Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Florida Weekly feature article puts spotlight on safety in Southwest Florida

Thanks to Florida Weekly for highlighting the continued need for attention on bicycle and pedestrian safety in Southwest Florida. Be sure to check out the insights from BWL's Darla Letourneau and Margaret Banyan.

Deadly Streets

COURT NEDERVELD IS A BICYCLIST. A ROAD rider. He’s ridden across the United States. He’s journeyed from the Canadian border to New Orleans.
For years he’s spun and mashed those pedals most days a week up and down the southwest coast of the Sunshine State, which leads nonriders to question his sanity, he says. Florida is is now ranked number one as the most dangerous state in which to walk or bicycle somewhere — anywhere.
And now Mr. Nederveld, president of the Peace River Riders bicycling club, is about to leave the North American continent and travel to Spain, where he plans to embark on a 350-mile journey out of Pamplona.
In all his time on the road, the 65-year-old master of a two-wheeled, man-powered cycling machine — first invented two centuries ago and cast in roughly its current design about 20 years before Henry Ford ever put a single internal combustion automobile on the road — has never had an encounter, or even so much as a brush with a motor vehicle.

Steve Rodgers and members of the Caloosa Riders Bicycle Club on a road with no bike lane. 
COURTESY PHOTOS Steve Rodgers and members of the Caloosa Riders Bicycle Club on a road with no bike lane. COURTESY PHOTOSThat’s unusual for long-time bicyclists. Some have been badly injured in accidents. But many have been nudged, brushed or solidly bumped by vehicle mirrors, or forced off the road to avoid being nudged or brushed or worse.
Sometimes they’re merely threatened.
“I was riding onto Sanibel a couple of weeks ago and a guy in a Jeep going the other way started yelling at me to get off the road,” recalls Steve Rodgers, past president of the Caloosa Riders Bicycle Club, who puts in about 125 miles a week on the roads. “I wasn’t anywhere near him; he just didn’t like me.” He’s been bumped, too.
Not Mr. Nederveld.
“It’s about thinking, and I’m confident in controlling my surroundings,” he says, echoing the personal-responsibility, personal-care mantra that most serious cyclists adhere to. It’s about knowing the bike, choosing a safe route and time of day, wearing a helmet, using a mirror, observing laws that apply to cyclists as well as drivers, and avoiding confrontations with drivers who sometimes seem to be looking for trouble.

Retrofitting roads with bicycle lanes or sidewalks is more difficult and much more expensive than designing them in the first place. Retrofitting roads with bicycle lanes or sidewalks is more difficult and much more expensive than designing them in the first place.“I have lights on my bike, I wear brightly covered clothing. And I recommend to all cyclists that they use lights on their bikes even in the day, because if you can increase your chances of being seen even a little bit, that is huge,” says Jane Cheffy, president of the Naples Pathways Coalition.
She learned that again the other day.
“I’ve had so many friends get injured, and I’ve had a mirror on Crayton Road brush my arm. But the other day I was driving my car to the office at 7:50 a.m., and the bright sunlight was in my eyes, blinding me. A cyclist in front of me was riding with flashing lights, and that kept me from hitting him. I really could have hit him. Now that I’ve had this experience from a driver’s point of view, I’m telling everyone I know to ride with their lights on.”
When luck runs out
All of which would be a smart approach for pedestrians, too.
But sometimes what happens is about luck, or the lack thereof.
For almost 2,000 bicyclists and pedestrians in Charlotte, Lee and Collier Counties just in the last four years alone, Mr. Nederveld’s brand of spot-free luck eventually ran out in one degree or another, according to accounts and estimates by planning organizations, law enforcement officials and local cycling organizations such as BikeWalkLee, the most organized and politically active citizens’ group in the region.
They were injured, killed or (if they were lucky) merely had their bicycles damaged or destroyed.
It’s a dismaying number for the many local and state officials along with citizen volunteers who have worked together for years to improve conditions for bicycling and walking, not to mention driving and riding on public transit, in the region.
That effort is a process not yet an achievement, says Darla Letourneau, executive director of BikeWalkLee — one that will be years or decades in the making.
“We’re a suburban sprawl state — it’s why Florida’s safety record is so bad,” she explains. “Two-lane roads got six lanes. We kept widening roads for years without thinking about bicyclists and pedestrians, and people are supposed to cross six lanes of traffic to get to a shopping center. So improving the crash injury and fatality thing is going to take a long time. And if you keep building more high-speed roads that run through neighborhoods, no matter how many bike paths you put out, you still have to cross the busy street. It’s a very long term proposition.”

BANYAN BANYANProgress has been made, no doubt about that, acknowledges everyone taking part in the ongoing debate about how to use money, and where. There are hundreds of miles of bicycling lanes and paths that weren’t here a decade ago. There are education programs and law enforcement audits of dangerous intersections. There is money for what the advocates have long called “Complete Streets” — that almost magical comingling of bicycle, pedestrian and public transit needs with the motor vehicle culture and its needs: for example, $8.8 billion this year alone in the Florida Department of Transportation budget aimed at helping to create complete streets, says Debbie Tower, a spokeswoman for the 12-county District 1 that includes Southwest Florida.
Meanwhile, some of the old planning notions persist, the dinosaur thinking that fails to consider people on foot or bicycle, says Margaret Banyan, an assistant professor of public policy at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Professor Banyan lives in the Tice region of East Fort Myers, one of the county’s older neighborhoods crisscrossed by the fabric of roads, small homes, closely entwined neighborhoods on narrow streets, and vibrant immigrant lives that appeals to her so much, she says.
What does not appeal, however, are the plans some county designers put into place on Palm Beach Boulevard, or laid out to turn Ortiz Avenue into six lanes and make other changes that would accommodate drivers, but not the significant number of walkers and bicyclists in the community.
“On Palm Beach,” she explains, “a big part of the problem is speed, and another part is that there is not a lot of right of way to build sidewalks, and no right of way for bike lanes.”
That wasn’t part of the planning, even when the road was redesigned a few years ago.
“So we sort of said, ‘that’s not an insurmountable problem.’ And we proposed better bike and pedestrian pathways north and south of Palm Beach.
“We know roads and streets can transform communities, and one of those is Honore Avenue. They proposed a six-laner there at first, then a four-laner, then they reduced it to two, with a turn, low-impact greening, great bike-laning and bike walks, and good shade. The drainage, instead of being typical gutter drainage, is low impact, which is good for the environment.”
But other proposed changes in the communities there or elsewhere have remained on the desks of some county officials, advocates say, going nowhere.
And the accident numbers keep going up.
Tossing money at them does help, but it doesn’t solve the problem, say the advocates of safety.
“This unfortunate distinction as the number one state in the country for the highest bike pedestrian fatalities is not a distinction we want to keep, but solving the various problems takes time,” says Ms. Tower of the FDOT.
So nowadays, the FDOT looks at safety on all roads for all users in terms of what Ms. Tower calls “the three E’s: education, enforcement and engineering.”
The money is there, too — $8.8 billion in the budget this year for improving road safety. Sometimes that means studying danger spots to determine future action. Sometimes it means retrofitting what the experts call “Car sewers”: roads that were originally designed only to move motor vehicles, and now accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists or public transit opportunities either poorly or not at all. Sometimes it means putting in sidewalks (which are not recommended for bicyclists since they’re more dangerous than roads).

Court Nederveld 
COURTESY PHOTO Court NederveldCOURTESY PHOTOAnd it employs officials who deeply care — a District 1 engineer named Matt Weaver, for example, whose title is Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Champion for District 1.
When Mr. Weaver and his colleague in District 1, Providance Nagy, received complaints from members of a bikepedestrian committee about travel over the Peace River Bridge on U.S. 41, they decided to climb on their bikes and ride it — several times.

ANDERSON ANDERSON“She was on her mountain bike,” he says of Ms. Nagy, who also serves a reservist in the Marine Corps and has now been deployed to South Africa, “and I was on my somewhat fancier street bike.”
They discovered bolts sticking out of the guardrails into the bike lane, and a lot more trash in the northbound lane because the bridge slants that direction, and it collected there.
As a result, in the coming couple of weeks the shoulder will be marked as a bike lane, and made contiguous with projects north of the bridge so riders will have an easier time.
“The first thing I tell anybody who cares is that first and foremost I’m a citizen cyclist bicyclist runner, and I also happen to be an engineer. If you have any problems, complaints or even suggestions, just get in touch with the DOT. Just call us. We do come to work trying to make things better here,” says Mr. Weaver.
By the numbers
And so do the private organizations in Collier, Lee and Charlotte, first by getting a grip on the problems and the numbers.
Working hand-in-hand with Lee’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (comprised of elected leaders from each local government along with a few staffers), BikeWalkLee offers a map that shows exactly where each reported accident involving a motor vehicle and a bicyclist or pedestrian occurred in Lee County, the most dangerous county on the coast, between 2011 and 2013 — all 1,197 of them.
Those accidents resulted in injuries, fatalities or occasionally just property damage, and they appear in locations from urban center to country road.
The current year has been even worse, to date. The numbers suggest that 2014 is on par to set a several-year record for injuries or fatalities — especially with the snowbirds and late fall tourists set to pour into the region beginning in October.
In Charlotte County as of last month, the sheriff’s office responded to 23 accidents involving bicycles alone during the year, and in Collier that number amounted to 60 as of the last week in August.
But in Lee County the number was more than double Collier’s, and the number of bicycle and pedestrian accidents together have run well over 150 so far in the year, with an unfortunate jump in fatalities. As of late August, 16 bicyclists or pedestrians have been killed on Lee roads. must become much more aggressive in charging drivers who hit bicyclists who are following the rules of the road. And unless an obvious violation has occurred — DUI, for example — they have often been reluctant to charge drivers with any crime, or even to ticket them.
In Collier County, for example, in only four of the 60 accidents involving bicycles and cars investigated this year were citations issued, three of them to the bicyclists.
Police are more aggressive about safety now than they used to be, however. In Charlotte County, for example, “we try to educate the public as much as possible,” says Deputy Dan Cotton, a community policing officer who patrols on a bicycle.
In five years on that job, he’s never been hit or bumped by a motor vehicle. But off the job he was run off the road wile riding his own bicycle. He got the license plate of the road rager, called the company, and accepted an apology from the driver after his boss made him apologize, he recalls.
Meanwhile, “we lead by example. We wear helmets and use lights and have gloves,” he says. “And the sheriff’s office gives away helmets to children. We gave away 159 last month and at another event in September we’ll probably give away 200. We fit the helmet on the person and make sure it’s sized correctly.”
But a change in the way police treat drivers who hit bicyclists is also essential, says Dan Moser, Florida Weekly’s bicycle columnist and a member of BikeWalkLee.
“In enforcement, what I’ve seen is that they do a pretty well-rounded job, now. They’re focusing on the motorist more, especially when it comes to giving citations out.
“That’s what should happen. The killing machine is the car.”
But the issues become more complicated, he admits, because bicyclists and pedestrians often break the rules — in part because the rules don’t work.
“The reason frequently that pedestrians and bicyclists misbehave is because of their experience,” he says. “When they do behave, it doesn’t get them anywhere. For example, they don’t use crosswalks because when they’re in them, they almost get run over. So they say, ‘I’ll go downstream or upstream and cross where I can. I’m protecting my interest.’ In many places they’re facing motorists who don’t even think about their right to be there. And that’s because we’ve designed those roads to accommodate speed and motor vehicles. Only.”
But that problem will not be solved merely by engineering fixes to a few most-dangerous spots, says Don Scott, executive director of Lee’s MPO.
“The sheriff’s department has conducted bike-enforcement events and we’re looking at some of the same old (dangerous) spots — U.S. 41 at Crystal or in old Bonita, the 41 and Del Prado corridors, Palm Beach Boulevard — but one of the problems we face when we say, ‘What are the dangerous locations?’ is that they’re spread out.”
The answer may be an imperfect but still dangerous storm of different factors. Among them, years of bad planning. Streets that are not both safe and accessible. A failure on the part of many drivers to recognize that bicycles are vehicles with the full compliment of road rights — and responsibilities — of any motor vehicles.
For example, on streets that are 14 feet wide or less, bicycles can take the full lane, by law. That’s based on the calculation of 9 feet in width from side mirror to side mirror for a truck, plus another 3 feet of space that motorists are required to give bicyclists, plus 2 feet out from a curb that cyclists are supposed to ride.
And on any streets, while drivers must give a bicyclist a minimum of three feet, by law, bicyclists must stay in bike lanes, where provided. And stop at stop signs or lights.
But even if many other problems could be solved, the old bugaboos still haunt the streets, too: drinking or drugging and riding, either bikes or vehicles. Or drinking and drugging and walking. Or telephoning, texting and ear-budding.
“We’ve become complacent, not only as drivers but as bicyclists and walkers,” says Jay Anderson, executive director of Stay Alive-Just Drive.
“Especially with these electronic devices. It puzzles me to death why someone biking or walking feels it necessary to engage in this behavior. I watched someone riding a bicycle down the sidewalk with their ear to a phone the other day. If you can’t do it driving, why can you do it bicycling?”
The rash of crashes proved so alarming to officials in the Trauma Center at Lee Memorial Health Services that they looked into the details of pedestriancar accidents just in April alone, when people on foot kept getting nailed at significantly higher than the usual recent rates.
“In April alone we had 20 pedestrians hit by autos, and 14 became trauma alerts,” notes Syndi Bultman, injury prevention manager for Trauma Services.
“In April, 2013, by contrast, 12 were hit by autos, with eight trauma alerts.
“We did a further breakdown for April — our average age of victim was 53, although it ranged from 18 to 87. There were 11 males and nine females. Fifteen percent of those had to go up to the Operating Room. And 40 percent required ICU care.”
All that becomes a bloody, costly process for everybody. Perhaps more significantly, however, were these statistics: “Of the victims, 30 percent had alcohol on board, and 25 percent had toxic substances on board — drugs,” Ms. Bultman says.
“In the end, 13 out of 20 were able to go home, four had to go to a rehab facility, one is still here at the hospital, and a couple went to the morgue because they died.”
Those who were killed, she says, “did not have drugs or alcohol aboard.”
That was just in a single month. Ms. Bultman adds this sobering statistic, about pedestrians and the drivers of motor vehicles who hit them: “If you’re the driver, at 30 miles per hour you have a 50-50 chance of killing someone. And at 45 miles per hour it jumps to an 85 percent chance. Your vehicle is a weapon on the roadway. So everybody’s responsibility is to keep your eyes on the road.”
No one disagrees with that. But there are many who don’t follow that advice. ¦

Link to article in Florida Weekly here.

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