Cycling in Washtenaw County
by Emy Deshotel
From the February, 2021 issue
On June 27th, 2020, I hopped on my bike to go to the store. I felt so free as I rode through the mostly empty streets of Ypsilanti Township that I decided to just ride around and soak in the beautiful summer day. But fear replaced freedom as soon as I turned onto E. Clark Rd.
That stretch of Clark has a 45-mph speed limit and no bike lane or sidewalk; there isn't even a shoulder. With a ditch to my right, I clung to the fog line and looked for an opportunity to turn off.
To my left, I saw a neighborhood street in the distance. I quickly glanced behind me for approaching vehicles and saw only a white SUV that was quickly closing the gap between us. After letting it pass, I made my turn.
What I hadn't seen was the pickup truck hidden behind the SUV. It rammed into me, pressing me into the gravel as it rolled over my body. My helmet protected my head, but the impact resulted in extreme road rash, a broken pinky finger, several severe lacerations, and multiple breaks in my left leg. I was unable to walk for several months.
I do not drive and use my bike as my main mode of transportation. Since moving to Michigan from Louisiana two years ago, I have ridden as a commuter, a recreational cyclist, and a bicycle delivery person for the Jimmy John's on Ann St.
Most of my cycling has been on a single-speed track bike, but I quickly realized that was unsustainable on Ann Arbor's hills and bought a geared bicycle from a friend. I was making a delivery on it in 2019 when I followed a car turning left onto Huron from N. Seventh. It's a staggered intersection, with Seventh sidestepping eastward before it continues south. I hadn't seen that the driver was cutting in front of an oncoming car. I was lucky to be uninjured that
time, but my bicycle was destroyed.
I've had several close calls on N. Main. Delivering sandwiches to customers on Huronview Blvd. meant sharing a 45-mph road with cars rushing to or from the expressway, then crossing four lanes of high-speed traffic. There's no bike lane, and the only sidewalk ends near Lakeshore Dr.
Sidewalks present their own challenges. Visibility tends to be more limited on sidewalks because obstructions block the view of driveways and cross streets. In some areas, like Ypsilanti's business district, cycling on the sidewalk is not allowed and in downtown Ann Arbor, heavy foot traffic puts both pedestrians and cyclists at risk.
In October, 2019, I bought "Marvelous Marvin," a GenZe electric bike from Human Electric Hybrids. Marvin has drastically increased my cargo-carrying ability, and extended how far I am able to travel. But because it tops out at 19 mph--a speed I can easily reach without electric assistance--the law makes no distinction between it and my track bike; in fact, the police report on my Clark Rd. crash didn't even mention that Marvin is electric.
With or without electric assistance, cyclists are constantly in situations where our safety is disproportionately compromised. Ann Arbor has been working to expand its bike lane network for decades, but it is still inadequate at critical points. Deliveries across the Broadway Bridge were always perilous, because the bike lane on N. Division ends just before you reach it. When bike lanes, like the ones on W. Liberty, are littered with gravel, branches, I must quickly consider which is more dangerous: the pothole that will surely result in a flat tire, or the car creeping up behind me. When, most often, the road does not have a bike lane, I cling to my handlebars as cars zip past at high speeds, hoping they'll give me the three feet of clearance state law requires.
Ann Arbor, which promotes itself as bicycle-friendly, has its own law increasing the clearance requirement to five feet. The city opened its first protected bike lane on William St. in 2019, and another on First St. was nearly complete when construction halted last fall. Temporary, experimental bike lanes were installed last year to test their effectiveness in high-stakes areas like the Broadway Bridge.
Plans call for the First St. lane to connect to the envisioned Treeline Trail, and from there to Washtenaw County's 'Border-to-Border Trail (B2B), along the Huron River. After years of halting progress, a public/private partnership has the B2B growing fast, with several new segments opened last year. It will eventually run continuously for seventy miles and connect to a statewide trail network. Closer to where I live, Ypsilanti has added a bike lane to W. Cross St., and Ypsi Township recently finalized a twenty-year, non-'motorized transportation plan that will add bike lanes to many of the township's narrow, high-speed roads.
But even when bicycle infrastructure is implemented, it can be exclusionary. Longtime cycling advocate Ken Clark points out that the experimental bikeway on the Broadway Bridge and the protected lane on William are too narrow to accommodate bicycle trailers--an especially relevant concern after one-year-old Althea Kantola-Palmer was killed while in a bike trailer after her mother as struck by a driver on Lakeview Drive in Ypsilanti Township.
And while infrastructure plays a big role in cycling safety, Clark believes, that's not the worst problem. "It's motorists' attitude."
When Clark was a U-M student in 1988, a frustrated driver got out of his car at South University and Washtenaw, pushed Clark off his bike, then proceeded to kick him several times. Clark has had his fair share of run-ins with motorists since.
As recently as November 2019, he was knocked off his bike on the Broadway Bridge when a passing driver merged too early. At a traffic light downtown, a driver accelerating aggressively after the signal changed demolished his rear wheel. He narrowly avoided one crash when a motorist zoomed past him, then abruptly slammed on the brakes. Drivers have thrown things at him and even threatened to shoot him.
Clark says a major contributing factor to such attitudes is the way police enforce traffic laws. "They're not really interested in enforcing laws that help cyclists," he says, "because they don't think they're important."
Clark has been wrongfully stopped by police on several occasions, and was once ticketed for riding in the center of the lane on Plymouth Rd. A judge dismissed the ticket, ruling that Clark had acted responsibly and did what was best for his own safety in an area with limited visibility. Clark has also been stopped by police for failing to ride on the sidewalk and for failing to ride in a snow-covered bike lane, neither of which is legally required.
Why is there such a lack of knowledge among police and drivers? Clark says it has to do with a lack of follow-up. "Michigan drivers self-educate to think that speeding is normal, cyclists don't belong on roads, the cyclists 'ask for it' so passing closely isn't a problem, and bike lanes are optional for motorists and mandatory for cyclists.
"They actually learn in drivers' ed that those are all wrong, but they forget those lessons in short order," he says. "There are no follow-up examinations in Michigan, and the police enforce the motorists' perspective."
When motorists aren't hostile and are following the laws to the best of their knowledge and ability, the worst can still happen.
After he hit me, the pickup's driver stopped immediately and ran back to see how I was. Weeks later, when I learned his name from the police report and called him, Michael Laster told me that he himself was once a frequent bicycle commuter.
As he came up behind me on Clark Rd., "I was watching you," Laster said. "I thought you were going to turn but then you let the SUV pass you so I assumed you were going to go straight. I thought it was safe to pass."
Laster had to guess because I did not signal my turn. While Michigan law requires cyclists to signal turns, I did not feel it was safe to do so on Clark, because it would have required me to stick my arm out into traffic. I didn't even think about stopping to look back, because there was no place to pull over. It would be easy to say that the accident wouldn't have happened if I had only signaled. I could just as easily say that I would have been able to see Laster's truck if there was a bike lane or a shoulder for me to ride in.
Even experienced bikers can have dangerous misconceptions about what's safe and what's legal. Laster said when he rode his bike, he rode against traffic. But while that is recommended for pedestrians, it is actually illegal for bicyclists. On roads like E. Clark with no shoulder, meeting a bike head-on can force cars to pull into the oncoming lane to avoid them, or even come to a full stop. Cycling with the flow of traffic allows drivers to slow down and wait for an opportunity to safely pass.
Laster also told me he "gave the cars their space," and said point-blank that he would have never placed himself in the situation I found myself in. This mentality may be safer individually, but it's dangerous collectively, because it distributes the weight of bike safety equally on the shoulders of cyclists and drivers. Yes, cyclists do have a responsibility to be safe on the road, but I would argue that ethically, drivers bear more responsibility, because their capacity to do damage is so much greater.
Unfortunately, current legal trends seem to point in the opposite direction. Even drivers who hit and kill cyclists while driving negligently are rarely charged with manslaughter. In January, a Florida woman pled no contest to careless driving and was sentenced to community service and a six-month license suspension. She had driven into a group of cyclists while speeding and distracted, killing two and injuring five.
Though Laster and I have some opposing views on bicycle safety, he is exactly the kind of driver I want on the road.
"Hitting you has made me a better driver," he said. "I'm never going to assume that I know what a cyclist is going to do ever again."
All road users are unpredictable and should be treated as such by everyone, regardless of their transportation method. While it is unfortunate that Laster learned this lesson through such a traumatizing incident, he is one more driver making roads safer for cyclists.
The need for more educated drivers is urgent because cyclists cannot afford to wait for infrastructure changes. In Ann Arbor, 471 cyclists have been injured in the past decade, and four have been killed. Throughout all of Washtenaw County, 736 cyclists were injured in accidents and twelve were killed.
More inclusive infrastructure will help, but without sweeping changes to how drivers interact with cyclists and how police approach and perceive cyclists, more people are sure to be hurt. Cyclists have to do their part, too, by wearing their helmets, using their lights at night, and educating each other as well as other road users about bicycle safety. More importantly, we can simply ride our bikes because the more we ride, the more awareness we raise.
Two surgeries and seven months after being hit, I am doing my part. I am back on my bike, thanks in large part to the generosity of my friends in the Ann Arbor cycling community who donated their time, money, and labor to fixing Marvelous Marvin.
I ride as often as I can manage. I ride because nothing feels more like freedom than two wheels on asphalt. But more importantly, I ride because every time I am on my bike, I give a voice to the cyclists who weren't as lucky.
from Calls & Letters, March 2021
"Thanks so much for printing Emy [Deshotel]'s story in the February issue," Ian Ogden emailed on behalf of bicycle repair and training cooperative Common Cycle. "Though difficult to read, it was a too-common story touching on serious issues facing vulnerable road users in Washtenaw County."
But Ogden also pointed out an error in the caption of our photo of Deshotel with her repaired e-bike, which "identifies the site where Emy is standing as that of the Common Cycle workspace. While several Common Cycle volunteers, along with the broader community of bicycle users in Ann Arbor, contributed toward ensuring Emy's bike was repaired, it was the mechanics at Sic Transit who conducted the repairs and got Emy's bike back on the road.
Pictured is Sic Transit's (now-'former**) location at Broadway & Moore, and we're happy to ensure their team is credited for their work.
"**Several months ago, Sic Transit moved out of this space and into the former St. Vincent DePaul store."
Igor Belopolsky also caught the error, noting that "Common Cycle is on Huron near the yoga studio."
Richard Baker left a voicemail pointing out that "not once is the importance of mirrors talked about, and the person talked about does not have a mirror on her bike or on her helmet. Even cars are required to have mirrors on them. In several instances, if that person had a mirror, I think some of these accidents would not have occurred."
We gave Deshotel a mirror, and wish her safe riding in the future.
[Originally published in February, 2021.]
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