By Kierstin Kloeckner
As a cyclist, once you’ve been hit by the driver of a car, everything changes. How you view the world changes, how you view drivers changes, how you view your own life changes. You learn you are very mortal. You learn that one small mistake, or an aggressive maneuver by a driver, can end your life or severely damage you in a split second. Cars, in my mind, are weapons, and those who drive them can easily be murderers. For those who think I’m blowing this out of proportion, I’m not. This summer, it seemed like there was a death of a cyclist caused by a driver of a car almost weekly where I ride or have ridden. Here’s the thing, I own a car and drive as well, but I fully understand the power I hold when I get behind that wheel.
The first time my life and views on cars/drivers changed was when I was a teen. I was run off the river road in Minneapolis while on a training ride. The driver actually stopped the car and berated me and my fellow team mates for riding on the road. At that time I was all piss-and-vinegar. I could taste the bile building up in my mouth, mixed possibly with some blood. I was angry and that was it. I yelled at and threatened the driver. Because I was so young, and my body so pliable, I couldn’t even feel that I was hurt. I just wanted revenge. From that point on, I became acutely aware of how close drivers come to cyclists and if that driver had actually struck me, I may not be here today.
Fast forward thirty years. Since I’ve been riding my entire life, I can’t begin to count how many “close calls” I’ve had with vehicles. Sometimes it feels like a daily occurrence. So much so, that I’m pretty sure how my demise will play out. I consider myself one of the most predictable riders on the road. I follow the rules (although I will sometimes run stop signs if I’ve rolled close to a stop and there is no traffic). I ask for those who ride with me to also follow the rules and to be predictable. I don’t “like” making drivers of cars mad. I know they could kill me, so I try my best to be an ambassador versus a renegade. And still, with all my experience, and my responsible cycling habits, I feel like drivers are out to attack me. I’ve become so sensitive to this over the past few years, even the sound of cars makes me a bit on edge. But here’s the thing. I don’t just feel attacked by drivers, but also politicians and transportation planners who refuse to make it safe for me, my friends, my family and my community.
Six years ago, I had one of those near-death experiences. I was riding home from work mid-day on a sunny Saturday in October. I was on a wide, moderate traffic street with no bike lanes and there was full visibility. I was wearing my safety yellow windbreaker. One moment I was smiling and soaking in the changing leaves, the next moment I was struck from behind, hooked by the side mirror of a van, and dragged. I looked into the vehicle, realized the driver was completely oblivious of me, screamed and then the driver turned the steering wheel hard left. I broke free, fell and skidded down the road – very narrowly missing going under the van. I was hurt and couldn’t get up, but was able to lift myself slightly and look up to see the van slow down and then gun it and speed away.
So here I was, in the middle of the road, screaming for someone to catch the driver. No one did… ever. I made it out alive, but with permanent damage (my pelvis will never go back into correct alignment again and I have scar tissue on my leg to remind me of that day forever). Thankfully, I did survive. Many aren’t that lucky. I could have so easily been one of the fatalities.
The moment I got home, I called the police to report the incident. Shortly after, I contacted two so-called “bike friendly” local politicians to express my concern and inform them that this could have been prevented if there were bike lanes (the incident occurred on a half mile section of road that did not have bike lanes – a missing link if you will). Now, I’m not stupid, and I know some white paint can’t prevent all crashes, but it does help, and help for other cyclists is what I was out to get.
Big promises were made to make changes or at least research what changes were possible, but, to this day, after years of fighting with the city and politicians, there is still no bike lane on this small missing link stretch. And every time I ride this section, I am reminded of what could happen to me again.
This brings me to the present. Thankfully, I have not been hit again by a driver, but there have been hundreds of close calls – all due to either poor infrastructure design or reckless driving. Last week was one of the closest calls I’ve had. Essentially, I was forced off a road I have to travel at least twice a day. The only other option to cycling on this road is cycling on the sidewalk (something both the police and transportation planner told me I should do even though it is illegal). Cycling on a sidewalk is not the answer. Aside from it being illegal for adults, it is unsafe. Crossing intersections where drivers are not expecting a cyclist causes “T” hits. Also, if you do choose to ride on a sidewalk, you must always yield to pedestrians and there often seem to be encroachment issues (trees/weeds/garbage bins) involved. These are all issues for this section of sidewalk. And although I have for years been reporting issues of no alternate routes for kids wanting to bike/walk to school safely or adults commuting safely, very little has been done. Currently, there is a “plan” in the works for a partial path (about 3/4 mile long) being finished in 2020. Because land rights have not been acquired for this path yet, and since it is still several years out for the work to begin, my hope is that the city finds a way to make it safer for the time being.
When I was run off the road, I decided I had enough. No longer would I be the person who reports issues quietly and complains to my friends. No, I wanted to bring more attention to the lack of changes being made and the risks cyclists had to take to get through this part of the city. I planned an infrastructure awareness ride for one week after being run off the road. I invited road cyclists, parents with children, commuters and anyone who felt the city wasn’t doing enough to keep us safe. Although only eighteen people showed, it was a good start. We all had the same concerns and all wanted to work together to make this area safer. My focus was not on angering drivers by blocking the lane, or angering city officials, but instead having the community contact planners, police and politicians with what they saw and experienced on the ride.
Every parent there stated they wouldn’t have their children commute to school using the road or sidewalk. With obesity and climate change facing us all head on, this is not acceptable. Making sure each child has a safe route to school is my biggest priority, even though I don’t have kids myself. In my eyes, it is their right to be able to walk or bike to elementary school and arrive there alive.
Although less than twenty-four hours have passed since the ride, and just over a week since I was forced off the road, I feel a bit of hope as I write this. Hope that our voices will be heard; if not now, soon. Hope that one day I’ll be able to bike to work and not worry if this will be my last ride. Hope that I’ll soon see kids in the neighborhood hopping on their bikes to get to school versus hopping on the bus to travel just one mile. And hope both politicians and city planners understand the cyclists in the community also pay taxes and deserve as much consideration, if not more, than those traveling by car each day.
I’d like to thank Madison Bikes for not only promoting my ride, but making a strong presence on the ride. I’d also like to thank the local cycling community for their concern over my well-being and offering to help in any way they could. It takes a village…