Wednesday, September 16, 2009

MFM Day 18: Drake and Iowa

September 16th 2009, Motor Free Month Day 18

Some girls are lucky, they get across Drake without a scratch.

Some girls aren't so lucky; they get hit by a car, go to the hospital, and get their arm put in a sling.

9/15/09: Another bike-car incident at Drake and Iowa

Some girls aren't lucky at all; they get hit by a car, go to the hospital, and never come home.

8/21/09: 14-year-old Girl Dies After bike-car crash at Drake and Iowa

What's with the intersection of Drake and Iowa? Two serious bike vs. auto accidents involving young girls at the same intersection in my town in the past month. I decided to ride down and investigate, and pay my respects to the recently departed.

Song of the Day: Pavement, The Hexx (live)

Cars are always in the back of your mind as a cyclist. They're so much bigger and faster then we are. They make us feel vulnerable. They provide a constant under-current of fear when we ride. And yet we tempt them, we play frogger across busy streets, we push our luck at the stop light, we dart in and out of traffic, we play with fate. Sometimes we just don't pay attention, our minds wander and we're not aware of the car waiting to make the right turn into our lane, the potential accident. Sometimes there's nothing we can do; sometimes the car comes out of nowhere, comes up from behind. It only takes one sometimes to change things forever.

So I rode to Drake and Iowa, an intersection on the East side of town, a new intersection on a new extension of Drake, just East of Timbeline. I went there at rush-hour, and it was busy on Drake. Drake is one of the main East-West roads in Fort Collins. It has bike lanes on most of it (the section between College and Lemay being a glaring exception), making it ostensibly bike-friendly. At this part Drake has two lanes in either direction, merging to/from one lane, plus bike lanes, plus a middle turn lane. It is a wide road, even for Ft Collins' standards, and that's saying something.

It's a new bit of road actually, a new connector for people trying to get to the far South-West corner of the city. I actually stumbled upon it quite accidentally last Fall while riding my bike to the new Runner's Roost store location when they moved. I was impressed at the time with it's new-ness, it's wide fast-ness. And at the time it was pretty much undiscovered, and traffic-free.

A year later this is not the case. Today it seemed like the whole town was using it to get across town. I found myself on the North side of the intersection of Drake and Iowa, looking across the road to where SiSi's memorial was affixed on and around a light post on the South side of the road. I wanted to cross so I could get a closer look at her memorial, and frankly I was intimidated by the span of pavement in front of me, and by the newly hallowed nature of this place. Luckily a break opened up in the traffic and I was able to get across to the South side without incident, as I'm sure dozens of people do each day. But I could see how crossing Drake here at Iowa could be like a game of frogger. You have to be sure you can get to the other side, sure of that first pedal stroke, sure of your grip on the handlebar, sure that you judged the speed of that oncoming car coming up on the far lane correctly.

On the South side, then, was SiSi's memorial. Since my whole life is a song, I thought then of the Drive-By Truckers:

Plastic flowers on the highway. Bits of glass for the machine to sweep away.

Had to pass it on my way to where I was going. For the next few minutes, I drove a little slower.

That's from the car driver's perspective. The cyclist gets the luxury of stopping and checking things out. Lots of flowers, candles, stuffed animals, a few notes. Something parents and friends might stop by to see once in a while. Something to make you pause, just for a moment or two, and consider yourself lucky to have made it past your own teenage years.

Sisi was on Iowa drive, trying to cross from the South to the North side of Drake, early in the morning of August 20th. So the opposite way I just crossed from the North to the South. The article says that she was hit by a SUV that was on Drake. It doesn't mention if the car was going East or West on Drake when it hit her. I imagine it was East; at that time of day, the sun would have been right in the driver's eyes. The driver may not have seen Sisi crossing the road due to the glare. Maybe the driver looked down for just a second. Maybe to adjust the sun shade. Maybe to check the side-view mirror in order to merge. And Sisi may have even seen the car coming; maybe she misjudged it's speed. Maybe her foot slipped off her pedal at just the wrong moment. Maybe she didn't see it at all.

And this other girl, she was riding on Drake, Eastbound, when she was hit by a car that was on Iowa, attempting to turn on to Drake. Luckily she was ok. In fact, probably the only reason her accident was in the paper at all was because it happened at the exact same spot as where Sisi was killed. And frankly that's what brought me over and compelled me to write about it also. This second girl was more fortunate, clearly. But why two bike-car accidents at the same place? What about this intersection is do dangerous, or is it just random stupid luck? Is this place Hexed?

I've been there, and I don't think it's luck. I don't think it's Hexed either. Drake is too wide and too fast to have a cross-street at Iowa. It's a challenge to cross it on a bike, to the point where I wouldn't recommend trying it. A stoplight there would alleviate that problem. It's probably a challenge to try to cross Drake or make a left-turn on to Drake from Iowa in a car, even. Again, a stop light or perhaps a raised median that allowed only right-hand turns from Iowa would probably do the trick there. Now that I know where the city council meets, I think I'm going to go down there and recommend that they enact one of these two ideas for that intersection.

But you can't make every intersection completely safe in this town or any other. Bikers need to be more aware, more careful. Drivers, too. And cities need to plan better for safe and efficient bike transport in their cities. I'm sure it wasn't the intent, but it seems like in the older parts of my town there are numerous effective and quiet streets at my disposal for bike travel. Stover, Stuart, Remington and Swallow come to mind. Down South in the newer parts of town it seems like equivalent roads do not exist. The city is divided by large artery roads such ad Drake, Harmony, Timberline. There are few if any secondary roads that bisect and cross these main roads. The interior of these artery grids are filled in with curvaceous lanes and cul-de-sacs, which ironically do promote safety in their own localized area; they force drivers to slow down and encourage drivers to stay on the main arteries instead of picking their way through the new neighborhoods. So all of this is good for bikers, provided they don't have to actually leave their "artery-bounded-grid-space". People who wish or need to travel more than one mile from their home, however, almost certainly end up at an intersection like Drake and Iowa, needing to make it to the other side at that point, trying to judge the speed of the incoming traffic.

So it seems that these newer-style neighborhoods are actually safer for bikers in the small scale, but more dangerous in the larger scale. Personally I prefer the older grid-style neighborhood and I suspect most other bikers agree with me.


  1. I think you make some great points, Scott. I also think that perhaps folks (in general, not everyone!) that live in the South part of town aren't so used to seeing cyclists on the road, because nothing is really bike distance there, so they all are driving instead of biking. Riding your bike on occassion makes you much more aware of other cyclists on the road.
    I'm going to make a shameless plug for a class that I'm taking this weekend at the Ft Collins Bike Co-op: it's a traffic skills 101 course. I'm taking it as a precursor to become a certified bicycle league instructor, so I can teach such courses at CSU and in the community. Check out I am applying for a mini-grant that would allow me to sponsor 3 other community members to take this Bicycle League Instructor course. I think the chances I have of getting the grant money is high.

  2. In Anchorage someone has started using Ghost Bikes as memorials to bikers who have died by car. I guess it's a world-wide form of memorializing these deaths: This website only has one Anchorage location - for a cyclist where a car was at fault - but I recently noticed another Ghost Bike for a cyclist who pedaled into a very busy intersection while talking on his cell phone (and no helmet!). More evidence that transportation & cell phones don't mix if you're the one driving. Bottom line: if you're on a bike, always assume the cars don't see you.