Time to get real about bike safety

Bikers die in the street, yet University officials tell us to get off the sidewalks.

John Hoff

Abidah Adam died in the street, not on the sidewalk. She was only 20 years old, a promising student of geology attending the University on a scholarship awarded by an oil company. She was hit by a truck while crossing a street on her bike.

Is it clear enough the truck was in the street and didn’t drive up on the sidewalk? It seems important to make this distinction extraordinarily clear, clear like a diamond, clear like a quartz crystal, because when University officials made statements about Adam’s death, they emphasized the importance of bicyclists staying off the particular sidewalks where bikes are prohibited.

However, if Adam had never left the sidewalk, she would still be alive, still studying her passion of geology, still collecting key chains from every state of the union – missing only Wisconsin and Texas at the time of her death.

I ask you, how on earth does a young woman from Malaysia manage to procure a key chain from a backwater like North Dakota, but can’t manage to obtain one from the great state of Texas? It’s one of life’s little mysteries, but this young woman – who sounds like she was a devoted friend and a promising scholar – won’t be around to answer it.

I don’t know whether Adam felt some particular obligation to keep her bike off prohibited sidewalks or if, like so many bicyclists, she instinctively believed it was safer to bend the rules and stay on the sidewalk much of the time. Certainly, bikers don’t all think the same way about the rules pertaining to sidewalks, as anybody can observe from the behavior of bicyclists around the University.

I know bicyclists who feel passionately that bikes should be off the sidewalks, and compete in the street with motorized vehicles. A lot of these same bicyclists also can tell you stories about close encounters with cars or actually bouncing off hoods. It is obvious sticking to the sidewalk lessens your odds of being hit by a car, while admittedly increasing your odds of hitting a pedestrian. However, bike versus pedestrian mishaps usually are much less serious than, say, bike versus pickup truck.

But, to read the words of University officials, bikers should just get out there and compete with the motorized monsters. What about us bikers who are fat and slow? Heck, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs gives me $364 a month for my bad leg and back. Do you think I’ll be zipping along ahead of a Metro bus?

Sure, some pedestrians get freaked out by all the bikes on the sidewalk. A friend of mine from North Dakota (and I do have friends there, though thankfully not many) was visiting the University last fall, and the sight of bikes whizzing past on the sidewalk made him dodge like a startled rabbit. Everyone else was just walking along calmly, but here was my country mouse friend, jumping out of his skin as though some hottie on a pink 10-speed was going to run him down for fun.

Good heavens, I told my friend, don’t act like there aren’t bikes in North Dakota. Why, I used to own one there, before I brought it to the Twin Cities and it was ripped off within a week. Stay calm, I told him. Don’t flinch around like a coward.

I told him bikers don’t want to run into pedestrians. Bikers constantly calculate the movement of pedestrians as well as other bikes and also skateboarders. It’s hard to calculate skateboarders, however. They are always fighting for balance, and they themselves don’t seem to know exactly where they are going.

In any case, the way to deal with bikes on the sidewalks around the University is to remain calm and not freak out, because the bikers don’t want to hit you. Since there is a rule against biking on many of the sidewalks, a collision on those sidewalks would be 100 percent the fault of the biker, giving bikers even more incentive to avoid accidents.

When there are a lot of bikes and pedestrians mixed together, pedestrians might want to avoid sudden lane changes. Seriously.

University officials have a long way to go before we actually have a realistic discussion about real and practical bike safety, given the shameful lack of bike lanes and the excruciating excess of motorized traffic that forces bikers to bend rules to survive. Bikers die in the street, yet University officials tell us to get off the sidewalks.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected].