Op-ed column: Ride of Silence spoke for bike safety

What are "ghost bikes" and why are they so significant?

On the evening of May 21, I went for a bicycle ride.

That’s nothing new — I love to bike and do a lot of it — but this ride was different. First, it wasn’t for my own enjoyment, but to remember those Capital Region residents who have been killed by cars while bicycling in recent years. Second, for a ride with almost 100 people, it was really quiet.

We were all there in Albany for the annual Ride of Silence — which is, in the words of organizer Claire Nolan, “basically a funeral procession.”

The ride, with a police escort, started at the Corning Preserve boat launch shortly after 6 p.m. heading south. It then turned west, crossing Broadway, up the State Street hill, along Central Avenue for awhile, onto Western Avenue and past the University at Albany, and up Fuller Road to Central Avenue for the ride back to downtown Albany and the Preserve. We rode 15 miles or so in a little over two hours — less than half the speed serious cyclists normally go.

On the way, we passed a white-painted “ghost bike” marking the spot where Jose Perez was killed in 2006. Another such haunting memorial can be found at the Route 5S bike path crossing in Rotterdam Junction, where cyclist Alan Fairbanks, of Burnt Hills, was killed in 2006.

In addition to these two fatalities, there have been at least four others in the last few years, including Joel Melnikoff, of Delmar, who was killed by a drunken driver in 2006 in Feura Bush, and David Ryan, of Niskayuna, who was killed by a teenager driving in excess of 80 mph on a two-lane road in Rexford in 2004. The group stopped at various places along the way while the organizers read the names of the dead. Right after the last stop, near Westgate Plaza on Central Avenue, what had been a cool, windy, drizzly evening suddenly changed. The sun came out, with a clear, golden brilliance that lit up the landscape, a still-dark downtown Albany in the background providing dramatic contrast. The meteorological shift seemed to say, yes, there’s tragedy, but life goes on.

And it all made me think of my sister-in-law, who could easily have joined the list of fatalities when she was hit by a van while riding her bike near Corning, in Steuben County, at the end of April. She was in the hospital for more than a week with a fractured shoulder blade, multiple fractures of the pelvis and severe pain. The weeks since have brought slow improvement; she is still taking pain medication, spends a lot of time in bed, and is unable to get around without a walker or cane. It’s going to take a long time before she is her former strong, energetic self again — but in the last week or so, some real progress has been made. The sun has come out.

The guy who hit my sister-in-law exemplifies one of the dangers that cyclists deal with. He looked right at her — “made eye contact with me,” she says — but, apparently, right through her. “I didn’t see you, lady,” he said afterward.

How can that be? It’s because drivers in the United States, unlike those in Europe and other places, aren’t taught that bicycles are also vehicles and that they must share the road with them. And if they do see them, many consider them an annoyance. “Get off my road, ride on a bike path where you belong,” they are thinking — and sometimes showing with a shout, long honk or tromp on the gas pedal as they roar past. Or, worse, a sudden swerve or cutoff. Or, at the very worst, intentional contact with a mirror or bumper.

Wrong approach

In this and other areas of the country, there is a militant movement of bicyclists, called Critical Mass, who are interested in forcefully staking out their claim to the road. They ride in large groups, shoulder to shoulder, blocking traffic. While I sympathize with their point, I don’t believe this is the best way to make it. In fact, I think their approach is counterproductive because it will lose them the sympathy of otherwise sympathetic motorists.

The best approach is to push for things like mandatory education programs for motorists, as well as cyclists (many of whom don’t know how to ride safely in traffic); improving dangerous crossings like the one at Route 5S (which local cyclists are focusing on as part of a new land-use plan for the Exit 26 area); car-free hours or days on some roads; and more designated bike lanes and routes everywhere.

Also, better roads in general. Schenectady’s have deteriorated to the point where it has become dangerous for even the safest, most experienced cyclist to ride; inevitably one will come to a parked car on the right and an unavoidable pothole in front, forcing a veer to the left into traffic.

Rising gas prices, environmental and health concerns could all be used to get more people to ride their bikes to work, on errands, and for exercise. With historic cities to explore and beautiful surrounding countryside to see, this area could also be a marketable destination for cycle tourists from New York City (getting here by car or Amtrak) or even from Europe, where the Euro is so strong against the dollar.

But not if they see “ghost bikes” everywhere they ride. Let’s start, through a combination of education and physical improvements, making the Capital Region safer for cyclists now.

Art Clayman is the Gazette’s editorial page editor. His column reflects his personal opinions and not those of the newspaper. He can be reached at 395-3133 or [email protected]

Categories: Opinion

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