-productive. It isolates the cycling community from the (much) broader community at large, and it divides cyclists.
Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

That picture of the yellow sheet in the road brought back awful memories for me, and a very similar story. 2 years ago on my way to work I encountered a scene like one the Oregonian pictured - Jen Shao, 65 years old, had been riding her bike downtown and was apparently hit and run by a bus that may not have even seen her. Her body wasn't even completely covered up by the sheet, and the cops were directing traffic around her. Sorry for the awful image, but I'm trying to express how terrible it felt - that her life was suddenly, terribly taken away, and that people were doing their best to go about their business in an ordinary way.

But the other terrible thing was that her death immediately became not about her. People who'd never met her put up a ghost bike commemorating her death two days later. The local merchants took the ghost bike down. The commentary in the local "bikeculture" outlets called it murder while whining about the police crackdown on Critical Mass. Meanwhile her relatives were left to canvass the neighborhood on their own looking for witnesses to the accident - they taped their plea for people to call them to the same pole the ghost bike had been attached to.

Ugh, ugh, and more ugh. While I do my best in my own bikecentric life to live out "two wheels good, four wheels bad", oversimple street politics give me the heebie-jeebies, too.

(Anonymous)

I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your post

We had a strikingly similar accident here in Seattle, one month ago. There have been many ongoing conversations in various media here, running the gamut from blaming the cyclist for riding a fixie, to accusing the dumptruck (yes, it was) driver of being on his phone. The location is a particularly bad intersection, and one that my friends and I have ridden through countless times. While the city acknowledges this as a problematic intersection, nothing has been done.

While many of us are drawn to rage and indignation, these incidents ultimately remind us of our frailty, of the need to sometimes temper the joy of riding a bike with extreme caution. This story, and the story of the young man who was killed here, have me riding with a heavy heart.

Stine

(Anonymous)

I was with you until, "Slow down a little." Please explain how that will help me be safer on a bicycle.
I would like EVERYone to slow down a little. Especially car drivers.
I would like automotive traffic to move slower so that bicycle riders don't feel such pressure to kill themselves to keep up. I would like to find a way to cure thhe Need For Speed that seems to be part of the package when driving a car. I think the whole world moves too fast. I hope this helps clarify things a little. Cheers --B