When I decided to go car-free and began bike commuting to work people thought that I had gone a bit nuts. The biggest issue was that I worked on the north side of the city, 16 miles from my south Austin apartment. I was able to bike four miles in the afternoon to the light rail and get off at the station very close to the news station where I worked, but when I got out of work at 11:00 PM the light rail was no longer operating. So, I biked 16 miles home five nights a week. These days my bike commute is only 4.5 miles each way and I leave work at 5 PM. Sometimes I think about that long, dark ride home that I used to pedal every night and I can’t believe I made the harrowing trek for one year. It didn’t seem so crazy at the time because I was determined to make cycling a part of my everyday life and that commute was just something that I had to do.
This week my former news station back in Lexington, Kentucky has been following the story of Cherokee Schill. She is a mother of two who bikes 18 miles each way for her work commute. Part of her route takes her down US 27, which is a very busy stretch of roadway between Nicholasville and Lexington, KY. She does this everyday, at the mercy of the weather and the abuse of angry drivers. She does it to provide for her family and because she doesn’t have another commuting option. Recently the county attorney sought to ban Schill from US 27. She’s already been cited by local authorities three times for reckless driving. Schill received word Tuesday night that she will be able to continue riding the roadway while she awaits her jury trial in August.
When I first saw this story on my news feed I immediately became incensed and jumped into the online debate. This case carries potentially huge implications for bike commuters across the US. If Schill is banned from her local highway, where else will cyclists be deemed an “inconvenience” or “risk” to drivers and prohibited from riding? In the promo for the story the news station referred to Schill “as not your typical bike commuter” which I asked the station to clarify. Really, what is a typical bike commuter? In my mind, it is the same as a motor vehicle commuter. It is someone who wants to get from point A to point B.
Since then a former WKYT colleague who is one of the news anchors and an avid cyclist responded that he and others in the local cycling community consider Schill to not be a typical bike commuter because US 27 is such a busy and dangerous roadway. Plus she’s really the only person attempting to ride it and five days a week at that. I appreciate his response and can understand that perspective just as I now see how dangerous my dark trek home from work was every night.
However, I still take issue with certain commuting behaviors being deemed “typical” or “not typical.” Bike commuting in America is in itself not the norm. According to the US census, Cyclists accounted for .61% of commuters as of 2012 or just under 865,000 people. Drivers feel inconvenienced, enraged, or fearful of cyclists because they are the minority vehicle on the roadway. Therefore, they become reactive towards the cyclists. Sometimes the reaction is an aggressive behavior such as honking, yelling, passing dangerously close, or even trying to swerve into them as a group fellow cyclists in Austin experienced this past weekend. Or perhaps they just get to work and complain about the damn bike rider who made them late that morning. Local authorities then try to protect the interests of the majority by banning cyclists from the roadway in the name of safety.
When I read the long thread of comments on WKYT’s story of Schilling’s plight I felt a sense of pride for the cycling community in Central Kentucky. Sure, there were of few typical trolls spouting senseless hatred, but for the most part what I read was cyclists reaching out and educating drivers on why Schilling was practicing good safety measures by taking a full lane instead of using the shoulder. Many of the commenters commended Schill for her healthy lifestyle and recognized that she had just as much right to utilize the roadway with her bike as a motor vehicle. WKYT also interviewed a cycling safety expert who explained the importance of full lane usage for cyclists and why bikes shouldn’t be banned from roadways.
That kind of outreach is exactly what needs to happen. Instead of a reactive response, we need to be proactive in our communities to find solutions to the lack of cycling infrastructure and understanding of cyclists on the roadways. Instead of banning Schill from US 27, local authorities would do a much greater service to their community by creating an alternate bike route. Perhaps Schill isn’t so strange. Maybe there are plenty of other cyclists in Central Kentucky who need to ride that route, but she’s just the bravest or most determined among them. If we are going to truly share the road we need to shed this idea of what is a “typical commuter” or a “typical bike commuter” for that matter. We are all just people with loved ones, responsibilities, and aspirations who are trying to get where we need to be alive and in one piece.