Axle Anxiety: Boise's Bicycling Dilemma

Two more deaths rattle cycling community and spark more discussion about the safety of commuting


The evening light was just beginning to wane, reflecting dull orange and gold against low clouds, bathing Boise's North End neighborhood in an eerie, dreamlike glow. About 40 people, most of them wearing form-fitting neon and reflective bicycling duds, milled around the concrete patio at Sunset Park on Oct. 8.

They were there to mourn the death of 53-year-old Victor Haskell, who succumbed to his injuries Sept. 26 shortly after an apparent hit-and-run incident near the corner of State and 30th streets. The cyclists were set to mount their bikes and ride in silence from the park to the site of Haskell's death, but first, Jimmy Hallyburton of the Boise Bicycle Project delivered a short address about the nature of this bike-borne assembly.

"When something like this happens in the community, it's devastating," he said.

Still another Ride of Silence was set for Wednesday, Oct. 16--this time to remember James Kelly, 56, who was struck and killed by a vehicle Oct. 7. The two bicycle-vehicle fatalities are the city of Boise's first such tragedies since 2009, when three bicycle-related deaths prompted action from the biking community and City Hall, resulting in the 3 Feet to Pass law.

And while two deaths in 2013 have made cyclists and city officials anxious, the Ada County Highway District has a blueprint for what planners say will make Boise friendlier to bicyclists: The Downtown Improvement Project.

"Boise wants to be a walkable city; we want to support them in that endeavor," said Matt Edmond, senior transportation planner at ACHD.

Edmond and the ACHD will, in the next five years, convert Jefferson, Third, Fourth, Eighth (between Jefferson and Bannock streets), 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th streets from one-way thoroughfares to two-way streets. Mini-roundabouts have also been proposed in seven locations across downtown. Edmond expects the result to be slower automobile traffic in the downtown core. An expanded network of bicycle lanes between the North End and the Greenbelt will also contribute to an atmosphere more conducive to pedestrian and bike traffic.

"We're always interested in moving traffic, but cars that are going 20 mph are safer than cars going 40 mph," Edmond said.

Those are the plans for Boise's inner city, but the deaths of Haskell and Kelly occurred beyond the downtown core--30th and State streets, and Federal Way near Boise Avenue, respectively--and City Hall feels the disconnect between its efforts and the locations of recent accidents.

"Obviously, it raises concerns about whether we're doing everything we can to ensure bikes and cars can interact safely," said Michael Zuzel, spokesman for Boise Mayor Dave Bieter. "We know that a lot of folks are reluctant to get on a bicycle in an urban environment for safety reasons."

The problem isn't just infrastructure. According to Zuzel, much of being safe on a bicycle is in the hands of the cyclist; and educating cyclists and drivers on the law, awareness and measures that prevent and decrease the damage caused by accidents is a crucial corollary to physical improvements. To that end, the city has partnered with the BBP and schools to promote use of helmets, lights and reflective clothing.

"It's not solved with a couple gallons of white paint and a change of traffic direction," Zuzel said.

As for paying for education, "The sky's the limit as far as what's possible, but we don't have a dollar figure yet," he said.

The success of local agencies' plans rests on a growing number of bike commuters. Encouraging families to pedal through downtown by increasing access and ease of use is part of that plan; the other part is the Valley Regional Transit's soon-to-be-launched Boise Bike Share Program, which will install seven stations and 70 bikes in 2014 for use around town for a nominal fee.

According to BBSP director Dave Fotsch, getting more bikes on the road leads to greater bicycle safety.

"When you have more bikes on the streets, drivers become more aware of them and it becomes safer for everyone on the street," he said.

However, as the city of Boise and ACHD cooperate on the Downtown Improvement Project, ACHD directors cast deciding votes against funding the second year of the bike share at a Sept. 16 meeting of COMPASS--the region's transportation planning entity (BW, News, "Braking Bad," Oct. 2, 2013.)

Fotsch said the BBSP will nevertheless benefit from the work the city and ACHD are doing with the Downtown Improvement Project.

"The very fact that the ACHD and the city are looking seriously at how cyclists get from one end of town to the other can only enhance the bike share system," he said.

For Lisa Brady, president of the Treasure Valley Cycling Alliance, the improvements are welcome.

"It'll be a better system. Cars seeing more cyclists will make it safer in the long-run," she said.

But, Brady added, she worries that recent accidents might make people feel unsafe on bikes, reducing the number of cyclists on the roads and artificially deflating drivers' expectations of the volume of riders they may encounter.

"People actually do stop riding in situations like these," she said.

Brady shares the city's anxiety over the recent fatalities. Kelly was hit in broad daylight. Haskell wore bright clothing and had a light on his bike. The source of uneasiness doesn't come from a sense that local agencies and citizens aren't doing enough to reduce hazards: It comes from the reminder that accidents can happen to anyone, no matter what safety measures are in place.

At Haskell's Oct. 8 Ride of Silence, Hallyburton perhaps best articulated that anxiety.

"This is somebody that could've been any of us," he said.