By Frances Stead Sellers
Some 700 bikers registered to ride through Baltimore on New Year’s Day in honor of a cyclist killed in a hit-and-run crash — far more than that showed up on road bikes and racing bikes, tandems and folding bikes, towing children and carrying flowers, and a few riding on the custom frames designed by Tom Palermo, the 41-year-old father of two who was killed here on Saturday. The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland identified the driver of the vehicle as its No. 2 bishop, Heather Cook.
The bike/car battle that has flared in Washington ever since ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser exhorted impatient drivers to “run ’em down,” shot like a firecracker through New Year celebrations in this north Baltimore neighborhood. Bikers and drivers alike are shaken.
Palermo was struck on Roland Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Roland Park, a leafy late-Victorian neighborhood designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Most houses back onto alleys where kids shoot hoops and try out two-wheelers. For years we organized a bike parade here each Fourth, which has been succeeded by a far larger parade down Roland Avenue, starting a few hundred yards from where Palermo was killed.
The accident happened on a residential stretch, just north of the local library and a few shops, including a small supermarket, a pharmacy and a post office, and both public and private schools. There are two broad lanes in both directions, as well as a marked bike lane and room for a row of parked cars, all of which makes this feel like a particularly pedestrian- and bike-friendly part of town.
If a fatal accident could happen there, it could happen anywhere. Which is why, along with solemn grief and anger, I’ve heard fear today. And not only from my fellow bikers.
“I nearly hit someone yesterday,” one friend said as we talked in the kitchen. “I don’t know where he came from. He didn’t signal.” Another told me she almost knocked a biker over as she pulled out of a parking space close to where Palermo died. She’s a careful driver — but she wasn’t expecting someone on two wheels to shoot by.
You can teach bikers to make their presence clear. And you can teach drivers to anticipate cyclists. Other countries do, and the U.S. should, too.
When I grew up in England, we took “Cycling Proficiency Tests,” often administered through schools. Many parents, including my own, didn’t let their children ride on the road until they’d taken the course and secured a badge and certificate. Back then, I thought of the test as being all about biking. But now I realize it was about becoming a good user of the roads.
The benefit wasn’t just that we learned to maneuver our bikes around obstacles and how to give clear traffic signals. By teaching kids good biking skills, Cycling Proficiency also taught future car owners to be better drivers, anticipating the presence of bikes and respecting their needs. A new UK program, Bikeability, billed as “cycling proficiency for the 21st century,” has updated the old mission for modern roads.
I met Tom Palermo’s mother, quite by chance, just as the ride was setting out. She pulled up beside the crowds of bikers and rolled down her car window. “I’m Tommy’s mother,” she said. “Can somebody help me?” She wanted to know which way the great funeral cortege of bicycles would head, how to get by car to Roland Avenue and the spot where her only son had been killed and where a white ghost bike, flickering candles, and piles of flowers now slow the curious drivers passing by.