“It’s already been a tough year for Michigan, when will it stop…just when…when will it stop” said a young woman named Jamie, the letters a tad crooked on her peel and stick name badge. You could tell she was visually upset with all the issues facing the state in the recent months, even more so her own hometown of Kalamazoo. Jamie was an employee of a local pastry shop on the west side of the city as she continued “If it’s not water, it’s guns or even worse people trying to kill others in their car, this is just…this is bad.” As she looked down at the counter, you could see a tear come from the corner of her eye, “you never imagine continued tragedy like this until you live through it yourself, I just moved here from Flint in Decemeber, I guess bad news can happen anywhere.” After our conversation I began walking to the door when I read the headline across the banner displayed on the The Kalamazoo Gazette rack sitting in the bin next to the coffee pot said “Senseless.” Maybe it was that word that everyone was feeling in the city but just wasn’t sure how to communicate it. I thanked Jamie for her time as I walked back out to the Jeep with a cup of coffee in my hand looking to find the meaning to what had transpired the evening of the crash that left five bicyclists dead and four severely injured. How could something like this happen I thought to myself, and let alone why would something like this ever happen.
Just a week prior, an early Tuesday evening in June, the sun was still shining in the western sky before setting over Lake Michigan, the cooler springlike temperatures prevailed but made it a great night for outdoor activities of all kinds. No distractions of rain in the sky as the Kalamazoo Chain Gang set out on an evening ride as a group of friends. This wasn’t something new, this group had been doing rides together for quite sometime as trained and educated bicyclists. The group, not hardcore and competitive like some rides can be was a great way to build a sense of belonging and community with each other. As they congregated in Kalamazoo and parked their cars, they gathered at the intersection to start their nearly 30 mile loop for an evening of community. Little did anyone in the group or their families suspect that this evening would be different than any other rides they had done before. As they began their journey through the beautiful biking territory on the outskirts of Kalamazoo, their trip would be cut short at the hands of an insane driver.
After my stop in the pastry shop near downtown, I jumped on the road headed north where the scene of the tragedy took place. As I came through town the top of the hour news broke on the local AM station when they read the names of the victims aloud pausing momentarily between each. “Larry….Tony….”the list would continue to go on for a few more seconds and with each name read the crackle of the announcers voice became more apparent. The tragedy wasn’t just a loss for the bikers and their families, but the community as a whole. Just a few short months earlier, Kalamazoo was the scene of a horrific mass shooting spree leaving several other people dead. As the community seemed to be moving past the grizzly attack, another estranged man would attack the city and soul once again. The morning after the tragedy, the names were released by the officials with each person holding special meaning in the community. From Larry Paulik and Tony Nelson, both had been longtime friends who were also members of the St. Thomas More Catholic Parish. Debra Bradley was a former nurse for the local Gull Lake Community Schools and Suzanne Sippel worked for the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station where both had become friends. Melissa Fevig Hughes, an analytical chemist with Covance Laboratories was a single mother of two young daughters, ages 10 and 14 who had become fast friends with the others in the group. Stories of the victims began coming through the news on Wednesday after the fatal crash caused by 50 year old Charles Pickett Jr. of Battle Creek. After each name was announced your heart began to break into more and more pieces. Hughes had just returned to town after a trip with her two daughters to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Sippel had been working with others in her community to build a bike trail through Ross Township where she lived to connect Kalamazoo to Galesburg, a large task but one that she had been passionate about. Each advocates for a better world that started in their own backyard.
The group was known locally as the Kalamazoo Chain Gang, just one of many bicycling outfits in the community. The city, unlike many others is also well represented by a mayor who is an avid bicyclist and has been pushing for years to become a more bicycle inclusive community. The League of Michigan Bicyclists have also been advocates for the city and the entire state with lobbying presence for safer streets and better driver education. Renee Mitchell, Kalamazoo resident and president of the league said “There’s no way to measure the grief we feel at the loss to the Michigan bicycling community, but insisted that we must work harder than ever before to prevent this kind of senseless tragedy from happening again. Finally after passing through the light at Mosel Avenue, I was shocked to see the road was just like many others that we travel on everyday either in Kalamazoo or home in Indiana. This traditional paved two-lane road had a traditional three foot shoulder, while not ideal for cyclists, it offered much more support than many others. If this could happen on the run of the mill Westnedge Avenue in Kalamazoo, what’s holding it from happening on Bass Road or Washington Center in Fort Wayne. I looked for obvious obstructions as if I were a traffic engineer making mental notes of anything I saw that stood in the way, but to my surprise there was nothing. Finally after passing the small monument for those who were involved in the tragedy, I said to myself…why…how…why.
We continue to hear time and time again from leadership on various city councils to MPO’s that bicycles are important but the roads were built for cars. Most recently we had an issue where some members of the local media in connection with a council member advocated to cut funding from our local bike program making it more difficult to make our streets friendly for all commuters. This of course resulted from when the newspaper editor didn’t like that his commute on Main Street took nearly two minutes longer than pre-bike lane. A look that same day on social media from the article had people on his side complaining about bicyclists not paying attention to the rules of the road, while most actually do follow the rules. I myself have had a near-death experience with a car on a bike, while I pedaled down Jefferson through West Central, the car behind me was upset that my top speed was 15-20 mph so they tried to cut me off before nearly running me off into the road. While not ideal, I jumped the curb landing in the tree-lawn trying to escape without any harm except a few scrapes and bruises. A friend recently posted on Facebook that he too was the target of a driver gone mad with bicycles in Fort Wayne. A Nissan Versa blew by him while traveling on Columbia and then stops in front of him to tell him to “get the – – – off the road.” The driver then brandishes a black hand-gun making the situation much worse than anticipated. While these are both near misses with vehicles in our biking community, it’s something that has to stop.
If we have councilmen and newspapers fighting to declare roads for cars only and take away any rights for other modes of transportation, we will ultimately create a community of hate and ignorance to the rights of others. If cities are looking to balance budgets and cut funding to bike lanes but expand funding for new highways and exit ramps designed specifically for cars, what message are we sending to business leaders and residents alike? Unlike our own personal situations, the citizens of Kalamazoo are more used to bikes on roads as the bike culture started a few years before ours. Their newspaper has been a long-time advocate for complete streets and multi-modal transportation. Their mayor and several city council members are active bike riders and have their citizens best interest in mind in regards to various forms of transportation in a traditional car happy community. While our city is still a few years behind Kalamazoo in regards to bikes, we are making strides in the right direction. Fort Wayne was once again named a bronze level city in a sea of applicants for being bike friendly, and while that’s low…it’s a start. While we don’t know the exact purpose or mind behind the madness that left four severely injured and five dead, we can presume that he was either distracted by an outside influence or has road rage against a certain type of travel and decided to act out. The agenda of our cities must not be to protect the class of only one transportation type but instead look at options for all citizens. That’s why we are such big proponents of Complete Streets, we simply have to make our public spaces, places for all!
After my loop around the township to the north I began my journey back into the city of Kalamazoo. Along the way I passed a car that had a bumper sticker museum on the rear fender but one stood out by saying “Smile, there’s always tomorrow.” Of course tomorrow won’t bring back Larry, Tony, Suzanne, Debra or Melissa…but it’s a tomorrow that we can have better control of. To calm my mind down and enjoy the last stretch of my drive through the city I decided to turn down Lulu Street, a quiet tree lined avenue with wide sidewalks in front of early 20th century homes. As I traveled down the street, I saw a mom with her small child on their bicycles as they moved off the side of the street for me to pass by. As I got closer she turned and smiled, either she was trying to mask the fear that was lingering on everyone’s mind in Kalamazoo or she was smiling from happiness, getting to spend quality time with her son. As I came to the next intersection I sat in a moment of silence, turning the radio off. A tear came to my eye, why this…why here…just why. What was going through the mind of mad-man Charles Pickett Jr. we may never know, but while his act devastated the community, it didn’t destroy it. A few blocks south of Kalamazoo at a busy Target Superstore, four bikes were tied to the rack meaning that citizens decided to pick up where the ride left off and not let the fear beat them.
Maybe Kalamazoo is picking up the pieces faster than I had thought. Maybe it’s that now the city is more aware of what happened since the tragedy and people are being a little more courteous giving bikers a wider berth and doing the little things that make sharing the same streets safer. Maybe it’s the sheer will of the people and the leadership to fight for the citizens. Maybe it’s that there are plans to construct several miles of protected bike lanes in the city making it safer for everyone to use the streets and just not cars.
While we understand there is no way to stop bicycle collisions in our country, we hope that maybe this is a reminder to our city leaders that bikes are driven by people too. If it was Suzanne’s dream to connect several miles of protected bike lanes around Kalamazoo, maybe we can honor her and the others involved in the tragic crash with a little bit of safety for others. Painting streets isn’t terribly budget concerning, may we ask cities across the country to dedicate at least half a mile to the Kalamazoo Chain Gang with a dedicated bike lane? Use a little green paint and maybe find ways to get it protected with medians/planters. If our cities are seeing more bicyclists, it too should be treated like we have with cars for the last 100 years, giving them an equal opportunity to share the streets. While a half mile isn’t much, it’s a start and isn’t that the least we can ask for. From cities to small rural towns, our responsibility as citizens is to watch out for each other on the road and hold our municipalities accountable for their role in making our streets safe. To the dismay of our local newspaper editor and former city councilman in Fort Wayne, streets aren’t meant just for cars…but for all!