‘A Cyclist Died Here’ Memorial Ride spurs activism to make safer streets now.

by Eric Shalit on September 25, 2011

There’s something particularly awful about the combination of something we all love — riding our bikes together — with visiting the sites of the recent deaths of our fellow cyclists. The joy of the ride is stabbed in the heart when seeing the spots where these unnecessary deaths took place. Sunday was a kind of Earth Day, sponsored by Moving Planet Seattle 350.org. with events promoting the importance of moving beyond fossil fuels.

Afterwards, about 50 of us headed out for a memorial ride, visiting the sites where 3 of our like-minded friends died just this summer. Each death serves as a representation of the diversity of who’s using the road. We can say they were cyclists, but they were just people, who believed they’d found a better way to get around than driving over-sized cars on already jammed streets. In the moment that a driver gets out of their car and onto a bicycle, do they automatically become part of some tribe called ‘cyclists’? I don’t think pedestrians are all viewed as part of the same group of misfits, yet somehow a certain segment of the population views us as a nuisance that has no right to ride safely on the roads.

During the ride, on which we made sure to obey all traffic laws and ride as far to the right as was safe, I ONLY heard one driver yell “You’re all a bunch of fools”. How much of a reach is it for someone who feels compelled to yell at people riding safely to come just a little too close to a cyclist, running them off the road to teach them a lesson, or not yield the right of way to them when it’s rightfully theirs. And who are these “fools” but parents, children, grandparents, and neighbors.

Site of the death of Brian Fairbrother. Follow the trail straight ahead and launch into the abyss down a flight of cement stairs. Could you see it coming? I couldn't. Would you survive? Maybe. Paralyzed? Maybe.

Visiting the site of the death of Brian Fairbrother made me twitch. There by the grace of god go I. Reading about it and seeing it are quite different. Makes me wonder how many others went down those stairs on bicycles, but survived. It’s my understanding that Fairbrother lived about a week on life support after his accident. I never ride that direction on this street. If I had, there’s a pretty good chance I’d have ridden down those stairs with poor results. Remember that death is only one outcome. Severe head injury, paralysis, and losing all your teeth are other options.

Fairbrother was a 50 year old, barista and businessman. You can read about him here at this Seattle Times article.

Site where Mike Wang was killed by a hit-&-run reckless driver while riding in a designated bike lane.

Mike Wang was a cyclist. Before he was a cyclist he was a father and husband. This 50-year-old bike commuter was struck and killed by the driver of an SUV who paused briefly and then sped away, leaving Mike to die. The driver has not been caught as yet, though leads have been reported. You can read more about Mike Wang here.

Spot near where Robert Townsend, a 23-year-old sandwich deliverer for Jimmy John's was killed by a driver.

The third victim, 23-year-old Robert Townsend, died in the University District, after colliding with a car making a left turn. Townsend delivered sandwiches for Jimmy John’s on the Ave., and he was the fastest. You can read about him at Seattle Bike Blog.

This bus pulled up across from the memorial while we were gathered.

Now that we’ve documented this summer’s deaths, what’s next? Gathering at Flowers Tavern in the U-District after the ride, it seemed everyone was an activist or activist in the making, for the cause of safe streets for all. I never heard the common lament “someone should do something!”. The place was abuzz with talk about what “we” are going to do now to make our communities safer for everyone. As an aging veteran of neighborhood projects, I’m generally not optimistic about the ability of most of my peers who are concerned about an issue to follow-thru. They typically get distracted and lose focus. Talk is cheap. Here in Seattle, there’s an abundance of hand-wringing and whining, but not enough willingness to get out in front, do the hard work, and take the negative heat that comes with working for change.

I’m more than optimistic — confident actually — that people in this group have the tenacity to make change happen. Something cyclists have in common is a real-world understanding of the importance of momentum. It’s going to take more than painted sharrows and green bike boxes on roads to make streets safe for all.

Here's a cross-section of who's using the roads. Will the lives of one or more of these folks be unnecessarily snuffed out?

While having beers at Flowers Tavern, we were pigeonholed by Cascade Bicycle Club Advocacy Campaigns Manager, Max Hepp-Buchanan, who lobbied us on the importance of voting YES on Seattle’s Proposition 1 levy. As a frequent critic of Cascade’s poor communications and outreach, I was thrilled at Max’s effectiveness at educating us about why this levy is an important piece in the future of making streets safer for all. Proposition 1 will give Seattle faster, more reliable transit service; repaired and repaved roads that work better for everyone; and new sidewalks, better crosswalks, and more family-friendly bike infrastructure. It’s not a panacea, but is a step forward in these times when cutbacks guarantee a decline in services, infrastructure, and much-needed maintenance. You can read more about it here.

Max not only convinced me to vote yes, but somehow got me to volunteer to help make it pass. I’d never really spoken one-on-one with him before. I first met him standing at the side of the larger-than-life David Hiller. Hiller proved himself to be a tenacious advocate and fighter who got things done, despite his aggressive style, which did not play well with the passive-aggressive whiners that abound here in Seattle.

Since Hiller has left Cascade to be part of the Mayor’s team, I’ve wondered if he would be replaced or if Cascade would lose its momentum as an advocate. Rather than replacing Hiller, it’s my understanding that an effective advocacy team is being created. After speaking yesterday with Max Hepp-Buchanan and Political Program Manager Chris Rule, I’m optimistic that Cascade will be playing an important role going forward. I think it would be great if Cascade would let members and safe streets activists know what they’re doing. It would be a step forward toward changing their reputation as the “Cascade Bikes on Top of Cars Club” and building alliances with unaffliliated activists working toward the same mission of safe streets for all.

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