Every year in New Mexico there are hundreds of accidents involving people riding bicycles, some of them fatal. But efforts are underway to make the roads safer in Albuquerque by helping cyclists and drivers become more aware of one another.
Eight years ago on the corner of Comanche and Pennsylvania in northeast Albuquerque, avid cyclist Paula Higgins was riding her bike when she was struck by a car in the middle of the intersection. The collision proved fatal for Higgins who died a few hours later. Jennifer Buntz was her one of her long time cycling buddies.
“We don't really know exactly how the crash happened,” Buntz explained. “It was a northbound driver that hit Paula as she was trying to turn left. One witness said that Paula went, and the light was red. The other witness said the driver was running the red light. It never was resolved, but no matter whose fault this crash was, it's a tragedy.”
That tragedy sparked Buntz and some fellow cyclists to form the Duke City Wheelman Foundation. The group started putting up memorials around town—ghost bikes painted white and covered in bright plastic flowers—wherever a cyclist had been hit by a car and later died.
“I avoided this intersection for years,” Jerry Higgins, Paula’s brother lamented as he placed a dozen red roses on the ground next to the pedals of her ghost bike. “It's sort of bittersweet because it acknowledges my sister. It was very sad. That was the worst time in my life when I got a phone call. I went to the hospital, and she was not coming back. That was rough.”
The Wheelman Foundation has put 22 ghost bikes around Albuquerque. Buntz said they help raise consciousness around cycling for both drivers and people on their bikes, because both players need to behave responsibly on the road.
“I had no idea that this ghost bike would have so much meaning,” Buntz said. “Especially to people who aren't cyclists themselves. We trust that the presence of this bike will help prevent another loss of life.”
Fifty-five people have died while riding bikes in Bernalillo County since 1989, when the Department of Transportation started keeping track. Then there are all of the collisions that aren't fatal—on average at least one a week. Julian Paul Butt taught the city’s bike safety and awareness classes for years. He said a lot of cyclists say they’re treated as though they don’t deserve a place on the road, as if bikes aren’t considered to be a legitimate form of transportation.
“Many people view bicycles still as a toy, something you would do as a child. But as soon as you’re in middle school or high school, it’s just something you might do for fitness,” Butt said. “That viewpoint influences how we interact on the road, because it's almost viewed as playing in the road or being in the way.”
Butt said most accidents happen because there's a breakdown in communication between cyclists and drivers, and sometimes some irresponsible behavior. By law in Albuquerque drivers are required to give cyclists at least 5 feet of space when passing them. And just like drivers, cyclists are supposed to obey the rules of the road, such as stopping at lights and using hand signals when they want to make a turn. But not everybody follows the rules, and not all drivers recognize what cyclists are trying to tell them.
“It's safer for everybody,” Butt explained “when that cyclist is acting like a smaller slower car on the black part of the asphalt and really being inside that zone of perception and participating as traffic.”
There are over 300 miles of designated bike routes in the city running parallel with traffic. The problem is that the lanes sometimes drop away where traffic is the heaviest and cyclists have to “run the gauntlet,” as they say, quickly getting through the danger zone to a place where either a bike lane reappears or where traffic isn’t as dense.
The City of Albuquerque is finalizing a new bikeways and trails plan that would fill in some of the gaps. Last year, the city opened Esperanza Community Bike Shop, where anyone can show up and work on their bike for free.
“We get a lot of kids from the neighborhood,” Ryan Harris, who mans the shop, said. “We get a lot of homeless [people] in here and a bicycle is their only mode of transportation.”
Ryan said sometimes those bikes aren’t very safe to ride. The first thing the guys that work at the shop do when people come in is give them a helmet if they don’t have one, and then they check the brakes.
Ryan and his colleagues say when people come to Esperanza, their confidence around bikes skyrockets. And it's as if the more confidence they have while working on a bike, the more confident they are when it comes to riding responsibly.
At this point, about 13,000 people in Albuquerque, cyclists and drivers alike, go through some sort of bike safety awareness program every year. A lot of them are young kids, and the hope is that by the time they have cars, they’ll be hyper-aware of how to drive around cyclists. Maybe they’ll keep riding their bikes, too, because research shows when there are more bikes on the road, there aren’t as many accidents. As the consciousness shifts, what was once irritating—sharing the road—becomes second nature.
The annual "Can You See Us Now?" group bicycle ride promoting traffic safety will take place on September 28th, 2014, in Albuquerque.