Reducing bicycle fatalities requires multi-pronged approach

Emily Mixon

The weather on Thursday was fantastic — 65 and sunny, with a slight breeze — an idyllic last day of class for many seniors on the 40 Acres and a perfect day to celebrate and encourage bicycle commuting as a sustainable, healthy and fun way of reaching campus through UT’s annual “Bike to UT Day” kickoff, part of the broader national Bicycle Month celebration. However, the celebratory mood soured as news of 47 cyclists receiving tickets in North Campus spread Thursday morning. The ticketing was part of the Austin Police Department’s “special assignment bike initiative” aimed at increasing pedestrian, cyclist and vehicular safety near campus.

When I perused comments on KUT’s piece about the incident in the late afternoon, it seemed that commenters were generally toeing along generational and socioeconomic divides, with older Austinites commending the ticketing and emphasizing that the large student and young professional population in Austin needs to ride with respect if they want to receive respect, while students protested that the ‘sting’ adversely affected those living on student wages and could have negative effects on cycling modal share to campus.

Specific comments I heard on campus throughout the day were that students regularly feel crowded by the small (and unsafe) passing distance afforded to them by cars and buses at the specific 5-way intersection where the ticketing took place, that the intersection was hard to accelerate through on an uphill in the northern direction, that cars, and the infrastructure that favors them, are the real problem at play across our city. Some said that APD should be out after “real” problems, like drunk drivers.

As a student, a cyclist and a lifelong Austinite from a cycling-savvy family, I think solution to this conflict lies somewhere in the middle, and I don’t really think these two generations of Austinites disagree as much as they think they do. I believe that APD was right in its statement that the areas around campus have become increasingly dangerous for everyone as density soars and pedestrians, cyclists and cars are left to mingle together. However, I also believe that ticketing is not the silver bullet. Protected bike lanes, clear pedestrian signals at busy intersections and enforcement regarding vehicular misbehavior are needed in tandem (no pun intended) with cyclist cooperation. This need for change is reflected in UT’s master plan, and in the city’s plans as well, but change is slow to catch up with a burgeoning population. As students and citizens, we need to stand up and demand that change. For ourselves, for future Longhorns, and for the ghost bikes that are locked up around town, tributes to too many downed cyclists — of the nine current bikes around town, six stand for clear victims of drunk driving, hit and runs, or vehicular negligence, with one the result of a tire blowout and the other two lacking clear information regarding cause of death.

It should be heavily weighted here that we live in a car-oriented, vehicle dominated world, and it is truly the ethical responsibility of the driver of a two-ton steel box to respect the rights of pedestrians and 30-lb bicycles to utilize our shared roadways. The share of trips being made by bicycle is increasing across the country with cycling billed as a $6.1 billion dollar industry in 2012 by the League of American Bicyclists. But just as our infrastructure is lagging, our social and legal culture hasn’t caught up with the increase of city cycling — according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2012 4,743 pedestrians and 726 cyclists were killed by vehicular traffic — a 6.5 percent increase from 2011, indicating that the road is certainly not being shared well in many places across the nation.

The long-term solution to this completely unnecessary loss of life doesn’t just depend on infrastructure improvements and fair enforcement, but also hinges on education. Unpredictable riders can be just as detrimental to cyclist and pedestrian safety as the drivers who don't find it necessary to give us space, or see fit to use their turn signals—I’ve never heard of a cyclist causing an accident in which a driver died, but the opposite case is rampant across the country, and we can all do ourselves a service by giving vehicles the utmost reason to respect us—something that certainly won’t happen if they see us as a lawless bunch. In short, much needs to change on the “other side” of law enforcement, driver behavior, and street infrastructure—all this on an order of magnitude higher than cyclists coming to full stops at intersections free of traffic—but I don't believe we can conscientiously shout for changes quite as loudly if we're in the wrong as well. There’s only so much I can say to a non-cyclist when I’m advocating for improved bike lanes on and near campus, and they ask me if that will stop them from getting run down in crosswalks or at stop signs. I emphasize to them that walking down the middle of Speedway texting isn’t safe for anyone, but I also admit that I, and my cycling community, need to play our part to keep the road safe. On that note, again, tickets are not the solution, because while they can be purged from one’s record with an ACA defensive cycling course, warnings offer a much more conversational and productive learning atmosphere than the anger I heard from my classmates this morning.

The good news in all of this is that we as students are good at standing up for things that we believe in. I’ve seen it time and time again in my four years on campus, and I hope that the anger felt by the ticketed will become a productive conversation between the city, the university, and the population of both, about making better infrastructure and policies (such as Idaho’s stop law which allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signals) as well as personal safety decisions that will protect our entire campus and city community. I believe that cycling is a social and sustainable good, as well as a positive personal health choice, and while pedestrians may not feel it at this point in time on campus, safe cycling streets are also safe walking streets, with ample space away from cars. Cycling is empowering in every sense, and I hope that the sense we can do something—anything, from riding safely individually, to being aware of where we’re walking, to getting involved in advocacy— is the takeaway from Thursday’s sting operation. Whether next steps for you mean attending a cycling course, visiting UT’s own Orange Bike Project workshop or attending a Longhorn Bike Coalition meeting in the fall, I hope that you stand in solidarity with those who received tickets Thursday by taking note of systemic problems, and then by working collectively to make our community a safe and productive place for all Longhorns.

Mixon is a Plan II and environmental science senior from Austin. She lives in Hyde Park and cycles to campus daily. Roland, also a daily commuter, is an environmental science senior from Midlothian. Roland assisted in the compilation of statistics for this piece. Both Mixon and Roland are members of the Longhorn Bicycle Coalition, and will be co-directing the Campus Environmental Center for the 2014-15 academic year.