A Fair Share of the Road
Photos by Tessa Berg
A renaissance in the bicycling scene in Columbus means cyclists and drivers are commuting together in greater numbers. The signs are on our roads in the form of miles of new bicycle lanes, city-built shelters and, soon, a bike-sharing program. But advocates for more and safer city cycling say an entire mindset needs to change before vehicles with two wheels and four wheels can travel together safely.
Shawn Slivinski can’t remember the crash that changed his life.
The manager for North Market coffee shop A Touch of Earth knows he set out on his bike in late April 2012 to run a work errand. He knows he left the market heading down Park Street. He was not wearing a helmet—odd, he says, because he almost always wore one. But what happened next remains a blank chapter in his mind, even a year later.
Slivinski has gleaned all the details he can from police reports and family: The driver of a Jeep parked on the side of the street opened his door, just two blocks into Slivinski’s trip. There was no time to swerve. Slivinski hit the door, flipped over it and landed on the street. His head struck the pavement.
His brain swelled around two skull fractures. He needed surgery after the ventilator helping him breathe caused his lung to collapse. There were broken ribs. Failed kidneys that required dialysis.
Some Columbus-area intersections have a greater incidence of bicycle accidents than others—with the long-stretching High Street leading the pack with 33 crashes in 2011 alone. This north-south corridor running from Downtown to Worthington is one of several areas targeted in the city’s 20-year bike plan that will add bike lanes and sharrows, among other plans, to parts of the street. Officials say they are aware of the problem areas. Below are the top bicycle crash locations in Central Ohio from 2006 to 2010.
After a month in the intensive care unit and another two weeks in the hospital, Slivinski spent two months at rehabilitation centers, regaining his strength and learning how to walk again. It’s hard to picture that frail image now as he sits at home nearly fully recovered. The only visible signs of the accident are a few scars on his thin frame and an occasional struggle to remember words. He hasn’t been able to return to work, living on disability since the accident.
Other people might have given up bicycling, but Slivinski plans to ride again soon. Motivated by his own struggle, he wants to dedicate his time to making Columbus more bike friendly.
“We’re on this Earth together,” he says. “We share everything, including these roads. We need to talk about how we can all use them.”
Slivinski’s commitment shows the passion of the city’s tightknit biking community. His accident shows there is still work to be done.
In the last five years, advocates for bicycling and city planners have stepped up efforts to make the area safer and friendlier to riders, and it’s hard to ignore the progress. Bike racks, bicycle lanes and sharrows—street markings that encourage drivers to share the roads—have been installed. By summer, Columbus will have bike-sharing stations where anyone can rent a bicycle. And still more changes are planned.
The city wants to encourage bikers to ride on roads. Riders passionate about the issue have such a strong presence in Columbus that they’ve formed groups to promote bike safety and education.
But despite recent efforts, the toll of crashes between bicycles and motor vehicles hasn’t dropped. And the blame, it seems, can equally be shared by both drivers and bicyclists. The solution to safer roads, say advocates, requires more than a change in infrastructure—it will take a shift in culture.
“We still have a culture where people don’t know how to use a bike lane,” says Meredith Joy, director of Yay Bikes!, a nonprofit that educates cyclists and motorists on how to share roads. “Education is the most important aspect of creating a bike-friendly city.”
REWORKING THE ROADS
It’s Randy Bowman’s job to make everyone feel comfortable riding a bike on city streets.
As administrator of mobility options in Columbus’ Department of Public Service, he oversees efforts to improve roads for bicyclists by adding bikeways and racks, redesigning some streets to slow traffic and educating motorists and cyclists about the law.
“We’re trying to change culture here,” Bowman says. “It’s about getting to folks who don’t get on their bikes every day, who might be afraid to bike on the roadways.”
Steady for years, the toll of bike vs. motor vehicle crashes in Franklin County dropped in 2011 to 195—a one-third decline from the previous year. But according to Ohio Department of Public Safety preliminary reports, crashes in 2012 jumped to 253—78 percent of which caused injury. Three people died in bike crashes in the county in 2012.
Crash statistics show drivers and cyclists cause almost an equal number of crashes. In recorded accidents from 2007 to 2011 in Central Ohio (Franklin, Delaware and parts of Fairfield and Licking counties), bicyclists were at fault in 669 incidents, while motorists were at fault 645 times.
City officials keep track not just of the number of crashes, but also where they are happening most frequently. The biggest offender? High Street, with 33 crashes reported in 2011.
It’s one of several areas targeted in the city’s 20-year, $167 million bike plan launched in 2008, with a goal to make city streets better for cyclists through infrastructure, education and enforcement. The plan suggests bike lanes on some stretches of High Street and raises the possibility of shared bus and bike lanes.
The first phase of the plan, set for completion in 2012, called for 58 additional miles of bikeways, including bike lanes and sharrows. The city exceeded its bikeways goals by 8 miles. It also installed 300 bike racks—it had initially planned for 250—and in the last two years added covered bike shelters. Some have green roofs of drought-tolerant plants and others have maps and maintenance tools that bikers can borrow to inflate a tire or fix a chain. The city also sets up bike corrals for businesses—car parking spaces converted for bikes.
In the future, officials hope to build a bicycle facility Downtown where commuters can shower and change before work. Another goal of the bike plan is to reduce injuries and fatalities from bike crashes by 10 percent by the end of 2013; that goal hasn’t yet been realized.
Changes haven’t gone unnoticed. Last year, Columbus was named one of the top 50 bike-friendly cities by Bicycling Magazine and was awarded a bronze medal as a bike-friendly city by the League of American Bicyclists.
But last year, the advocacy group Consider Biking started a campaign to push the city to add 12 additional miles of bike lanes to Downtown streets, arguing it will entice more people to commute to work on bikes. The city’s plan does call for such Downtown improvements eventually, but the group wants the area to be a higher priority.
The city is starting to respond to the needs of Downtown cyclists, but doing everything the bike groups want will take time, Bowman says.
In the coming months the city plans to add 20 more miles of bikeways, including 8 miles to Long, Spring and State streets. And Bowman has proposed reducing the number of car lanes on Broad Street to add bike lanes or sharrows.
Not everyone agrees on the best roadway revamps. Typically, serious bikers prefer to ride in the street while novice cyclists feel more comfortable in their own lanes, according to the 2008 bike plan report. The city chose to use a combination, depending on what is feasible on a specific street.
“We choose the best solution for each road” while considering speed limits, use and traffic volume, Bowman says. “They all have an influence over what type of bikeway we use.”
Advocates understand the constraints of the city.
“Ideally we’d love to have a bike lane on every street, but this at least makes drivers aware of bikes,” says Jeannie Martin, vice president of Consider Biking. “The city has to put in the infrastructure they feel is right and feasible.”
Brian Hagerty, president of Consider Biking, is one of several bike advocates who have advised the city on infrastructure changes.
“We try to push the envelope,” Hagerty says. “Sometimes that means a lot of tiny baby steps that add up to one big step.”
The bike movement stretches beyond city limits. When Gahanna residents expressed a desire for more places to bike, says Parks & Recreation Department Deputy Director Troy Euton, the city developed a bike plan. Members of Gahanna’s advisory committee rode the streets to find the safest routes in the city. As a result, bike lanes are automatically added along with sidewalks when streets are redone. In 2011, signs marking the safest biking routes in the city went up.
In Westerville—recognized as a bike-friendly city last year by the League of American Bicyclists (Gahanna and Dublin have earned honorable mentions in past years)—the city offers classes on bike commuting, riding skills and bicycle maintenance. Officials are working on road diets that reduce lanes to slow traffic. There are plans to add bicycle parking and facilities on arterial streets.
BUILDING A CULTURE
Five years ago, Jonathan Ryder and his roommates spent much of their time tinkering with bikes outside their Franklinton home. It didn’t take long for their neighbors to notice.
“They started coming over, asking us to pump up a tire or fix their brakes,” says the 31-year-old Ryder, who in 2008 opened bike co-op Franklinton Cycle Works with three friends. The nonprofit primarily restores and sells bikes, trades volunteer time at the shop for parts and teaches maintenance and safety. “We wanted to support the biking community. We know people need this help and we can provide it for them.”
Ryder counts himself among the many people changing bike culture in Columbus, one he has seen improve the last five years because of the city’s efforts, which have prompted more bikers to hit the streets.
“I think the streets, like in any large city, have motorists that do not understand the law and make it difficult to bike,” Ryder says. “But I do think as of late, Columbus is pretty bike friendly.”
To educate those on the roads, a Share the Road campaign, sponsored by the Ohio Department of Transportation, started in 2011 to teach motorists and bikers to obey traffic laws, using tip cards, biking events, videos and public service announcements.
Cyclists are reminded to ride with traffic and not on sidewalks (it’s illegal in Columbus), and that they must have lights on their bikes at night. Motorists are reminded to watch for bicycles when driving or opening doors, to pass cyclists only if it is safe and to remember that bicyclists have a right to be on the road, so they should not honk at or crowd them.
Yay Bikes! offers classes on bike commuting, traffic skills, riding in groups and more. During monthly themed rides hosted by the group, bikers visit local businesses (the first one this year toured doughnut shops).
Bikers should realize they don’t have to hit the streets to navigate the city on their bikes, says Yay Bikes! chairman Ray George. Shared-use paths such as the Olentangy Greenway Trail snake through Columbus and often provide a quieter—and maybe more peaceful—ride to work. Bikers just need to be made aware of the options.
This summer, advocacy groups will host several events to draw more attention to biking. In May, the first national women’s biking summit will discuss a plan to get more women on bikes. The BikeColumbus Festival kicks off in July with the annual Twilight Ride with the mayor and ends Aug. 31 with Bike the C-Bus, a 25-mile tour of city neighborhoods.
Groups think that once riders get on their bikes for these events, they might not want to get off.
“Some people might never be comfortable on a bike lane, and some are,” Hagerty says. “We want to get to that big chunk in the middle, and we want to make sure they’re comfortable riding in the city.”
Kelly Lecker is the digital news editor at The Columbus Dispatch.