by Kat Hunter
Luz Ketterhagen found her son’s body early Tuesday morning, January 24, after reporting him missing the day before. He’d been riding his bike near the 2300 block of Patriot Way, a popular cycling route with a shoulder. Luz Ketterhagen told a reporter from the Statesman in an interview that the worst thing she’d feared had happened, but she was glad to have been there first, to have been able to hold him and talk to him and be with him.
What would you say to your dead 19-year-old son? Would you tell him you loved him? Of course you would. But maybe you’d tell him, too, that even if you’d said it every day and every second of his life up to that point, a life ended long before it should have been, that you hadn’t said it nearly enough. Maybe you’d tell him how he felt in your arms on the day he was born. Maybe you’d tell him that you were proud of him, of everything that he was and that you know he would have been. Maybe you’d tell him that the only thing you wanted in the whole world was to protect him, and that you’re so sorry, sorrier than the whole world, that you couldn’t. But, standing there with that new, unthinkable reality, how could your lips move to even begin forming the words? How could you continue forward and not just ever backward in time to where he was breathing and laughing, to where you could say “No, don’t go, please stay”?
The police believe it was a blue car, but there’s nothing else. They’ve asked anyone with knowledge of what happened to come forward.
On my computer screen, I’ve watched the shades of grief as they pass over the Austin cycling community: sorrow, heartbreak, rage. Many people knew and loved Tommy. Many people, like me, might have only shared a spot in the peloton with him, might have entered the same bike races, known the same people, trained on the same roads. The loss of Missy Hardeman, struck and killed by a motorist in November near Dallas, is still achingly with us too.
And yet we soldier on. Because that’s what we’re good at, right? As competitors, we train and race in all weather conditions, we crash and we get back on our bikes and we make it to the line. We have a cavalier attitude about our own safety, at times—we have to. We downplay the risks, minimize them by comparison. “Oh, X road isn’t that bad because Y and Z roads are worse.” Often we just don’t talk about them, the risks we take every day, almost as if there’s a superstition that if we do we invite disaster, though perhaps this silence is simply for our own peace of mind, the ability to get back in the saddle the next day. At heart, as bike racers most of us are pragmatists and opportunists; we know that there are a thousand ways a race can play out, so we wait and see, and we take an opening when it presents itself.
But if we wait and see, if we grieve quietly, if we just tough this out, the chance to win the battle may never come. It’s really easy to look at cities like Amsterdam or Copenhagen—places so safe for bikes that kids ride almost as soon as they can walk and hardly anyone wears a helmet, where even a taxi driver won’t cut you off on your bike, where stoplights at rush-hour have a field of bike commuters that would match our most well-attended races—and to say “well, that can’t happen here.” Why not? We have a traffic problem in all of Texas’ major cities, that’s clear enough. When Copenhagen’s city leaders threatened to build a six-lane motorway through The Lakes (one of the city’s oldest and most beautiful urban areas) to resolve congestion from a new glut of cars, bike infrastructure—in a hard-fought battle spread out over 15 years—won as a solution instead. What if we started building quality bike infrastructure in the most densely populated areas and worked our way out? What if every time someone moved to expand a road for more cars, we made it more walkable or bikeable instead? What if we understood, by looking at the countless tried-and-true examples, that more roads don’t mean a faster commute—rather, it just means more people build and move and then quickly fill that empty space with more cars? What if we truly began to look out for our own interests, cognizant of the fact that it’s far easier for politicians and business owners to do the wrong thing than the right thing if we’re not paying attention?
It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument—with more cyclists, we’d have more leverage, but how can we recruit more cyclists when they don’t feel safe on the roads? We have to make those first steps, and yes, it’s us, this community of racers and bike lovers. We’ll ride through anything, so let’s pave the way for others, forge a path through the worst of it so they can have it better. It’s more than good training routes. Ask yourself how you want to live, how you want your children to live. Is it too much to ask to be able to ride your bike to school or to work? To ride or walk to the grocery store and feel the sun on your skin along the way, rather than close yourself up in a car? Tommy and Missy experienced things that many Americans have not, and in that way I do not feel sorry for them; I feel sorry for the people who live longer, emptier lives.
It’s my hope that self-driving cars will one day open up the roads for us, miles upon miles of them. Just imagine it—empty parking lots could be playgrounds, swimming pools, crit courses. But there are other solutions, too, that we can act on now, ways to chip away at a world that focuses on cars rather than people: legislation, infrastructure, education, advocacy in countless forms direct and tangential. We’re not powerless; to say we are is to embrace negligence.
There’s no getting around the fact that this reaction, even the act of me writing these words, is in large part selfish. Every time a cyclist dies, we cry out for change and justice, because it’s a way to assuage that choking feeling that threatens to stop us in our tracks, that would have locked us in that moment with Luz and Tommy saying “why” over and over again until our throats were dry and our own bones were dust and the universe went cold and dark.
Let us take inspiration, whole heartedly, from the worst that can happen because the worst we can do is do nothing. That could have been you or me, dead because we were doing something that we loved and believed in. We can be afraid. We can hang our bikes up for good. We can let ourselves forget, slowly over time, what Tommy’s and Missy’s families cannot. That would be the easy thing to do.
Or we can do something every day to help, because something is never nothing. Here are two simple words to get you started, or to keep you going:
Consider yourself a bike ambassador, in everything you do. Answer questions. Be visible. Volunteer to help with the organizations above and others like them, or just offer to take your neighbor on a ride to the nearest coffee shop. The more people understand what it feels like to be a cyclist, the more they’ll understand as motorists how to share the road with bikes, and why they should.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Please help us compile a longer list of concrete steps we can take to make the roads safer – add your suggestions and thoughts in the comments below. You can also email Robert Wray (email@example.com) or Kat Hunter (firstname.lastname@example.org).