City Making Biking Safer
posted by September 12 at 16:24 PMon
Bryce Lewis, the 19-year-old cyclist who was tragically killed by a dump truck last Friday, was riding a fixed-gear bike (that’s the model above) with a single front brake through what is widely known as one of the most dangerous intersections in Seattle. Coming down the hill off Harvard, it’s easy to reach speeds topping 30 miles an hour, and even if you’re going slowly, drivers still pay way too little attention—as I learned when I was hit in the exact same spot a year and a half ago, by a left-turning driver who pulled into my path (also known as the bike lane) too quickly for me to stop.
But riding a fixie is inherently, undeniably, more dangerous than riding a bike with gears and brakes. When you’re on a fixie, you can’t coast downhill, and slowing down quickly—say, when you see a car turning into your path—is nearly impossible. Without brakes, they’re death machines in a hilly city like Seattle, especially for the inexperienced (and with fixies more popular than ever, that describes a whole lot of the people riding them). Even with a brake, they’re hard to stop—you can’t slam on the brake or you’ll flip the bike.
Whether Lewis or the driver of the dump truck was a fault has been debated endlessly, but may ultimately be irrelevant. My two cents is this: Lewis was following the law (forward-moving traffic has right-of-way over right-turning traffic at a green light, and passing on the right is legal in a bike lane), but was riding dangerously fast, especially for that intersection, especially given that the bike he was riding was extremely hard to stop. Technically, the dump truck driver appears to have been at fault, but as every cyclist knows, it’s up to us to look out for them, because we’re the ones who always lose in bike/vehicle collisions. Fair? No. Drivers should be more aware of cyclists too—much more aware. (In addition to my three accidents, I’ve had countless near-misses with drivers who broke the law and nearly smashed into me.) But looking out for cars—hell, assuming they don’t see you and don’t care if they hit you—is how you avoid being hit.
On the other hand, that intersection (where a ghost bike, pictured above, has been installed; photo by Denny Trimble) is notoriously dangerous. Five years ago, bike planners at the city identified Eastlake as “the most heavily used north-south corridor” in Seattle and “strongly recommended” doing something about it. So are they? I’ve got a call in to the Seattle Department of Transportation’s media relations person to find out, but my guess is no. The city has been extremely slow to support innovative ideas that could make bikers safer and more visible, including blue lanes (which Denny at Metroblogging Seattle talks about here), phased pedestrian lights (which turn green before the main signal to give bikers a chance to make it into an intersection), and bike-only signals. The city actually did get as far as discussing the installation of blue lanes and bike boxes (road markings that allow bikes to get ahead of cars and make bikes much more visible) way back in 2003, but neither proposal ever went anywhere. That’s a shame. Bikers do have a responsibility to watch out for cars, but the city has a responsibility to make them as safe as possible, too.
In other news, Seattle Likes Bikes is organizing a memorial ride for Lewis. I’ll post details as soon as I have them.