Three Times Too Many

Probably like you right now, I’m distraught, pissed off and reaching for anything to anesthetize the pain. I know nothing more than you do, other than Debra H. Deem was riding her bike in Newport Beach yesterday when she collided with a motor vehicle — today she is dead. She was 58.

If you’re counting, and if you ride a bike you have it permanently etched into your memory, last September’s 2 women fatalities in 2 days plus today’s loss adds up to three women cyclists dead in one year — three times too many.

Approximate location of the Deem collision

Approximate location of the Deem collision

I learned that she was the wife of former Olympic cycling competitor and owner of Costa Mesa’s Cycle Werx, Paul Deem.


Debra was taken off life support this morning.

The Newport Beach Police Department has been thorough and timely in sharing the basic details; read the latest update here.

A Facebook friend issued a plaintive cry,

Again???? ;(. How can the community help stop this?

And who doesn’t wonder the same question.

Without any details about the crash it’s impossible to make any specific recommendations.

But even not knowing a single detail about the circumstances that led to her death, there’s something else that’s been eating at me.

In two words they call it protected bike paths — I guess that’s three words, but it’s as simple as it sounds. Cities like Chicago and Memphis and Portland and Boulder and Indianapolis and New York City are racing to build protected bike lanes across their cities. Often called separated or green lanes (two words), cyclists are protected from passing cars by various separators — sometimes plastic poles, cement walls and planters, or sometimes parked cars along the curb are simply moved over to accommodate a bike lane along the sidewalk, where it’s safest. One friend once mocked, “You want k-rail?” the unsightliest of the bunch, but aesthetics matter little at a time like this.

What we cannot afford to do is what most other cities preparing their Bicycle Master Plan do — we cannot start with the same tired approaches that other cities started with as much as 2 decades ago — we must leap-frog to the best practices of the most innovative cities in the world if we are to protect our cycling citizens as we should. That means that we must recognize that a bucket of paint is not going to solve many of our problems — painting stripes to mark off bike lanes is negligence when we know that most automobiles are traveling at high speeds driven by distracted drivers.

You know the feeling firsthand — when you’re riding on the beach boardwalk on the peninsula that the risks at hand are many fewer when compared to just about any stretch of Coast Hwy. That protected feeling is what other cyclists deserve as they navigate across town.

When it comes to building safer infrastructure and accelerating the pace of change, there are many other steps to take. The Master Plan is essential, but its preparation will only be the first of many steps. There are hurdles to clear with OCTA and Caltrans and the Coastal Commission and would someone go to Sacramento to get the law that automatically increases speed limits repealed. Yes, those are each major projects in themselves as we craft a strategy to convince, not just our local elected officials, but the agencies that have become enforcers of the status quo and rigid conformists to the dominance of the automobile.

These efforts will dwarf the time and energy we apply to the Master Plan, so why, if we know this now, aren’t we plotting those long-term strategies?

What arguments will we ply on the Coastal Commission? Our case must be solid, but how hard will it be to show them that if we optimize for bikes then access to the coast could be enjoyed by an order of magnitude more?

OCTA and Caltrans will have to listen. There’s a drumbeat signaling major changes in how we build our streets; increasingly streets are recognized as places for people, not just never ending streams of cars. Attitudes are changing as we begin to realize that we can’t afford the massive costs of maintaining the infrastructure we’ve committed to the single family car. Young people today are waiting longer to get their drivers licenses; they’re putting off car purchases; they want to live close in so they can bike to work and walk their neighborhoods. Be careful, if you ponder this for too long you’ll begin to see what a mess we’ve made of our communities, but as we wake up to balancing access for cyclists and pedestrians and children with their dogs we can rise to the challenge and literally, build a better world.

Daunting tasks? Only when seen from a distance.

What can you do to help?

  • Come to the next meeting of the Newport Beach Bicycle Master Plan Oversight Committee, 5pm Tuesday September 3rd at the Civic Center. You may speak during Public Comments.
  • Spend some time this weekend to learn what other cities are doing; listen to these interviews with leading advocates in San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Boulder, Colorado. They’re all 3 giant steps ahead of us.

There’s no guaranteeing that our best efforts will insulate us from future nights of desperation at such senseless loss.

But it’s the best we can do for now and it’s a lot.

 

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