A slideshow has been running on my TV, all my favorite cycling photos of the year, but the story of the year boils down to one: the tragedies involving women cyclists and the women who would rise to the occasion to create good and lasting outcomes.
We remember the events as if they all happened just last month.
Thursday September 13th La Quinta resident Betty Bustrum was hit by a pickup truck pulling a “5th wheel” trailer. As we too often hear, the driver didn’t know he hit anyone. We all know this dangerous spot, Dover at Coast Hwy eastbound where the road narrows creating a pinch point for cyclists. Betty was seriously injured, but would survive; she’s walking with a cane and hasn’t got back on her bike yet. In some ways, she’s the lucky one.
The next morning Sarah Leaf would fall under the wheels of a passing truck as they both turned right at Bayside Drive off Coast Hwy eastbound. Sarah at 28 was the epitome of a beautiful, fit young woman with an emphasis on nutrition and healthy lifestyle. She died at the scene.
Before the cycling community could digest this tragedy, disaster struck again, in less than 24 hours. This time on Newport Coast Drive, Dr. Kit Campion would be struck from behind by a distracted or impaired driver. She died hours later. The driver fled the scene, but was captured in only 2 days due to a solid police investigation.
The entire community, whether you rode a bike or not, was shaken to its core. Our streets showed how dangerous they can be; in a freak of coincidence, the unlikely statistic of a string of 3 major crashes was hard to reconcile.
The Newport Beach Citizens Bicycle Safety Committee would meet for a special study session the following Monday – not to discuss the tragedies, ironically – bike-share systems were on the agenda. Granted, the meeting was planned a month prior, the timing was just coincidental. The planned agenda seemed out of touch, yet my motion to adjourn in favor of listening to the the throng of 160 angry and mourning cyclists failed for lack of a second. Mayor Gardner ended the meeting instead and the Committee sat and listened to everyone who would speak. Anyone who was there will never forget.
I wouldn’t learn until later that one woman, April Morris, approached the Mayor with an idea of a Memorial ride. The Mayor would call her back the next day and the wheels would be set in motion for an even larger outpouring from the cycling community.
If you felt the Bike Safety Committee was a toothless tiger, you were surprised; we had several ‘shovel-ready’ projects soon to implement. The outcry from the community got things moving faster. Although the Mayor wanted a 6 month outreach program to grease the skids for painting Sharrows on Coast Hwy through Corona del Mar, six days seemed too long after what we had all seen could happen in 3; she relented and pushed for installation as soon as possible. A quicker, lighter marketing plan was put together using light pole banners and the portable electronic signs the Police lent to alert motorists that “Sharrows were coming – Share the Road”. Halloween night Sharrows were painted, the first in California to appear on Coast Hwy as it’s known locally, Hwy 1 or Pacific Coast Hwy elsewhere. It was a major demonstration that the City meant business when it came to cycling safety. Advocates up and down the State took notice.
There was more to come, this time from the City Council. On September 25th the Council surprised everyone by announcing a Memorial Ride, a study to assess long term staffing within Public Works for bicycle safety issues and the big item, a Bicycle Safety Improvement Fund. Based on input from the community, the City would establish a fund and all contributions to the fund would be matched $3 to every dollar contributed. I’d heard of similar funds with a match, often used to stimulate venture capital. This was a dramatic gesture, but would it generate the funds needed to make a significant impact on safety?
I sat in the audience that night in the Council chambers; in my lap I held the outline of remarks I planned to make during public comments. The news of this fund made my points moot. Instead, as the public made its way to the podium my mind was racing. When my turn to speak came, I saw an opportunity to prime the pump – I made the first donation to the fund to the tune of $10,000.
I’ve stood at the podium at other times, to beg for consideration on issues related to bike safety and more personal requests, too, but this night would generate a buzz like no other time before the Council — the fund was off to what would become a roaring success.
It was the combination of the Memorial Ride and the fund that would move April Morris into a role where she would exert great influence and impact. The way to get the fund started might be to sell t-shirts for the ride. It was a start that would snowball, like the ride itself, into a huge outcome.
Today we have $76,000 in the Memorial Fund, once the City makes its match the fund will be a $300,000 war chest to address the most glaring safety hazards cyclists encounter on Newport Beach city streets.
How did we get to such a successful outcome? With lots of effort and a great team of volunteers. The Memorial Ride surprised everyone – the community came out in force. Some estimated 1800 riders and walkers gathered the morning of October 28th outside Whole Foods at Fashion Island. The ride itself so short, just a single lap around Newport Center Drive, a total of 1.2 miles. Distance wouldn’t matter this day.
Newport Beach felt the anguish of loss and gathered its strength to move forward in a unique and positive way. The fund stands as a novel approach to kick-starting individual involvement in bike advocacy and could become a model for cities elsewhere facing similar tragic circumstances. The efforts of the Police Department, Public Works and the City Council have shown how strong this City can be when it faces unimaginable grief. As a result, cities north and south are inspired and the goal of making city streets safer for cyclists has taken a small, but significant step to the brighter future many of us hope to picture.
What will the fund be used for? The list of needs is so great, almost any improvements on any number of problem intersections would yield safety benefits.
Betty Bustrum has a wish,
I am thrilled at the amount that was raised, and my hope and wish would be, is to have it go towards helping prevent other fatalities and serious bike accidents.
Most encouraging were the recent words of re-elected City Council member Ed Selich, who because he ran unopposed, wanted to share his goals for his new 4-year term: a Master Bicycle Plan for the City. A comprehensive plan to improve access and safety could have a big impact. It’s reason enough to cheer the New Year.