Yes, Timothy Erickson’s Death Was a Failure of Street Design

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The side of Colorado Boulevard Erickson was supposed to be riding on isn’t conducive to biking — even on the sidewalk, which is illegal anyway. Image: Google Maps

The Denver medical examiner has completed an autopsy of Timothy Erickson, who was struck and killed last month while biking on Colorado Boulevard. The autopsy confirmed that Erickson was not impaired by drugs or alcohol when he was struck.

Not exactly an inviting place to bike or even walk. Driveways for cars are on either side of this sidewalk section. Image: Google Maps
The area where Erickson was killed isn’t a safe place for people on bikes or people on foot. Image: Google Maps

Since Erickson was hit while biking against traffic, in violation of the law, the common knee-jerk reaction has been to blame him for his own death. But the medical examiner’s report reinforces the notion that Erickson was acting rationally, given the constraints imposed by the street design.

While Erickson can’t tell his story and explain his decisions, it’s clear that biking on Colorado Boulevard is terrifying and dangerous even when used in accordance with the law. Traffic on Colorado moves at fatal speeds, and the street is full of curb cuts where turning drivers may not be looking out for people walking or biking. If you bike in the road in the direction of traffic, you have no view of the motorists coming up behind you at 40 or 50 mph. If you bike on the sidewalk (which is itself illegal), the pavement is narrow, cracked, and obstructed.

People on bikes often decide to break the law based on a rational assessment of Denver’s streets. Sure, Erickson was responsible for making his own decisions, but those decisions, made with a clear head, were based on the built environment around him.

Blaming Erickson for his own death exemplifies an outdated mentality that puts the onus for safety on the most vulnerable people on the street. Policy makers who are committed to reducing traffic fatalities don’t look at it that way. Instead of pinning the blame on Erickson, they would seek to understand how his death could have been prevented, given what we know about streets and human behavior.

What if Colorado Boulevard wasn’t designed for high motor vehicle speeds? What if there was dedicated space for cycling, so people on bikes could actually avoid dangerous traffic? Would Erickson be alive today?

Those are the questions Denver would ask if the city was serious about Vision Zero — the goal of eliminating traffic deaths. Mayor Michael Hancock has committed to Vision Zero verbally, but has yet to back up his words with action.

  • HumanInDenver

    Colorado is an example of a completely failed street design. It is a failure for bikes, pedestrians, transit riders, and even cars. If you are going to design a street with little to no thought to pedestrian, bicycle, or transit riders, at least make it amazing for cars. WHat we have instead is a road, masquerading as a street, that is dangerous and frustrating for all users

  • ColoNick

    Yes, but was Erickson wearing a helmet? /s Maybe Hank from CDOT can do video series for cyclists on how to get killed by cars, which would likely entail leaving your bike at home.

  • Susan Barnes-Gelt

    Memo to Mayor: Vision Zero – afflicted-with isn’t the same as committed-to!

  • EMB

    I agree entirely that Colorado Blvd. needs decent facilities for pedestrians and people on bicycles. However, I wish you’d stop noting that sidewalk riding is illegal as the first thing that’s wrong with it. The legality’s beside the point when it’s so dangerous to the people riding. Getting hit by someone driving a car through an intersection or driveway is much likelier than getting ticketed for bicycling on the sidewalk.

    Since even the best-case scenario for redesigning Colorado would mean we’ll still be waiting months or years, what can we do now to help direct people to the lesser-traveled parallel streets that are safer and more pleasant for bicycling? That’s what I use when I’m biking to a destination on Colorado Blvd.

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