Safety advocates seek to stop bicycle fatality trend

Concerns focus on ways to protect vulnerable road users

Posted 9/3/19

On the north side of the street where South Marion Parkway curves into East Bayaud Avenue in Denver, stands a bicycle painted completely white. The bike is under a tree, with stacks of bouquets piled …

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Safety advocates seek to stop bicycle fatality trend

Concerns focus on ways to protect vulnerable road users

Posted

On the north side of the street where South Marion Parkway curves into East Bayaud Avenue in Denver, stands a bicycle painted completely white. The bike is under a tree, with stacks of bouquets piled next to it and a circle of electric votive candles around it.

The ghost bike stands at the intersection where Alexis Bounds was killed on July 24 while riding in a designated bike lane. In the street, someone has written “another slain cyclist” in green paint.

During July, Colorado added several of these memorial ghost bikes to its streets. Like crosses, or the blue city signs that read “Please drive safely,” followed by a victim’s name, they are a physical memorial — a testament to the lives lost on Colorado roadways. 

For Brad K. Evans, the founder of Denver Cruisers, a monthly bike event organization, and former candidate for a seat on the Regional Transportation District’s board of directors, the ghost bikes are a stark symbol. 

“We need a better conversation about the safety of our streets,” he said. “It’s essentially a gravestone.”

In the metro area including Adams, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas and Jefferson counties, 35 pedestrians and cyclists have died so far this year, according to data from the Colorado Department of Transportation as of Aug. 20. A majority of those fatalities happened in Denver where 10 pedestrians and two cyclists were killed. On Aug. 9, Denver also reported its first electric scooter death when Cameron Hagan died as the result of an accident earlier this month. 

But it’s not just a problem in Denver, or even Colorado, said Megan Hottman, a lawyer who focuses on personal injury cases for cyclists as well as safety laws for bikes and pedestrians nationwide. This upward trend in deaths is happening across the country, Hottman said. In 2017, 52 bicyclists and pedestrians were killed in the metro area. That number rose to 60 in 2018, according to data from CDOT.

Colorado officials and cycling advocates are exploring the need for new and harsher laws to prevent deaths of both pedestrians and cyclists on the road. More people are moving to the metro area, and as a result, more people are on the increasingly crowded roads.

In May, Gov. Jared Polis signed SB 19-175, a bill that deals with penalties given to drivers who seriously injure a vulnerable road user. The World Health Organization defines vulnerable road users as anyone who does not have an external shield. The bill made accidents resulting in serious injury a Class 1 traffic misdemeanor, in which the minimum penalty is 10 days in jail and/or a $300 fine.

As for cycling, Hottman also said that while car drivers bear a lot of the responsibility on the road, cyclists can be more aware as well. She said that cyclist advocates also need to be advocates for safety on the road, making sure cyclists are not using their phones while biking and otherwise setting a positive example. Most cyclists, she said are also motorists, and should operate their bikes with the same precaution as they would driving a car. With congested streets, Hottman also said that people are stressed because they’re running late, which can lead to speeding. If people gave themselves more time to get places, it could help decrease traffic accidents.

“Frankly, we all just need to slow down a little bit,” she said.

The ‘most vulnerable’

Jack Todd, the communications and policy manager with Bicycle Colorado, a statewide advocacy group for cyclists’ rights, said the increase in cyclist deaths has been going on for a number of years. 

In 2014, CDOT reported 10 bicycle deaths statewide, a decline from 12 the year before. But in 2015, 14 deaths were reported. In 2016 and 2017, there were 16 deaths reported each year. Numbers from 2018 are still being finalized, but preliminary data shows that 22 cyclists died last year in traffic accidents. Eleven of those deaths last year happened in the metro area.

Pedestrian traffic deaths have seen similar increases over time. In 2015, 64 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents in Colorado. That number jumped to 84 in 2016, and jumped again to 92 in 2017. Last year there was a slight decrease with 90 reported deaths, with 49 in the metro area. 

Although the organization has “bicycle” in the name, Todd says Bicycle Colorado is working to create protective laws for all vulnerable road users — bicyclists, pedestrians, motorcyclists and now the new group of electric scooter users.

In 2018, pedestrians represented about 14% of traffic deaths statewide, said Samual Cole, the traffic safety communications manager with CDOT. The state’s transportation organization has adopted its own safety goals, and will be launching an education campaign specifically geared toward pedestrian safety in September, he said. 

“Paying attention to our most vulnerable roadway users is critical to getting to zero,” he said.

Because vulnerable road users don’t have protection, it makes it more likely they will get hurt in the case of an accident, Todd added. 

“They make up a smaller percentage of traffic crashes, but a much higher percentage of serious injuries or fatalities,” he said. “Ultimately, what it comes down to is nobody should fear for their lives or die on our roadways.”

At a memorial event in Parker for bicyclist Edward “Chuck” Vogel on Aug. 9, Pete Piccolo, the CEO of Bicycle Colorado, spoke to dozens of mourners, saying that too often, the deaths of cyclists or pedestrians become a statistic, just another number in the group of people killed on the road. He added that he fears that his own wife and daughter will become part of those statistics. 

“I’ve had close calls that have taken my breath away,” he said. 

Vogel was hit on July 4 near the intersection of Pine and Centennial drives in Douglas County, near Parker, and died of his injuries. The driver fled the scene and a suspect was later arrested. 

Fears for safety

The increase in deaths is causing more people to hang up their bikes for good, said Hottman.

She believes there is safety in numbers. When there are more cyclists, it becomes more normal for cars to drive alongside them. But that can be a hard sell for people not used to biking on the road. 

“It’s hard to ask people to get on their bikes when all they see is death and destruction associated with it,” Hottman said. 

Evans agreed, saying that even as someone who rides his bike frequently, he no longer feels safe on city streets. 

This feeling is not limited to bicyclists either. Joanne Cdebaca, who lives down the street on West Bayaud Avenue from where cyclist Scott Hendrickson was hit on July 12, said that she won’t let her children walk in the neighborhood without an adult present. She and her father, who lives next door, frequently see drivers speed on the roadway. This concerns Cdebaca, because not only are there a lot of children in the neighborhood, they live near West-Bar-Val-Wood Park. Hendrickson was hit in the intersection at South Tejon Street and West Bayaud Avenue, adjacent to the park. He later died of his injuries.

“They don’t want to wait for you,” Cdebaca said of drivers near the park. 

Part of the reason Hottman believes the number of vulnerable-user deaths are on the rise is because of a lack of laws, but also because more people are driving on Colorado roads. As people have been moving to the state by the thousands, the infrastructure of the roadways has not been able to keep up, she said. It “screams for the additional need for us to have infrastructure.”

Changing behavior

In Fort Collins, Todd said, the city is changing the way local governments deal with bicycle infrastructure. Tessa Greegor, the active modes manager with FC Moves in Fort Collins, said the city has seen a 22% decline in accidents overall in the last five years. FC Moves is the transportation planning department for the city. As the active modes manager, Greegor helps with planning for all types of traffic, including pedestrians and bicyclists.

She added that city government there has been very supportive of bicycle infrastructure going as far back as the 1980s. Before that, Greegor said she found archive articles of The Coloradoan newspaper from the 1960s that talked about bicycle advocacy groups fighting for safer streets. 

“That’s really been growing for several decades,” she said. “Not a lot has really changed as far as what we’re working to advance.”

Fort Collins now has a “dedicated bike culture,” she said, adding that you can go almost anywhere in the city on your bike. Businesses, advocates, residents and city government all support the bicycle network.

Many people see bicycle infrastructure, such as protected bike lanes, as something that only benefits cyclists, said Wesley Marshall, an associate professor in the department of civil engineering at the University of Colorado at Denver.

Marshall has been doing research and data studies of cities with and without bicycle infrastructure. Narrower roads mean slower speeds, he said.

“Cities with a ton of bicycling are some of the safest in the world,” he said of his research. “The gist of it is about slowing cars down and building a bigger network.”

Fort Collins is currently working to update its bicycle and pedestrian master plans, Greegor said. Projects include improving street crossing areas on major streets. Greegor said that if people don’t feel safe crossing a street, they often won’t ride their bikes or walk places. 

The plans are also looking at places where the city can slow traffic. One thing that the data and all parties can agree on is that speed plays a large role in fatal accidents. The faster you go, the more likely it is that someone will not walk away from that accident, said Jill Locantore, the executive director of Walk Denver. Walk Denver is a pedestrian advocacy group.  

On Aug. 7, Mayor Michael B. Hancock of Denver announced that the city would lower the speed limits on five arterial streets as a result of recent bicycle deaths. For Locantore, this is a good first step. Arterials are where most of the traffic happens. Because they are usually more complicated streets, they also need more complicated solutions when it comes to the safety of road users. 

“We’re definitely glad to see them focusing on specifically arterials,” Locantore said. 

Many of those arterials also make up what is called the High Injury Network in Denver. That’s where 5% of the streets account for 50% of the fatalities. Some of those roads include Colfax Avenue, as well as Federal and Sheridan boulevards. 

Several of those roads stretch into other cities in the metro area, such as Englewood and Lakewood. Sheridan in particular is dangerous for pedestrians, Locantore said, because there’s little-to-no sidewalk to speak of. It’s also a major transit street. 

“The farther away you get from Denver, the more highway-like those arterials become,” she added.

For CDOT, safety is the number one concern when building roadways, Cole said. The department uses an engineering team on new projects, as well as improvement projects to make sure that streets are designed to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe. Slower speeds, improved lighting and raised medians are some of the ways of handling that. 

CDOT also has education campaigns on pedestrian safety, he said, adding “we’re not just building roads and leave it at that.”

Building a network

Bicycle infrastructure can be frustrating for people trying to get from one place to another. Lanes in Denver are not well connected right now, Evans said, adding that “we haven’t really invested in creating a safe network.” Historically, street planning has all been car-first, leaving pedestrians and bicyclists to navigate their way around that. 

From city to city, this is also a problem. Those bike networks don’t translate as the street flows from Denver into other metro area cities. 

“There’s no program for Englewood to draw off what Denver has,” he said as an example.  

Englewood recently added a painted bike lane to Dartmouth Avenue. The lane goes from Inca Street to South University Boulevard. University is on the border of Denver and Englewood.

Evans added that in Denver, there is no advocate group specifically for cyclists. BikeDenver recently merged with Bicycle Colorado in May. When that happened, Evans said it created a vacuum, and Denver lost a voice working for change. 

For Evans, it doesn’t do people on either side any good to “demonize” drivers, cyclists or pedestrians. Their efforts would be better spent focusing on getting cities to make changes in how they build roadways.

Taking action 

One of the keys to success in Fort Collins has been having funding specifically for these bike projects, Greegor said. The city passed a sales tax initiative that pays for projects. Through grants, the city is also able to have dedicated staff on its bicycle program. 

The city also created a complete street standard that requires new streets or upgrade projects to consider the safety of all modes of transportation. 

“(New projects) have to meet these standards in order to build those developments,” Greegor said.  

For a long time, Evans said he had been avoiding the ghost bike memorials. But when Scott Hendrickson, an avid cyclist and friend, was killed, Evans stepped in to help, painting an old bike of Hendrickson’s for the memorial placed in West-Bar-Val-Wood Park. 

“This one kind of hit home when it was with Scott. It was one of his first road bikes,” he said of the bike he and Scott’s daughter Madison painted. 

While Evans believes that the plans created for Vision Zero Denver are a great in theory, he feels that the city has been slow to implement it. He also added that 2011 plans from Denver Moves have also not been implemented quickly. 

Locantore agrees. 

She also added that although lowering speeds is a good first step, it is just that: a step. Roads like Colfax may have a posted speed limit of 35 mph, but they are designed so that drivers can go 10 or even 20 miles over that. Wider streets also make it hard for pedestrians to safely cross. These designs, Locantore said, often “put people in conflict with each other.”  

“It’s the environment itself that’s causing those unsafe behaviors. We fundamentally need to redesign our streets,” she said. “There’s only so much you can do to protect yourself as an individual.”

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