Editor's note: Missourian reporter and bicycle commuter Sasu Siegelbaum assesses the bicycle infrastructure and general safety for commuting cyclists in the city and compares them with other cities where he's lived and cycled.
COLUMBIA — One bright mid-October morning I was hit by a car and learned to fear the streets of Columbia.
A gold four-door Toyota Camry had rolled through the stop sign at Providence Road and Cherry Street and struck me as I was crossing the street on my bicycle. I stood up, slowly rotated my torso to test my back and picked up my bicycle. Uninjured but shaking uncontrollably on wobbly legs that I wasn’t sure could propel me home, I noticed a four-inch-wide dent in my bicycle frame and a rickety front wheel that would eventually set me back $60 in repairs. But that damage did not compare to the loss of the feeling of safety and security I’d had on two wheels.
I asked the driver why he hadn’t seen me or halted at the stop sign. "I never saw the sign," he said.
He had a point: At the time of our collision the sign was concealed by tree branches and shrubs.
He apologized and drove off.
While the stop sign has since been cleared of brush, the obstructed north-facing view remains. But despite noticeable improvements to bicycle accessibility and safety in Columbia, parts of the city are still dangerous for commuting cyclists. High speed limits, blocked views, no bike lanes, and cyclists and drivers who ignore driving laws have made Columbia a disconnected obstacle course.
Of the 30 improvement projects that the city is considering during its second round of GetAbout Columbia projects, only two target intersections. The previous round completed three intersection improvements. That means for now, what Columbia sees — in regard to its intersections — is what it gets. And that is a well-used and connected network of trails that benefits the casual cyclist or the commuter fortunate enough to have easy access to the MKT Nature and Fitness Trail.
Where cyclists get respect
I've been cycling since I was 6 years old. I began riding in Finland, a place where, like many other northern European countries, there are more bicycles than cars. Finland ranks sixth globally in bicycles per capita. It's common to see the streets of Helsinki flooded with bell-ringing bicyclists, especially during warmer weather.
Finland, like its western neighbors Norway and Sweden, is an urbanized country with a small, concentrated population in a big space; Missouri's population is larger by nearly 750,000 people, while Finland is three times the size of Missouri. This may appear to complicate bicycle transportation, especially given the long, cold and dark winters, yet governmental spending on public transit (which as of 2005 comprised nearly 25 percent of all transportation funding) facilitates bicycle accessibility. Heavy-rail trains that connect Finland's cities, for example, typically permit cyclists to bring their bikes aboard.
Freiburg, Germany, a university town of more than 200,000 has invested $88 million in bicycle infrastructure improvements since 1986. These investments have resulted in 10,000-bicycle trips per day and 10,600 fewer tons annually of carbon dioxide.
Renting a bicycle in Freiburg costs about $25 a week. Wide, clearly marked bicycle lanes and traffic lights that display silhouettes of cyclists inspire rider confidence while providing easy, comfortable access throughout the city.
An easy bicycle commute can be found in North America, too.
In Cambridge, Mass., where I grew up, having a car can be more of a hassle than getting around on the human-powered two-wheel machine. Wide, multicolored bicycle lanes that snake through the city’s multitude of one-way streets and main thoroughfares are prominently demarcated in America's "original college town." Crosswalk signs there also display bicycles alongside pedestrians, and hundreds of riders join in on the monthly cycling advocacy event, "Critical Mass,” which encourages commuters to travel via bike.
More bicycling meant more safety in Portland, Ore., according to Ted Curtis, program coordinator of the GetAbout Columbia initiative.
"What happens is that when there are more bicycles around drivers become more aware and watch for them, so the actual accident rate tends to go down," Curtis said.
Challenges to becoming “bike-friendly”
In America, transportation infrastructure design and transit funding are generally geared toward moving cars. The automobile has long been one of this country's national obsessions, and Columbia is no outlier in its car-centered design.
Narrow or impeded bicycle lanes, dangerous intersections with obstructed views and drivers who disobey traffic laws are all daily realities for cyclists in the U.S. A YouTube video by a New York City cyclist displays some of these risks. Ellen Thomas, daughter of former mayor Darwin Hindman, told the Missourian in 2006 that her accident in Columbia at the intersection of Stewart and Providence roads was caused by a driver who ran a red light.
National dependence on the automobile, however, appears to be the biggest obstacle, said Ian Thomas, who has served as executive director of PedNet, a Columbia-based bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group, since 2000. Thomas recently announced his candidacy for the Fourth Ward city council seat. He said that urban planning and civil engineering are two key areas that can change the ways we get around.
"I think that — long-term — it's important to change the education for traffic engineers by getting away from an intense focus on the purpose of transportation system design being to use cars as quickly and conveniently as possible," he said.
Thomas also discussed Denmark as an exemplary model for bike safety. "Look at Denmark where 30 percent of all journeys are accomplished by walking and biking," he said. "People in Denmark don't wear helmets because it's extremely safe, and the risk of being hit by a car is much lower."
It might sound attractive, but shifting away from car travel is probably the least popular way to bolster cycling and walking in a country that spends almost $50 billion per year to maintain its roads and highways, according to an NBC News article. It seems that alternative transport is generally restricted to certain neighborhoods or cities.
So how does Columbia stack up?
Bicycling in Columbia
Since 2006, Columbia has received $27.9 million in federal grants to improve the city's bicycle access. Under former Mayor Darwin Hindman, the city started dozens of safety improvement projects, including the construction of bicycle lanes and paths, downtown bike corrals and intersection alterations.
One of those projects addressed the intersection of Providence and Stewart which has undergone a safety makeover complete with a car-free underpass that connects to MKT.
Now, instead of riding beside cars going 35 mph on a stretch of Providence or having to make a complicated turn from Stewart into oncoming traffic, cyclists can opt for a brief strip of sidewalk and choose to get on MKT, or swoop right under a car-free underpass leading downtown or to MU.
Thomas said that he knew of four accidents that had occurred at that intersection before the improvements, including one that involved his wife, Ellen Thomas. Thomas said that that area is now much improved.
"That intersection has been tightened, pedestrian crossing signals have been added and the speed of traffic turning has been reduced," he said. "There are also bike lanes along Stewart Road. This has helped make it a much safer intersection."
Between 2009 and 2011 only one cycling accident had been reported there.
Other projects that addressed heavily trafficked intersections: Stadium and Forum, Stadium and Providence and Providence and Green Meadows have made bicycle commuting safer.
These improvements appear to have put Columbia on a truly pedestrian and bicycle-friendly path.
A 2011 national report by the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership and Transportation for America organization called "Dangerous by Design," addressed pedestrian and bicycle safety in Missouri.
Of the seven cities the study analyzed in Missouri, Columbia ranked third in terms of pedestrian fatalities (19) and fatality rate per 100,000 people (1.2) between 2000-2009. A previous study from 2009 also indicated that Columbia had the highest percentage of workers walking to work (4.8 percent) and the lowest Pedestrian Danger Index — a measure of the rate of pedestrian deaths relative to the amount of walking residents do on average.
But statistics can only go so far.
Safety, as I discovered from speaking with bicycle advocates and reviewing police statistics, is often based on individual perceptions and judgments. Accident statistics, for example, do not indicate usage. Fearful riders often avoid certain areas that statistics may indicate are safe.
The real challenge, then, is for the city to foster an environment where cyclists, pedestrians and cars can comfortably coexist with the funds that remain. Future projects, however, won't necessarily address the difficulty of commuting to downtown Columbia or MU for cyclists living west of Providence Road.
Where to go (by bicycle) from here
In terms of infrastructure, safe cycling in Columbia is restricted to particular areas fortunate enough to have trails, updated intersections or clearly marked bicycle lanes. Riding along certain main thoroughfares, such as Broadway, Providence Road or College Avenue is a risk and often attracts verbal abuse from wary drivers.
For now, Columbia might not be able to compare itself favorably with other bicycle-friendly university cities such as Berkeley, Calif., Freiburg, Germany, or Bologna, Italy, but its achievements are there for all to see.
Overall, my experience has been positive, and I wouldn't trade my commute for a warm car ride. Since the accident, I've learned that I need to act more like a defensive motorist than a fearful sidewalk-riding cyclist. Meanwhile, the joy that the cold morning wind in my face and the cardiovascular alarm clock that cycling to MU provides outweighs my fear of another accident.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed