Reflections on Jose Piñon

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Ghost Bike Vigil for Steve Studt

 

On Friday, there was an article in The Coloradoan about the sentencing of Jose Piñon in the death of local cyclist Steve Studt. Last month, Piñon pled guilty to felony negligent homicide only days before his trial was scheduled to begin. He was sentenced to a short jail stint, a hefty community service requirement, and as a result of his immigrant status and felony plea, he may face an uncertain future in the US when he reapplies for residency.

The comments on various news articles about the sentence predictably covered the spectrum from blaming Mr. Studt, to gross insinuations relating to the fact that English is not Mr. Piñon’s first language, to criticizing a sentence that felt to some observers like a slap on the wrist.

The first thing that came to my mind when I heard about Piñon’s last minute guilty plea was relief that he had decided to accept responsibility for his negligence. Jury trials are very expensive and time-consuming for our legal system and law enforcement.

Second, I braced for the normal victim-blaming. Sure enough, it didn’t take long. To hear some commenters explain it, bikes are a menace that should be banned from many roads.

City and county safety reports, easily available to review, tell a different story. Traffic violence – bodily injury and death resulting from traffic crashes – is among the leading causes of accidental death in the US and in Larimer County. It is also a huge cause of serious injury. But bikes are a very marginal contributor, both in absolute numbers and relative to their mode share, compared to single occupancy vehicles (SOVs).

 

Fatality-Trends

How dangerous are cars? This year, the National Safety Council predicts nearly 40,000 deaths in the US from traffic violence. That’s a 7% increase from 2015. For perspective, 15,000 Americans die in criminal violence each year. 4,000 American soldiers died in a decade in Iraq, and just over 60,000 were killed in Vietnam. Thats right–cars kill as many Americans in less than 2 years as the the Vietnam War killed in 20.

In 2015 in Fort Collins, there were over 900 traffic crashes that resulted in injury. Roughly 4% involved bike riders. Less than half of that 4% were the fault of the bike riders, who in Fort Collins account for ~7.5% of commutes.

If, as a thought experiment, you took every bicycle off the road in the US, car crashes would still kill nearly 40,000 people a year.

Now, flip that: take cars off the road and leave the roads to bikes, pedestrians, and mass transit. I think you would find you’d save in the ballpark of 39,000+ lives per year.

Dispatching the argument that bikes are a safety menace, and the attendant false equivalency of bad actors on bikes being a comparable safety threat to bad actors in cars isn’t challenging. Changing hearts and minds around auto-centrism certainly is.    

My third reaction was a wave of emotions around Piñon’s residency status, the possibility that his felony plea will mean he is deported, and disgust with some of the comments about the fact that in court he spoke through an interpreter. As a native English speaker, if you were on trial in a language other than English, you would be nuts not to enlist a professional translator, no matter how competent you were in a second language. Too much is at stake to risk an amateur mistranslation.  

Bike Fort Collins will not tolerate exploitation of this tragedy to advance anti-immigrant sentiments. That’s not who we are. We are committed to public safety and public health engagement that is more inclusive, and reaches everyone in our community. In the US, no demographic group has more at stake in really addressing bike safety than Latinos. BFC’s commitment to safe streets means we are committed to serving and working with populations who are most vulnerable and have the most exposure to the threats we’re facing.

As for the sentence itself: Some say 90 days in jail is inadequate. I reckon most of those folks have never spent 90 days in jail as a 70-year-old man. I spent the night once and it made a lasting impression. I was 20.  

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Studt’s Ghost Bike

For a bike community as large and tight-knit as ours, there is a charged and painful question at the heart of sentencing for crimes against bike riders. Robust prosecution and harsh sentences are seen as signaling a commitment to “justice.” Community service and plea deals are seen as an affront and a lack of concern for bikes and the lives of bike riders. But evidence I am aware of is quite convincing that the draconian incarceration terms we as Americans call for do nothing to support actual improvements in public safety and they do so at a very high cost. Accountability is important. Examples are important. But so is being responsible with our public dollars, and rational in our priorities. (as an aside, those I have asked from Belgium, Denmark and other countries with very high bike-ridership and very low injury and death rates all expressed doubt that under similar circumstances in their countries, Mr. Piñon would be incarcerated at all).  

Jail, like the court system, is very expensive for the county and the public. And one has to wonder if the money we use to hold people in county jail could be better applied to things like safer overpasses and a more complete regional bike network. Crime scene investigations, trials, and incarceration are expensive. Public funds are finite and constantly under threat.  

Traffic violence sometimes involves criminality, but it ALWAYS involves infrastructure. In the past few years, the deaths of cyclists on roads in Larimer County involved various degrees of criminal liability (including fleeing the scene, which is a separate and indefensible act). But they’ve also consistently involved circumstances in which complete streets or reasonable alternative routes would have likely kept negligence from resulting in the death of vulnerable users. The great tragedy of bike-related traffic fatalities in Larimer County in the last few years is how many of them occurred at places that many of us already knew to be unsafe, yet not enough has been done.   

In a pragmatic conversation about responses to traffic violence, there are clear best practices for how effective different strategies are. Least effective are personal protective measures like safety gear, seat belts, and helmets.  This is not to say that personal protective gear is useless, but in a serious reckoning with our current traffic safety crisis, they’re a very limited tool for a variety of reasons and should not be a high priority or centerpiece of any traffic safety plan. Most of the time when someone says an airbag or helmet or seatbelt saved their life, it’s also true that it saved their life from something that should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.  

pedspeeds203040Similarly inefficient are administrative controls; speed limit and traffic code fit here. Yes, speed is a critical factor in traffic violence. Chances of survival of a traffic crash plunge from 90% to 10% when vehicle speed increases from 20 mph to 40 mph. But speed limits, by themselves, are less effective at controlling speed than they are at generating revenue from tickets. Think of a street or road near you that frequently hosts radar speed traps. Chances are good that there’s something wrong with the street that demands re-engineering, not more radar guns.  

See where this is headed?

If our goal is really fewer deaths on our streets and roads, defaulting to criminalizing and harshly punishing people who make bad decisions on badly engineered roads might not always be the most effective or most cost effective response to traffic violence. We should also take seriously the need to build a transportation system in which it’s much harder for bad decision-making to end tragically.

 

If you are angry that our city and county and state don’t take the safety of vulnerable road users seriously, you are right. If you think that our justice system should be a centerpiece of changing this, rather than our city and regional and transportation plans and budgets, and city council and county commissioner elections and policies, you are settling for an expensive and incomplete downstream response to an upstream problem. You are treating symptoms, not the disease.

We will be more successful in building safer streets when we are less concerned with how long offenders spend in jail and more interested in questions like:

  • Why is it so easy to get a driver’s license, and so hard to lose one?
  • Reciprocally: Why are we so reluctant to support policy and infrastructure that make living without a car or even driving less more feasible and less debilitating?
  • Why are the public safety, health, environmental, and economic impacts of over-reliance on single occupancy motor vehicles broadly subsidized?
  • Why do we prioritize increasing capacity for  law enforcement under the pretense of public safety, when traffic violence due to auto-centrism and bad infrastructure and land use is a much greater threat to public safety than crime is? Why are we told that  we can’t afford public transit and sidewalks when what we really can’t afford is more sprawl, more parking lots, more congestion, and more summers where getting across town by car is an all-day adventure due to construction?
  • Why do we resist development that deemphasizes SOV dependency?
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Ernesto Weidenbrug’s Ghost Bike

These are, of course, complicated and nuanced challenges than require more sustained work and attention than locking up the symptoms. But complicated challenges demand complicated conversations, and usually, solving them requires collective will for change. It will require acknowledgement that a more just, safer community is a hands-on commitment. And it will require that we not allow the media or the public at large to change the subject when we are reminded by tragedy of the gravity and scope of the work.  

Streets and roads are the circulatory system of our neighborhoods and cities.  They connect us to work, school, food, church, civic engagement, recreation, and opportunity.  And their use is a right that is not reserved for one type of user over all others.  The bigger Northern Colorado gets, the more of us there are, the more urgent it becomes that we center our cities and streets around people, rather than cars.  

 

Chris J Johnson

Executive Director

Bike Fort Collins

December Letter from the Executive Director – Looking Back and Planning Ahead

First of all, I want to apologize for missing our November newsletter.

As we mentioned in the newsletter, in October we said a fond farewell to our events/volunteers/marketing/communications/development/membership/advocacy/Bike Share genius Kelly McDonnell.  Kelly was truly the heart of Bike Fort Collins over the past few years. Especially since I stepped in, with an ambitious vision that included a lot more events, a broader focus, and an upfront acknowledgement that it was gonna be a lot of work for everyone.

Kelly McDonnell

Sadly for us, but fortunately for Kelly and for the city of Boise, Boise Bicycle Project stole her away from the Choice City to lead their development efforts. It’s hard to express how thrilled we are for Kelly and how profoundly we feel her loss. Missing the monthly newsletter deadlines is just the tip of the iceberg.

I’ve come to really enjoy sorting through the events and news of the month and trying to turn them into something useful to advance Bike Fort Collins’ goals and agenda. And I enjoy the feedback, and the reminder that it isn’t about promoting bikes, but about asking ourselves, and our supporters, and our community at large “how can bikes – and active transportation in general – support social, economic, and environmental sustainability in Northern Colorado?”

I started at BFC in late October of 2015. This past year has been an exercise in living outside my comfort zone. Even before joining BFC, I had a strong sense that transportation – and the way we build our cities and neighborhoods to facilitate transportation – has a profound impact on the character of our cities and the quality of our lives. Beyond just inspiring more active lifestyles, walkable and bikeable and transit oriented cities are economically vibrant cities. They are cities that put people first. Cities that concern themselves with the challenge of making it easier and safer for more kids to bike and walk to school are cities that raise generations of healthier, more community minded neighbors (and better drivers, too). Cities that make it easier to live actively make it easier for our families to age in place. A city is not healthy and safe and inclusive until it is healthy and safe and inclusive of everyone from age 8 to age 80, of every level of physical ability.

Fort Collins is in the early stages of an inevitable transition from Big Town to Small City, and with that transition comes anxiety and uncertainty. Our current practices and policies for how we build and move around are showing signs of strain: an affordability crisis, air quality problems, congestion, a surge in traffic fatalities in the county, and growing concerns about displacement and social segregation. This growth also comes with an opportunity to shape the values and character of our community for generations to come. And if history teaches us anything, we know it’s much more fruitful to plan for the future than to pine for the past.

In 2016, Bike Fort Collins continued its pioneering Safe Routes to School partnership with the City of Fort Collins, working with thousands of Poudre Schools students to encourage safe riding.

We made the leap from our old Bike Library into the world of Bike Share. After a strong inaugural year, we look forward to expanding the program and making it even more useful for local residents and guests.

We expanded our Bike Friendly Business Network to include social mixers and are asking questions like: how can we leverage the commitment and interest businesses have shown into policy and culture changes that support active transportation?

We launched the NoCo Bike Show – a monthly live talk show that brings bike riders of all varieties together to hear stories about people using bikes to transform Northern Colorado, from race stories, to new city projects, to tips on mountain biking while pregnant, and so much more.

We resurrected the legendary One Speed Open, took over as promoters of the Ride of Silence, created the Ride With Pride in conjunction with NoCo Pride, and hosted a bunch of fun social and informational events including our Pour Brothers Community Nights, Dinner & Bikes with Elly Blue of Bikenomics, The Wind in Our Hair women’s cycling documentary screening and filmmaker Q&A, Bikes & Biz Mixers, and a Wolverine Farm Pub Talk.

On the advocacy front, we were heavily influential during the 2017-2018 city budget process. Thanks to the efforts of BFC and our partners, the city continues to inch towards a more sustainable, equitable, and safer transportation system.   Funded enhancements for the next two years include Pedestrian/ADA enhancements, a Sunday Transfort pilot, the FC Bikes Low Stress Network, “All Kids Deserve Safe Routes,”  and the protected bike lane pilot among others.

We’ve also made significant inroads with Larimer County in our continued commitment to making safety and public health top priorities for future growth and current high activity areas for recreational cyclists.

Thanks to BFC’s Bike Friendly Business Development program, Fort Collins still leads the country in Bike Friendly Businesses, with 53 as of this post. Our business partnerships are critical to reaching our goals of getting more people on bikes, creating safer streets and neighborhoods, and supporting an inclusive, diverse bike culture that hears and represents the interests of an inclusive, diverse Northern Colorado.

Whats in store?

The great challenge of bike advocacy in a bike-friendly community like Fort Collins is the importance of challenging our notions of “bike culture” and who is served and, more importantly, who it leaves behind. Our platinum status as a bike-friendly city is a tremendous achievement, but it obscures deep disparities in access and mobility that our current growth trend will widen unless we prioritize equity and inclusion. As you’ve probably heard me say, if you heard me speak this year: no number of bike lanes will make our streets and neighborhoods safer and and more bike/ped friendly if our workforce can’t afford to live here and must drive further and further to get here.

In the near future we’ll be sharing details of a new BFC partnership that is near and dear to my heart. This partnership will allow us to make sure Fort Collins’ platinum bike-friendliness extends to everyone. All of our great programs and rides will keep growing, but we will regularly ask ourselves, and expect our members and partners to also ask us, themselves, and each other: how are our work, our programs, our events narrowing disparities in neighborhood safety, health, and opportunity?

We’ll keep working with the city and the county to introduce policies that steer us toward safe and sustainable streets and neighborhoods. We’ll keep working with our partners in business, human services, transportation, and clean energy to develop a coalition committed to economic, social, and environmental sustainability and justice. And we’ll keep working with our state and federal legislators to craft laws that respond to the threats to safe streets, and reward individuals, businesses, and cities for supporting sustainable transportation.

When possible, we will continue to prioritize keeping our programs and events free to attend, ride, read, so that they benefit the whole of the community.

In the meantime, the end of the year means it’s time to earnestly and humbly ask for your support and your feedback.

In this month’s newsletter you’ll find a link to a survey where you can let us know what your priorities are going forward.   What would you like to see us prioritize in 2017 and beyond?

You’ll also find a donation link. We run a pretty lean ship at BFC. This allows us to operate independently and speak freely. It allows us to respond quickly to new opportunities and challenges. But we still need your help. If you’re weighing your year-end giving options, know that BFC will stretch your contribution a long way. A contribution to BFC supports safety, health, climate change action, social sustainability, and economic vitality of NoCo. Your gift will go straight to programming and our hardworking staff who are committed to a vision of a safer, active Northern Colorado for everyone.

This has been an incredibly challenging and satisfying year for me and a big year for Bike Fort Collins. We’re so excited to keep moving forward and hope you’ll stay tuned as we have some big announcements coming up.