Safety Inroads: Despite recent accidents, Columbus is losing its training wheels as a bike city

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From the May 15, 2014 edition

Travis Freeman’s bicycle ride on North Broadway on Feb. 28 was nearly his last.

A turning vehicle failed to yield to Freeman’s right of way, causing a collision that sent Travis straight into emergency surgery to address brain swelling at Riverside Medical Center. It was a month and a half before he started remembering anything. Three months later, he’s still recovering, and he’s not scheduled to be released from Mentis Neuro Rehabilitation facility in Stow until June.

Freeman is a well-known member of the Columbus cycling community with an impressive racing record. He’s an advanced rider with a thorough understanding of cycling and traffic laws. Even still, accidents happen, and this one, particularly, caused many in the local cycling community to take notice.

The City of Columbus, along with cyclist advocate groups and The Ohio Department of Transportation, are working to ensure Travis’ story is one of the last examples of serious cycling accidents in Columbus.

In her role as the City of Columbus' environmental policy advisor, and as a commuter cyclist herself, Leslie Strader is a supporter of bicycle safety across the Capital City.

“Travis’ accident really shook me,” Strader said. “He was scheduled to talk to Mayor Coleman about a project he was working on two or three weeks after the crash. We were all very upset when we heard [what happened].”

Cycling and bike safety has been on Ohio’s radar well before Freeman’s collision.

In 2008, a Bicentennial Bikeway Plan was drafted to act as a blueprint for Columbus’ future as a “world-class cycling city” through a slew of initiatives, including off-street trails, on-street bike lanes, signed shared roadways (often called “sharrows”) and bicycle parking. This year, city officials are updating the plan to improve bike policy and legislation, bike and pedestrian counts, and education.

In 2011, ODOT launched the “Share the Road Ohio” campaign as part of a national effort to promote cyclist safety and driver awareness. ODOT contributed $200,000 in 2009 and $150,000 in 2012 to Columbus’ “Share the Road” campaign, which consists of television spots, billboards, banners, educational materials and special cycling events to make cyclists safer by reminding drivers bikes belong on the road.

“Mayor Coleman is committed to making Columbus a bike-friendly city. It’s important to be proactive and not to wait for crashes to increase before we take steps to ensure safety,” Strader said. “Safety is a shared priority.”

Safe alternative modes of transportation are a priority for cities in part because they are a priority for Millennials. According to a study by the American Public Transportation Association, Millennials are attracted to cities with a “multitude” of transportation options, including bikes.

Columbus officials know this, and included the “loss of young professionals to other regions” as a reason to invest in cycling infrastructure in the The 2008 Bikeway Plan.

Columbus’ bikeability figured heavily into 29-year-old bike commuter Amanda Reynolds-Snavely’s decision to stay in the Arch City. Reynolds-Snavely relies on her bike for most of her transportation needs.

“I am glad I have the option to bike to work. I think [making cycling a viable transportation option] brings people into the city. It’s a major contributing factor in my choice to stay in Columbus,” Reynolds-Snavely said. “I have a CoGo pass just so my friends without bikes can ride along with me. Having cycling as an option helps the city grow.”

As part of Columbus’ “Share The Road” campaign, infrastructure improvements like sharrows and bike lanes are meant to improve rider safety, while bike repair stations, bike parking shelters, and bike censors at stop lights aim to make using a bike for transportation easier. Events like “Bike To Work Day” on Friday, May 16 are designed to increase cyclist visibility and remind drivers they aren’t the only ones using the street.

Reynolds-Snavely has reaped the benefits of Columbus’ continued efforts to make cycling easier for residents.

“I’ve been a bike commuter for four years. I bike nearly every day from Merion Village to the Brewery District and I can tell a difference in drivers and overall safety from when I started riding to now,” Reynolds-Snavely said. “The city has been great at adding bike lanes and other accommodations. It reminds drivers to look out for cyclists.”

According to Ohio Department of Public Safety’s 2012 Ohio Serious Crash Statistics, a total of 1,122 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents that year as opposed to 18 people killed in bike accidents. Based on those statistics, you could say cycling is safer than other modes of transportation.

The numbers don’t lie, but they aren’t telling the full story. Counting the amount of bike and pedestrian traffic is more difficult than counting motor vehicle traffic, making it unclear how many bikes are commuting, and how many commutes end in accidents. It’s important to mention that the same study found roughly 76 percent of bike accidents result in an injury as opposed to roughly 36 percent of motor vehicle accidents.

Even though bike accidents are drastically less frequent than motor vehicle accidents, bike collisions seem more prevalent, due to their nature. Like airline crashes, bike accidents are less frequent, but often more serious than auto accidents.

Executive director of non-profit bike advocacy group Yay Bikes and seven-year bike commuter Catherine Girves hasn’t had an accident. She believes safety is the responsibility of both the cyclist and motorists, and the best way to decrease the number of cycling accidents is to increase the number of cyclists and invest in education.

“The more people who use bicycles on the road, the more cognizant of cyclists the motorists become. I don’t think anyone wants to piss anyone else off. I just think sometimes cyclists and motorists don’t know how to interact together on the road. That is where communication and education comes in,” Girves said. “For the most part [cyclists] are safe on the road, we just need to get to a place where motorists aren’t surprised when they see a cyclist.”

To train cyclists to ride safely in traffic, and increase the amount of interaction drivers have with cyclists on the road, Yay Bikes offers “How We Roll,” an instructor ride-along designed to teach new cyclists how to navigate through a variety of situations.

“The way a cyclist rides makes a difference. When cyclists ride toward the center of the road in a straight line and signal to cars, everybody is safer,” Girves said. “Riding correctly and predictably is something you learn through experience, that’s why we offer ‘How We Roll.’ It’s amazing the transformation you can see in a cyclist in just a two-hour ride.”

Though added measures in education, infrastructure and training reduce the number of cycling accidents, there are still tragic stories like Freeman’s.

The accident has left Freeman with neurological damage. His mother, Wanda Freeman-Dixon, hopes that her son is fully restored to the enthusiastic young man he once was, but is cautiously keeping an open mind about the outcome of his recovery.

“I don’t think people really understood the ramifications of the accident. I can see it in his friends’ eyes when they speak to him, they realize he isn’t the Travis they knew,” Freeman-Dixon said. “Of course I pray that he is fully restored, but right now there are still pieces of him missing.”

According to Freeman-Dixon, after the second surgery to replace the piece of Travis’ skull that was removed during the initial surgery, Travis regressed.

“Everything was a question. Questions like ‘Will he be able to feed himself again,’ or ‘Will he be able to run his business again,’ kept running through my head,” Freeman-Dixon said. “I didn’t know if he would be able to communicate.”

Though the past months have been a veritable hell for Freeman-Dixon, she has found unparalleled support from the cycling community her son was a part of.

“The accident happened on a Friday, and by the following Wednesday a fundraising event had been organized by Travis’ friends. One couple even promised to keep his dog Harley as long as he needed,” Freeman-Dixon said. “It was completely humbling. I consider myself a private person, but the community response completely renewed my faith in humanity. I asked Travis if he realized how many lives he had touched.”

As a true testament to his love for cycling, Freeman can’t wait to get back on his bike.

“I loved the feeling of freedom I got when I was on my bike,” Freeman said. “I can’t wait to start riding again.”

Even Freeman-Dixon is supportive of her son riding again, despite the accident.

“Bikes have literally saved my son’s life,” Freeman-Dixon said. “When he was younger, his friends got into partying, and Travis could have gone down that road, but he chose bikes instead. The physical shape he was in from cycling has helped his recovery. I’ve never seen a bigger smile than the day in recovery he got on a stationary bike for the first time.”

The City of Columbus, ODOT and advocacy groups continue to work together to further infrastructure improvements and promote safety. Overall, it appears to be working.

Bikeleague.org ranked Ohio the 16th most “bike friendly” state, earning 45.1 points based on the state’s legislation and enforcement, policies and programs, infrastructure and funding, education, and planning in 2014. A year earlier in 2013, Ohio was ranked 32nd, and only received 28.4 points based on the same criteria.

“An ordinance that would legally stipulate motorists give cyclists three feet of space when passing is going in front of Columbus City Council,” Girves said. “But to be honest, most Columbus motorists I’ve come in contact with already do that. I think people’s attitudes toward cycling are changing for the better.”

The City of Columbus is slated to begin construction on a Near East Side bikeway this summer, and is currently working on a shared-use path on St. Rt. 161 among other projects.

As for Freeman and his family, they are focusing on his recovery and optimistic about his eventual return home, and to the road.

“His tentative release date from Mentis is June 22. We hope it happens, we want to celebrate his birthday at home on June 23,” Freeman-Dixon said. “Though there are still pieces of him missing, I know Travis. He is a determined guy. He’ll find a way.”

Photos by Meghan Ralston