Issue October 8, 2008

Another ghost bike

The ghost bike you may have noticed chained to a tree on Bardstown Road between Baxter and Grinstead is for Jen Futrell. She was 29 years old when, riding in the brightness of a pleasant mid-afternoon last Tuesday, she was struck by a van that, by early accounts, was attempting to pass a TARC bus. She died Saturday. 

I knew Jen — not well, but we were more than acquaintances. We met a few years ago, at an early 8664 event. Most of the room had cleared following the presentation, and we kinda stood there looking at each other, probably wondering what the other was doing hanging around late, getting the finer details. Jen, her friend and I ended up at a bar nearby, drinking beers for a few more hours and discussing the future of downtown, a subject on which she had strong, clear opinions — most, but not all, I shared. Her passion for specialized civic subjects was refreshing. She told me she wanted to buy a big old building in west downtown — maybe near Shippingport — and establish a community where she and some friends could live cheaply and without interference. 

She was that night, as was often the case when we would cross paths — at a rock show, at a bar, at a political event — on her bike. It was a mode of transportation for her as well as, based on our conversations, a cause. 

We kept in touch by way of random encounters, and I knew more about her political outlook than anything remotely personal. She had no qualms telling me I was full of shit (when I have been), and I always valued our conversations for their unusual depth and, really, for her unusual honesty. She was an absolutely compelling person, and full of real courage — not so much the kind it takes to tell someone you don’t much know that he’s full of shit as the kind of person who could stand alone at the end of a plank and absolutely flourish. 

It is with this in mind that I keep writing this column, as part of me is already feeling profound guilt for putting her death into this context, although it is clearly a worthy one: Our city is on the precipice of a culture change that will welcome the massive increase in cycling we’re seeing. We are not yet there. 

The night Jen’s friends unveiled the ghost bike, just a few blocks away, a drunk driver struck a woman riding down East Broadway. She was hospitalized and, by all accounts, is OK. 

About six weeks ago, Cindy Green was riding her bike on East Broadway near Campbell Street, heading toward the Highlands, when an elderly woman hit her from behind. The car propelled Cindy forward at uncomfortable speed, but she maintained balance and never hit the ground. She was able to stop, carry her bike — frame bent from the impact — onto the sidewalk and seek help. The driver later said she didn’t even realize she’d hit a cyclist.

In July, Vance Kokojan was killed after being struck on Outer Loop. He, like Jen, was an experienced, avid cyclist, as was Chips Cronen, the man killed last year on the Second Street Bridge by another careless driver.

Both state and city law inform that cyclists are to be treated essentially the same as motorists. I obey traffic signals for the most part (a scant few are impractical for a cyclist in traffic) and try to be courteous with drivers; I will claim a lane in congestion, so as to avoid being nudged into the gutter by a passing car. Other cyclists choose different riding styles that still fall within what’s legal (it is illegal, for instance, to ride on the sidewalk if you are older than 11), much as people drive their cars in many different ways. Drivers should be adaptive to this. 

But when a driver kills a cyclist, and the driver is found to have simply committed an “accident” — almost always the case — there is no legal recourse. No consequence to promote further awareness. This is a blind spot in the law that needs attention. 

For as much disagreement as there can be between cyclists and motorists, the reality is that car vs. bike is simply not a fair fight. Not once. Not ever. The moment there is a consequence for running down a cyclist with your car is the moment the culture starts to change in a meaningful way, and drivers suddenly remember that they’re not the only ones on the road. The cyclists mentioned were, by all accounts available, following the rules. 

Call the mayor. Metro Council. State reps and senators. Try out SafeStreetsLouisville.org or BicyclingforLouisville.org, both excellent and active organizations with more specific suggestions about changes in the law than my space allows me to make here. 

And please, be careful.