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On Biking: Searching for an answer in bicyclist's death

Posted by Your Town  May 21, 2010 07:50 AM

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Monday seemed so promising: bright, sunny and warm. It was a perfect day for biking. That evening I headed out for an after work ride. I planned to go west, to Lincoln or Concord, but at 5:45 pm I was stuck on Commonwealth Avenue near Newton City Hall in a huge traffic jam. It looked like I was going nowhere.

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As I crossed Walnut St. I saw a fire engine up ahead. A little further on I saw blue lights flashing and cars detouring around the intersection of Homer St. and Commonwealth Avenue. My stomach turned upside down; somehow I knew it was a bike.

At the intersection I saw the bicycle, cracked and lying on its side in the middle of the road. Police officers and firemen stood nearby, staring. I pulled over to find out what had happened. I think I wanted some reassurance. “Is he alright?” I asked. The policeman turned away. “I don’t know.”

I don’t remember much of that ride. I do know I cycled through Lincoln, Wayland, and Weston, but only because I checked the mileage reading on my speedometer. Two hours later I was back at Newton City Hall heading home. The traffic was still a mess and the firemen and policemen still stood nearby, staring. The bike still lay in the street. Now it was surrounded by yellow crime scene tape. A police officer halted traffic so I could pass by.

When I got home I told my wife what I had seen. She frowned: “That’s awful. I know you’re going to keep on riding but I worry. I don’t like it.”

That evening I searched the internet and learned that it was a 21-year-old cyclist who had been killed. The next day I learned his name was Andrew Von Guerard.

I don’t know how Andrew died; I’ll leave that for the police to sort out. Even if they do figure out what happened it doesn’t bring him back. I do know the intersection where he died is dangerous: there is not much buffer between you and the cars on your right as you head east the way Andrew was heading just before his crash. Also, the timing on that traffic light is tricky. I have found myself caught on my bike in the middle of that same intersection as the light changes from yellow to red. My friends have, too, all of us experienced riders, all of us trying hard to follow the rules and stay safe.

It is easy to think “that person must have done something wrong” or “it will never happen to me.” Except that it could happen to me and it could happen to you. And in trying to assign blame goes down an “us” and “them” path that takes us nowhere and does not bring Andrew back.

Three days after Andrew Von Guerard’s death I went out for a pre-work ride along the same route I had traveled the night he died. Just before Newton City Hall I waited for the traffic signal to change. I watched several cars run that red light and I swerved to avoid a car that tried to squeeze past me.

I stopped again, this time to look at the makeshift roadside memorial erected where Andrew had died. There were flowers, candles, a photo of some young adults and the words “we’ll miss you Andy.” And a picture of Andrew, a boyish looking young man who will never get to be an old man. But this shrine is temporary: the flowers will wilt, the photos will fade.

I wish I could rewind the tape and undo what happened. Instead I’m left with the sadness of a young life lost and the realization that we are all so fragile, both on and off the bike. And so interconnected.

So now what? There’s nothing wrong with each of us acting locally and with care, whether we’re driving, riding or walking. But that is not enough: it’s like trying to reverse global warming by using a lower wattage light bulb. You may feel virtuous but it doesn’t solve the problem.

What will make a difference is the kind of change that can only occur on a community level. I’m talking about transforming how we use our roads and streets to make them safer for everyone. You might think that’s impossible, that we can’t be an Amsterdam, but I think we can. Exhibits A, B and C: Portland Oregon, San Francisco and New York City. And the roadmap to get there? Check out the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the League of American Bicyclists, MassBike or LivableStreets.

If Andrew Von Guerard’s death helps move us toward this better place then we have created a small bit of good out of something so bad. Anything less means we’re willing to live with more wilted flowers and faded photos on the sides of our streets.

Jonathan Simmons is a Brookline psychologist and avid cyclist.

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