Will the Houston Bike Plan End the Battle Between Bicyclists and Drivers?

Will the Houston Bike Plan End the Battle Between Bicyclists and Drivers?
Andrew Nilsen

The doctors were thrilled that he had beaten the odds, a 20 percent chance of survival after he was run over by a truck. But when 47-year-old Kyle Zumoff woke up in his hospital bed, poked with IVs and stiff in a neck brace, his first thought was that he would rather be dead.

He couldn’t move his right leg or his foot, held together by pins and metal rods. He had tubes down his throat and up his nose to help him breathe and eat. He had a broken pelvis, a broken shoulder, a broken foot, two shattered shins and a damaged sternum that, before emergency surgery, was protruding into his aorta, threatening his life.

Days earlier, on May 5, Zumoff was crossing the street on his bicycle at the intersection of Richmond and Gessner when a white Dodge Ram truck ran a red light and smashed into him. According to the police report, the pickup dragged Zumoff and his bicycle more than 100 feet before speeding away, leaving Zumoff to die in the road like a raccoon. He remembers looking up for a split second before impact, with enough time to mutter to himself “Oh shit” before everything went dark. He doesn’t remember feeling any pain, but remembers a stranger, a woman, holding his hand, and hearing her say, “Don’t worry; they’re coming, they’re coming.” He was Lifeflighted to Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital, where he remained for nearly a month.

“I guess I’m one of the lucky ones, but I could’ve been dead,” Zumoff says now in a thick, fast-talking East Coast accent. “I must have been laying in the middle of the intersection. Can you imagine that? I can’t imagine doing that to a dog.”

Though his two children live in Houston with their mother, after he was discharged, Zumoff flew to Florida to live with his own mother and sister during his long recovery, in which he is relearning basic things like walking. Having never even broken so much as a finger before, Zumoff found himself having a hard time grappling with the fact that some phantom driver may have stripped him of his lifelong passion of being active — cycling, running, boxing — in a matter of seconds. He had been a bicyclist all his life — in the middle of Midtown Manhattan in New York City, in downtown Miami, on the streets of Philly, where he grew up — but Houston was the only city where, he says, he encountered routine hostility from drivers.

What Zumoff says he didn’t know — probably because he was never part of a cycling group while in Houston — was that rather than being an isolated incident, his accident was part of a common narrative that Houston cyclists have dealt with for years.

Since 2013, nearly 1,700 cyclists have been hit by cars on Houston streets, and nearly a quarter of the accidents were hit-and-runs like Zumoff’s, according to data from the Houston Police Department. Twenty-three bicyclists have died, seven of whom were killed by hit-and-run drivers.

There was the 17-year-old immigrant dishwasher, Miguel Marcial, hit and killed by a law student who sped away from the scene in his BMW, dragging Marcial’s bike beneath his car for a mile. The 56-year-old father, Bobby Brooks, run over by a school bus whose driver continued on her route as though nothing had happened. And 61-year-old Dan Hertweck, killed by an Isuzu box truck driver who stayed at the scene — but went home freely, without charges, after telling police he did not see Hertweck and did not know how the accident had happened.

Cyclists have been asking the city to do something about this situation for years. In May 2013, the city took a step forward by enacting a “safe-passing” ordinance, which allows cops to ticket drivers who do not give cyclists at least three feet of space while passing them. But despite the fact that hundreds of cyclists have been clipped or smashed by cars since the ordinance passed, only 32 drivers have been ticketed. Cyclists grew so dissatisfied with the city’s lack of action that they staged a “die-in” on City Hall’s front lawn in June 2015 after four cyclists were killed in just three weeks.

Finally, this year, the city answered with a solution — on paper at least — and that’s the Houston Bike Plan.

It’s a sweeping biking blueprint, if not one of the most comprehensive in the country, and if the city can actually pull it off, cyclists will have more than 1,700 miles of new, safely designed bike lanes and trails, costing up to $500 million to complete over the next ten to 20 years. Many cyclists, cycling attorneys and city officials have pointed to the lack of safe bike infrastructure across the city as a core reason that cyclists keep getting hit. That infrastructure has not been comprehensively updated since the early 1990s.

Still, not everyone is convinced the new bike plan will solve Houston’s cyclist-accident problem, particularly in a city where drivers tend to blame cyclists for their own misfortune.

“I think the Houston Bike Plan is a bold plan, and I think it’s a step in the right direction,” says Houston Ghost Bike attorney John Clark, who represents injured cyclists and the families of killed cyclists. “But until public perception about cyclists changes, and awareness changes, it doesn’t matter if there’s a bike plan or not.”

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Lauren Meyers, a member of Houston Ghost Bike, ties flowers to the Ghost Bike memorial for Wesley Edward Mein, who was struck by a car while walking his bike along the East Freeway service road in October 2014.
Lauren Meyers, a member of Houston Ghost Bike, ties flowers to the Ghost Bike memorial for Wesley Edward Mein, who was struck by a car while walking his bike along the East Freeway service road in October 2014.
Gilbert Bernal

The death of a 24-year-old woman cycling home from a grocery store on December 3, 2013, handed the City of Houston a wake-up call.

Chelsea Norman was coming back from work at Whole Foods that night and was just blocks from the store on Waugh Drive when a driver ran her over and then continued on her way. Police, acting on a tip, discovered Margaret Mayer’s pickup truck at her workplace the following week, its front end still damaged from hitting Norman. Mayer told police she was so intoxicated that night that she could barely even remember how she got home. She was eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Just months after Norman’s death, the group BikeHouston petitioned the city to create that bicycle master plan. Then-mayor Annise Parker announced a “Zero Fatalities Bike Safety Campaign,” a well-intentioned if ultimately unsuccessful operation. Meanwhile, a group of cyclists created Houston Ghost Bike, aiming to raise awareness about cyclist deaths by placing wiry, all-white memorial bicycles at the site of each fatal accident. Norman’s memorial was the first.

Since then, the group has placed 70 Ghost Bike memorials in Houston and its surrounding areas, most recently for Wesley Mein, who was struck and killed by a drunk driver who was only charged with a DWI, not in Mein’s death. The group has memorialized cyclists ranging from Benjamin Mendez — a day laborer who sold fruit and commuted by bicycle each evening, pushing his fruit cart home with him — to David Rosenfeld, a father of three who loved to ride his bike leisurely every weekend as an escape from his fast-paced job. With personalized memorials for every mother and husband, son and daughter, the group aims to dispel the caricature of cyclists as a curbside annoyance.

“We’re trying to put pictures on every bike now, because we want to put a face to the memorial,” says Ghost Bike organizer Steve Sims, sitting in his car on the side of a back road where a cyclist was recently killed. “We want people to remember, there was a person who was killed — not this caricature of a cyclist in their mind.”

On the evening of July 30, Steve and his wife, Melissa Sims, headed out to the site of a fatal accident to prepare a Ghost Bike memorial for Richard “Ricky” Johnson. Johnson was a young new father from Crosby, Texas, killed by an elderly driver who didn’t see him while Johnson, also a commuter, was cycling to work one morning before the sun was up. At the time he was killed, Johnson had just been approved to finance a new car so he wouldn’t have to bike anymore. He had just found a new place to live, closer to his job. And his baby daughter was learning to crawl.

Dozens of Johnson’s family and friends, including his daughter’s new foster family, gathered on the side of the road to watch Steve and Melissa chain the white bicycle to a telephone pole near the site of Johnson’s death. Whizzing cars were nearly the only sound as the couple attached Johnson’s picture to the spokes — one of him and his baby — in near total silence. Eventually the disruptive, speeding cars became too distracting, with several members of the family growing irritated, if not red-faced angry, with the drivers. “You didn’t slow down for Ricky,” his mother screamed at one pickup, “so you can at least slow down for us!”

Nothing happened to the driver who hit Johnson. The driver told police he was sorry but he did not see the cyclist in the dark hours of the morning. And so he went home, never charged with anything.

According to a Houston Press analysis of police and court records, this is actually the most common outcome. Of the 23 cyclist fatalities in Houston in the past three years, only six have resulted in charges — and in one case a drunk driver who killed a child on a bike was given just two years of probation, with no mention of the dead eight-year-old in the court filings. Prosecutor Alison Baimbridge, with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office’s Vehicular Crimes Division, said it’s because sometimes the cyclist involved broke a traffic law such as not yielding the right of way, or did not have proper lighting on his or her bike, meaning the driver was considered blameless. If drivers stayed at the scene, they were never charged, except in one case because the driver was drunk and also considered at fault, for the death of Mollie Walker, epitaphed as a “loving mother and grandmother” on her Ghost Bike memorial.

Almost all drivers, if they gave a statement to the police, said they just didn’t see the cyclist at all or in time to avoid hitting him or her. The reports then generated by police almost always reflect the driver’s account, and with the cyclist no longer alive, often there is little to counter that version of events, especially if other witnesses had hindered views of the accident or didn’t actually see the impact.

Steve recalled the story of Dan Hertweck, the 61-year-old man hit by the box truck driver who was not even given a traffic ticket let alone a citation for breaking that safe-passing ordinance. In the police report, an officer writes that Hertweck, who was an experienced longtime cyclist, “may have ran [sic] into the back” of the truck and “may have fell [sic] after impact with” the truck, based on what appears to be this statement from the driver: “I felt my car rock so I thought I hit a curb. I kept driving straight and pulled over into the gas station parking lot. I turned around and saw a person on a bike on the ground.”

“You would get a ticket for hitting a car. But you can strike and kill someone on a bike and it’s like, ‘Oh well,’” says Steve.

He looks up to his left, pointing down the road. “I see the skid mark now.”

*****
David Rosenfeld, pictured at far right, rode his bike every weekend as a way to escape, whether on solo rides or with cycling groups like this one.
David Rosenfeld, pictured at far right, rode his bike every weekend as a way to escape, whether on solo rides or with cycling groups like this one.
Courtesy of Wendy Rosenfeld

David Rosenfeld’s last ride ended before it had really even begun.

He left early the morning of May 24, 2015, to meet dozens of other cyclists at the Bike Barn for a 15-mile memorial ride for Jon Trevalise, an avid 68-year-old cyclist who had recently been hit and killed by a distracted driver. Trevalise had been involved in several cycling groups and had completed an impressive five Tours du Rouge, six-day bike trips from Houston to New Orleans.

But before Rosenfeld could make it to the memorial that morning, he was hit by a car and killed.

It’s a case that many in the cycling community, and certainly Rosenfeld’s family and friends, point to as a stark illustration of the need for safer bicycle infrastructure everywhere. More than a year later, the cruel irony is one Wendy, his wife, says she has still not gotten over: Had a distracted driver never killed Trevalise, her husband would never have been killed either.

On top of it, Wendy said, the driver was never charged. “He just gets to walk around as a free person, with no consequences for killing my husband,” she said. “I think about it all the time…This guy has no idea who he hit.”

Rosenfeld was a father of three and deeply committed to his Jewish faith, once even helping his best friend, a rabbi, build an entire congregation from the ground up. Thanks to Rosenfeld’s people skills and knack for creative marketing campaigns, he brought 300 new congregants on board for the rabbi, Scott Hausman-Weiss, in a matter of months. He was so good at his creative advertising and marketing job for an oil and gas company, Wendy and Hausman-Weiss said, that his co-workers nicknamed him “Professor,” following him around and asking for his advice constantly.

“If you want to know what was taken from us when he was killed in this ridiculous way,” said Hausman-Weiss, the rabbi at Congregation Shma Koleinu in Houston, “he was like a modern-day Don Quixote. He really was able to attack every windmill.”

Rosenfeld went cycling every weekend through the city and along the bayou, and sometimes he went on social rides on Thursday evenings, Wendy said. Occasionally he took his daughter with him on rides; other times he commuted to work. “Biking for David was…how did he describe it? ‘This is my island,’” Hausman-Weiss recalled. “‘This is my way to escape the intensity of my work, and all the details of life.’” Rosenfeld loved fixing bicycles for people and assembling them as presents at Christmastime, Wendy said. He was involved with BikeHouston, the group that helped create the city’s new bike plan, and he would get agitated and angry in the car with Wendy when he saw cyclists breaking a traffic law, or cars driving too fast and too close to them. He was a nut about bike safety, Wendy said, but even a helmet couldn’t save him that day in May 2015.

The congregation shielded Wendy for months after her husband’s death, keeping quiet about two more cycling-related deaths shortly after Rosenfeld’s: One experienced cyclist from their same congregation hit a nasty pothole and did not survive his injuries; another was hit by a car right near Hausman-Weiss’s home. The congregants gathered for religious services at Wendy’s home, checking on her and her kids frequently. Wendy was too distraught even to attend the Ghost Bike memorial.

“I was in shock for a long time,” Wendy said. “You always protect your children first, and I just went into that mode and did the best I could with that.”

According to data from the Texas Department of Transportation, Houston leads the state’s largest cities — San Antonio, Dallas and Austin — in every category of bicyclist accidents even when population differences are considered. Despite having a population less than twice that of Dallas, Houston has more than three times more cyclist accidents, and roughly 1.4 times more than San Antonio and Austin. (TxDOT cautioned that its data may differ from police department data, given factors such as different computation methods and Texas peace officers’ failing or forgetting to submit accident reports.) Houston also has the highest proportion of cyclist hit-and-runs among the state’s largest cities, at 22 percent of accidents; drivers in Austin, by comparison, flee the scene only 14.6 percent of the time.

Houston leads in fatalities, too, averaging 7.3 cyclist deaths a year compared to Austin’s one, Dallas’s 1.7 and San Antonio’s 4.3.

“I don’t know that I’ll ever get past it,” Wendy said of her husband’s death. “I don’t know what I would do or say if I spoke to [the driver] or saw him. David was such a good guy, but he would say, ‘Let it go.’”

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Doctors told Kyle Zumoff, who was run over by a truck while riding his bike in May, it would take a year for him to learn to walk again. Zumoff has given himself six months.
Doctors told Kyle Zumoff, who was run over by a truck while riding his bike in May, it would take a year for him to learn to walk again. Zumoff has given himself six months.
Christina Mendenhall

It has been easier said than done for Kyle Zumoff, too, who was angry not only at the phantom driver but at the police, who never found the person who hit him.

A few weeks after Zumoff was hit, HPD’s Vehicular Crimes Division Hit and Run Unit closed his case. There was no surveillance footage of the accident. No one caught the license plate. No one could identify the driver. The police put out a Crime Stoppers notice and got one phone call, a lead that didn’t go anywhere. They had reached the end of the rope.

Sergeant Derrick Hall, with the Vehicular Crimes Division, said that hit-and-runs such as this one can be some of the most frustrating cases to investigate when there is little to no identifying information that could lead police to the suspect. In the case of Chelsea Norman, it was a co-worker of Margaret Mayer’s who came forward to tell police that Mayer called her the following day and said she was so drunk the night before that she thought she had hit someone, because her windshield was shattered, but couldn’t remember. In the cases of both Benjamin Mendez, the fruit-cart pusher, and Miguel Marcial, the immigrant dishwasher, the drivers both came forward to admit fault on their own. Without lucky breaks such as those, Hall said, investigations may never reach a conclusion.

Of the 30 hit-and-runs causing death or serious bodily injury in the past three years in Houston, 17 of them remain unsolved.

“It feels bad. It does,” Hall said. “It’s extremely frustrating, because we either have a dead person or a severely injured person who’s the end result. Sometimes I’ve talked to family members and they’re crying, and I’m crying, and I want to do more, but I physically cannot. It’s such a bad feeling knowing there’s somebody out there who would run over somebody and just leave.”

The cause of the problem is anybody’s guess — but Houston’s cycling community, at least, can easily point to the city’s failure to maintain its biking infrastructure. Thanks to only sporadic updates over the past 25 years, cyclists have few safe ways of commuting on bike, and drivers perceive cyclists as “in the way” often because bike lanes are either too narrow or nonexistent.

While some people may be understandably upset as swarms of Critical Mass cyclists take over the road once a month when drivers are trying to get home from a long day at work, individual cyclists can still tell you about all the times they’ve been cursed at or honked at or nearly run off the road simply for riding a bicycle on the street, where they are required by law to ride. Each of them, in fact, likely has a catalog of horror stories about close calls with cars as thick as a collection of platinum Beatles records. Exhibit A: The CEO of Houston B-Cycle, Carter Stern, has been hit by a car on Houston streets a dozen times.

He is lucky only in the sense that none of the cases have resulted in serious injuries, and all the drivers stayed at the scene. “Most only stayed so they could yell at me. Their usual line is, ‘What are you doing in the road?!’” Stern said.

It’s why Stern is a major proponent of the Houston Bike Plan. Of the 1,700 miles of bikeways the plan calls for, planners are seeking to ensure that the majority of them are “high-comfort” lanes, meaning they are designed safely, are well-separated from traffic or are “protected lanes,” like the one on Lamar Street that has an actual barrier dividing the bikes from lanes of car traffic. By comparison, of Houston’s existing roughly 500 miles of bikeways, only half are “high-comfort” — and only 39 miles of high-comfort lanes are on actual streets as opposed to trails along the bayous.

The problem with the city’s only protected lane on Lamar is that it basically leads nowhere and connects to nothing, a huge complaint of cyclists. The bike plan is poised to fix that problem too, seeking to connect trails and on-street lanes all across the city so that cyclists can safely get from point A to point B.

“Right now, there is not much bike infrastructure on Houston streets, period,” said Mary Blitzer, BikeHouston’s advocacy director. “Some of our infrastructure includes routes which are currently identified as ‘bike routes,’ yet it’s not a place where most people on a bike would feel safe riding. Absolutely nothing has been done to make it safe except calling it a ‘route.’…The bike plan is changing that.”

Though completed, the plan has not been officially approved by City Council, but council member David Robinson says the council and Mayor Sylvester Turner are highly supportive of it, and he expects it to be on the books this fall.

One problem, however, is the lack of funding. While the city’s ReBuild Houston projects may take care of much of the new infrastructure in the short term — BikeHouston expects 700 miles to be completed in the next seven to ten years — seeing the entire plan materialize on the streets of Houston may depend on voter-approved bonds.

Meaning the success of the Houston BikePlan may depend on the support of drivers.

Blitzer said a large part of BikeHouston’s goal has been to persuade drivers that they want this too, that if they are annoyed that cyclists are “in the way,” then this is the answer.

“We’re trying to unite everyone who’s riding now, who wants to ride a bike in the future — or maybe never wants to ride a bike but wishes there wasn’t a bicyclist in front of them on a busy street, and that that person had a safer place to ride,” Blitzer told us. “Most of the time, people who are riding in unsafe conditions are doing so because they have no other way to get to where they need to go.”

Still, whether the bike plan is successful may not matter to people like Kyle Zumoff, who says that even if he returns to Houston, he will never get on his bike here again.

He isn’t sure he will ever be able to anywhere, in fact, still unable to get over how quickly, without any notice, a leisurely ride on a clear evening turned into a brush with death. He is still in a wheelchair, anyway: Doctors told him that learning to walk again may take a year — though Zumoff, always up for a challenge, has given himself six months.

As for Wendy Rosenfeld, she says she and her husband had been planning a big bike trip through Europe, perhaps wine country — but it’s one she won’t ever be taking. Her three kids might start riding again one day, though, she said. Recently, her daughter, who loved to go on rides with her dad, had even asked some of Rosenfeld’s old friends if they could take her on a ride with them — her own way of keeping her dad close.

It’s been months, though, and Wendy said the ride still hasn’t happened — which is fine with her. Save for a couple of rides her daughter has taken around the block, the 11 bikes in their garage have remained mostly untouched.


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