urban-cyclist

Urban bicyclists are surrounded by risk.

Bicycle Transportation Alliance Executive Director Rob Sadowsky has spent the last 10 years advocating for urban bicyclists, and he’s never seen a worse stretch for bike crashes than he did recently in Portland.

“We just had a crazy couple of weeks,” he says. “I have never seen anything like it.”

It started on May 10 with the gruesome crash that severed the leg of Alistair Corkett. The 22-year-old bike racer and bike shop employee was riding south on SE 26th Ave. when a truck driven by Barry Scott Allen turned left in front of him onto SE Powell and hit him hard.

Corkett crashed into the bumper of the truck, launched into the air, and landed bleeding heavily, with his leg severed off. Had it not been for the quick response of several witnesses, he probably would have bled to death. The bystanders created a tourniquet, applied pressure to the wound, and slowed the bleeding to keep Corkett alive while the ambulance was on its way.

A short time later, on May 27, another 22-year-old diehard cyclist, Mark James Angeles, was hit by a tow truck towing a Volvo and died from blunt force head trauma — even though he was wearing a helmet. That crash occurred at Gladstone and SE Cesar Chavez, just a mile away from where Corkett lost his leg.

Angeles was remembered as a popular and energetic young man who had just graduated from Reed College with a promising future ahead of him — and a deep passion for urban cycling. Before his death he managed Reed’s Bike Co-op and ran a program that combined cycling and fixing up bikes for children in need.

These terrible crashes traumatized friends and family, and they served as a catalyst for the Portland cycling community at large. Friends set up a GoFundMe page for Corkett that raised more than $90,000 in a month. Advocates pushed for immediate improvements to crowded and unsafe arterials. Riders staged protests and created a “ghost bike” memorial for Angeles at the intersection where he was killed.

During that same stretch of time, reports of other Portland-area bike accidents also poured in, including an elderly driver in Vancouver who hit two bicyclists, an on-duty cop in Hillsboro who ran into a cyclist, and a collision that broke the leg of 25-year-old cyclist Noah Gilbertson, at the same exact intersection where Alistair Corkett lost his leg.

The spate of accidents raises some large questions about Portland’s beloved bike culture.

How safe is biking in Portland?

What precautions can cyclists — and drivers — take to lessen the risks?

What should cyclists do in the event of a crash?

A WORLD-RENOWNED BIKE CULTURE

Portland’s bike culture is world-renowned for its diversity and depth. Tens of thousands of riders zip across the Lower Willamette River’s five (soon to be six) bike-friendly bridges, and the city is teeming with bike shops, bike frame builders, bike-parking racks, bike taxis, bike shops, bike messengers and bike commuters.

Portland City government employs a full-time Bicycle Coordinator. The public school district promotes ride-to-school routes for young students. Huge crowds gather for everything from Pedalpalooza to the world-famous Naked Bike Ride.

The city’s perspective is that bicycling creates safer streets, reduces the causes of global climate change, promotes a healthy environment, and limits the obesity and health care costs related to sedentary life in a car-dominated culture.  Cycling provides equal access to an affordable transportation option, contributes to fun, vibrant neighborhoods, and supports Portland’s local economy.

Yes, yes and yes.

But is it safe?

Sadowsky, who advocated for urban cyclists in Chicago for 4 years before continuing his work in Portland, contends that it is "safer to bike in the city of Portland to to be a passenger in a motor vehicle.”

Emergency room physicians and personal injury attorneys, who see the worst of the worst when things go wrong, don’t necessarily agree.

“You are just completely vulnerable on a bicycle,” says Portland Attorney Richard Rizk, who handles Bicycle Accident cases. “You can really get hurt very, very badly.”

Rizk is trying a case next month involving an EPA scientist who was struck by a vehicle and seriously injured while riding in a marked bike lane.

More than 300 bike crashes are typically reported in Portland per year, but it's a matter of debate how accurate that number is. It is difficult to get solid, current numbers about bike crashes for two big reasons. The state tracks reported crashes in detail, but does not release reports until several years after the crashes take place, so the most recent numbers always seem old. Also, as bikeportland.org Editor and Publisher Jonathan Maus recently pointed out on a KBOO radio discussion of bike safety, bicycle collisions are woefully underreported, because cyclists often simply ride away, provided their bikes still work.

Maus, who has been covering the Portland bike scene since 2005, says biking in Portland has a long way to go to be considered safe. “Yes, it’s relatively safe for a U.S. city,” he says. “But it’s a joke in comparison to our European counterparts.”

OregonLive recently published an interactive map showing where the dangerous zones are for Portland cyclists. The map shows clearly that some portions of the city are far from safe for urban cycling.

For Portland riders, one approach is to demand that the city address the danger zones through design and public works. Another approach is to ride only where it is safe, to ride with an intense attention to detail, and to encourage others to ride and drive with similar focus and care, fully aware of the potential consequences. Both approaches combined could lead to a safer riding environment over time. 

MINIMIZING THE INHERENT RISKS

I’ve been an urban cyclist for 25 years, in Seattle and Portland. I’ve had 3 bikes stolen, gotten into several bad wrecks, and been hit by moving vehicles twice (minor incidents fortunately). I have also witnessed many bad crashes, including a devastating crash involving a dear member of my family. I have fought with insurance companies over issues of bike safety, and I’ve learned the hard way that your insurance company is not necessarily your friend.

So I speak from experience when I suggest that bicycling in an urban environment is inherently risky, just as skiing or snowboarding on Mount Hood is inherently risky, but also in a different way, because it is a city. A 10-minute ride across Portland during rush hour is bound to reveal glaringly bad errors in judgements from riders and drivers both — a cyclist with no helmet on, running a red light across four lanes of traffic, a truck driver looking at his cell phone while negotiating a left turn across a bike arterial, a bus driver blithely pulling over to a bus stop by passing right through an occupied bike lane... the list goes on.

run-red-light

Portland bicyclists running a red light.

Given the level of inattention out there, it is up to the smart urban bicyclist to stay safe. Here are a few principles:

Avoid Busy Main Streets: Why slow down traffic and risk your life on NE Broadway when there is a perfectly good and far more pleasant bike route a few blocks over? The same applies to other busy, car-dominated roads. Better options exist.

Be Predictable and Alert: Ride so drivers can see you and predict your movements. Point to where you are going. Use hand signals. Make eye contact with drivers at intersections. Expect the unexpected. Think ahead.

Don’t Be an A-Hole: Riders who arrogantly block traffic, ride in the middle of the road at night without lights or helmets and blatantly run red lights and stop signs are not helping the cause. Stop for lights, and respect pedestrians.

Be Prepared: Get yourself and your bike in good shape. Use lights at night. Consider reflective tape for your bike. Wear a helmet.

Watch for Cars — and Doors: Assume drivers do not see you. Be ready for a door to open at any moment. Be ready for a car to turn suddenly at any time.

Ride in a Straight Line — to the right of traffic, a car door width away from parked cars.

Turn Left Very Carefully: Look back, signal, move into the left lane, and turn left. Or ride to a crosswalk and wait for a safe moment to walk your bike across the street.

The other half of bike safety is up to drivers. 

A few principles for sharing the road with cyclists:

Expect Bicyclists: Always assume there will be bicyclists on the road in Portland, and share the road. Bicyclists have the same right to be on the road that drivers have.

Understand that Cyclists are Vulnerable: Whether or not you like urban cyclists, think about how much it would hurt to get hit by 2 tons of steel. In any collision between motor vehicle and bike, the cyclist will lose, and it will be painful.

mom-kids-bikiing

A Mom riding in downtown Portland traffic with two kids.

Look Back Before Opening Your Door: Getting "Doored" is no fun for riders — or for the person who opened the door without looking first.

Keep Your Eyes on the Road — Not Your Cell Phone. Please!

Mind the "Right Hook": Remember, bike lanes are on the right, so when you move to turn right, look for cyclists first.

Take that Left Carefully: Don’t assume you can make the turn before the approaching cyclist arrives. Fast cyclists move at 30 miles an hour and up.

One final list on the subject of urban bike safety:

WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE IN A BIKE CRASH

Take Care of Yourself: Forget the bike! Riders often get all hung up about bike damage and ignore their own injuries. Be particularly cautious of spinal injuries and concussions. Witnesses - don’t move someone who may have suffered a spinal injury.

Don’t be so sure that you’re okay: Call 9-1-1 if you get hurt, and don't tell everyone you are fine while you are still in shock. “Bicyclists are a hardy group,” says Rizk. “You ask us how we’re doing, we’ll say we’re doing fine. But when you get hit, you don’t know if you’re fine. You don’t want to say that you’re not injured. Because that’s going to be used against you for sure.”

Document Everything: “The sooner you contact someone and tell them what happened, the sooner you start taking notes and photos, the better,” says Sadowsky. “Because your mind will lose details quickly once the shock of the crash wears off.”

Keep the Evidence: Save your helmet, your bicycle, and your clothing. Don’t get rid of anything. And take pictures.

Get a Lawyer if You Need One: “Let’s face it, insurance companies are motivated by money,” says Rizk. “If you are unrepresented, there is going to be no day of reckoning for the insurance company. Only an attorney who knows how the system works is going to be able to get you a fair settlement.”