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Bicyclists call for safer streets in Little Rock 

click to enlarge Tom Ezell image

Diane McConnell, who'd been rendered unconscious since a Nov. 11 accident in which she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle in the Heights, died Tuesday.

On the day of the accident, McConnell was riding her bike home after attending the "Pop Up Main Street" event near downtown. The secretary of the Arkansas Bicycle Club, she'd been an avid bicyclist for decades, taking classes and wearing her helmet and fluorescent vest to try and stay safe.

The day was clear and bright. Approaching the gentle curve on Kavanaugh a block off Cantrell just before 2 p.m., a Ford Fusion came up behind McConnell, then started to pass on the double yellow. We'll probably never know what really happened — whether she was clipped or spooked or just took an unlucky spill at just the wrong moment — but witnesses told police that McConnell's bike fell into the passenger side of the car. According to the accident report, she made contact at the passenger's front door handle of the Ford, then scraped along the side to the rear fender. At that point, she was caught up in the rear wheel of the car and run over.

Since the accident, bicyclists who knew McConnell — some of whom have had their own close calls with cars — have been speaking out, calling for more work and discussion to make the streets of Little Rock safer for bicyclists.

Tom Ezell is a past president of Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas, and had been a friend of McConnell for 10 years. A certified instructor with the League of American Bicyclists, Ezell teaches classes on bicycle safety. He had McConnell in several classes, in fact.

On his laptop, Ezell keeps a long list of all the bicyclists who have been killed in traffic accidents in the state over the past decade, so he can better illustrate for his students the dangers of sharing the road with automobiles. In February 2011, Ezell himself was hit from behind and thrown over his handlebars at a red light near Little Rock City Hall by a motorist who fled the scene. Ezell, who said all he can figure is that the Lord reached down, picked him up off his bike, and put him down in the road, walked away with only a twisted knee. It's a measure of how one bicyclist's spill can be another's grave injury. Ironically, Ezell said, it was Diane McConnell who was the first to reach him to render first aid.

Ezell points out that Arkansas and Little Rock consistently rank low in lists of bicycle-friendly cities. "CNBC two years ago ranked Little Rock as the fourth most dangerous city in the country to try and ride a bike or walk in," he said. In this year's League of American Bicyclists rankings of the most bike-friendly states in the United States, Arkansas came in dead last.

Little Rock's streets are dangerous for bicyclists, Ezell said, because of a combination of factors, including inattentive drivers and speeding. He attributes the excessive speed to the way many streets in the city are designed: wide, unobstructed and open.

"We're used to — I call it — Freeway Driving Mode," Ezell said. "The road's clear? Then hammer down and boogie. When we come off 630, or I-30, or I-40 and get on the [surface] streets, we carry that same mode of behavior with us. ... We need to slow things down by narrowing the street [and] putting in some trees. You create the perception in the driver's mind that he's being tunneled in, and he'll pay a little more attention."

While Ezell sees bike lanes as a great incentive to get people riding, he said they are not an overall solution because they only create the perception of safety, are often intermittent, and usually allow traffic to turn across them. A better solution, he said, is education for both cyclists and drivers, to help them realize the roads belong to everyone.

In his classes, Ezell teaches cyclists who are riding on city streets to ride just like they would a motorcycle or drive a car, staying toward the center of the lane, controlling their space, obeying all traffic laws and staying alert.

"What we teach people is: Ride in traffic," he said. "Arkansas State Law says that all vehicles have the same rights and obligation on the road. We start off by teaching people that cyclists are safest when we obey and follow traffic laws. We're safest when we act and are treated in return like the driver of any other vehicle."

David "Bud" Laumer is an urban planner who is currently teaching courses on planning and sustainable land use at the University of Central Arkansas at Conway. An avid bicyclist who lives in West Little Rock, Laumer has a picture of himself with Diane McConnell taken in front of Little Rock's famous Villa Marre house during the fall of 2009.

Laumer, who has had his own fights with City Hall over the city's attempts to turn his quiet residential street into a major connector, said the city has spent decades making itself into a place where the only safe mode of transportation is cars. Like Ezell, Laumer said that wide streets with long, unobstructed views — a design he said stems from a planning idea called "Forgiving Highways" — give motorists the idea that it's safe to speed, even in residential areas.

"If people can see for a quarter mile up the street, and the street is 60 feet wide, by golly, they can put that foot down and go as fast as they want. ... Then we blame the motorist," Laumer said. "We set up traffic stings and we're nicking motorists and making them pay tickets. Those streets don't tell anybody to slow down."

Instead, Laumer advocates a "New Urbanist" approach that would make narrower streets with more greenery near the road, which he said would "give you a clue where you are and what you should be doing by how they're designed." Laumer said we need to create a mindset in local government that biking, walking and public transit are equal in stature to motor vehicles, and design our streets with that mindset. Not only will they make things safer, Laumer said, bicycle-friendly streets will help the city retain in the workforce creative, educated young people who would prefer to use their bikes as transportation for environmental reasons.

"They're not putting on Lycra and going down to the River Trail," Laumer said. "They're saying: How do I connect the origins and destinations I need to in my daily life without burning a bunch of carbon?"

Little Rock Assistant City Manager Bryan Day called bike-car crashes "an incredible tragedy," and said there are cities around the world where bicycles and cars coexist without bike lanes and signage.

"It's an education process," he said. "That's what Little Rock really needs. We need to embrace and understand that cyclists as well as vehicles are viable modes of transportation, and they have the right to share the roads in most cases."

Day said the city is working to make Little Rock safer for those who want to commute.

"From a recreational standpoint," Day said, "Little Rock gets an 'A.' We do need to do more for those who choose to commute to work by bike, or those who have to commute to work by bike."

Day said the city is working with BACA and other groups to develop north-south and east-west routes for bicyclists, and recently put in bike lanes on 12th Street from Jonesboro Street to Children's Hospital. It's also putting in more public bike racks on Main Street to "subtly promote the concept that it's OK to ride your bike here." Day said the city has also made education about the rights of bicyclists part of the training received by the Little Rock Police Department. After a presentation by local bicycle clubs about "sharrows" — painted markings on the street that depict a bicycle topped by a directional arrow, meant to remind motorists they should share the road — Day said the city has agreed to paint them on a stretch of Kavanaugh Boulevard, including in the area where McConnell was hit.

"You get frustrations from both sides," Day said. "I've had people call and say: 'Why are we doing this for bicyclists, because bicyclists will run stop signs and cut through stop lights?' Then I've had bicyclists say that motorists get too close and honk their horns. There's this common respect issue that we have to work through as a community."

Tom Ezell said he can't count how many times a motorist has honked at him before zooming around, endangering both their lives, only to have Ezell catch the car that passed him at the next red light 15 seconds later. To try and help dispel the notion of bicyclists as obstacles, Ezell teaches motorist education classes, in which he instructs on things like proper passing (state law requires a distance of at least three feet between a moving car and a bicyclist while passing) and the perception that "the cyclist is in my way."

While he admits that getting behind a bicyclist in the middle of the traffic lane can be frustrating for a motorist, Ezell asks drivers to ask themselves if getting there a few seconds faster is really worth a person's life. Sitting in a Main Street coffee shop, looking over the accident report of McConnell's crash, Ezell shook his head.

"It just so happened that at that place, everything came together with carelessness — a careless motorist — to cause that crash," he said. "They're not accidents. Accidents involve some sort of act of God, and they're unavoidable. These crashes are caused by negligence."

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