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I Want to be a Bike Lane for Cyclists on the Highway

In Denmark, the Danes are building superhighways for bicycles.  The Danish municipalities and their public works departments decided to construct 14-mile bike paths, away from car-carrying roads, for health, quicker commutes and carbon emissions reductions.

And because bicycling makes you feel happy. I swear, these were the quotes in the New York Times.

In Connecticut, we Nutmeggers have decided, for the first time ever, to put Burnside Avenue in East Hartford on a “road diet”, reducing the lane width for cars and striping bike lanes on the asphalt.  Why? Because on that road, cars have killed three bicyclists in the past 18 months.

And in Connecticut, we continue to put up ghost bikes to honor those cyclists who have died trying to be happy riding their bicycles.

The latest ghost bike: for Colleen Kelly Alexander, at the intersection of Neck Road and Boston Post Road in Madison.

The best part about the ghostie for Colleen Kelly Alexander: she is still alive.  Doctors call her an unexpected survivor.  By all accounts, she should have died after a delivery truck rolled through a stop sign, and crushed her beneath its wheels on October 8, 2011.

Colleen, 35, was a triathlete with a well-conditioned heart of gold. A former EMT, she knew to stay awake despite her hip bones being exposed and her guts and blood leaking on the pavement. She screamed, and within a few minutes, Madison medics loaded her to an ambulance.

The ambulance driver made it to Yale New Haven in record time, and within five minutes of Colleen making the ER, her compassionate heart flatlined. Doctors restarted it, and in the next 24 hours, she died again, was resuscitated and went through 78 units of blood.

Two weeks ago, when I contacted her about putting out a ghost bike for her, she feared people criticizing her because she was still alive. Ghost bikes are for people who died. But, I said, you died twice. You were critically injured.  And that top flight athlete she was is no longer. While she yearns to finish a triathlon again, the accident killed a part of her. But that was not the debate Madison wanted to have after we posted the ghost bike.

The criticisms hoity-toity shoreliners leveled at us in the press following the placing of the ghost bike had nothing to do with life or death, but with litter and the potential for memorials to soil the pristine Route 1 landscape.

If I drank coffee, I would have spit it out when I read this ignorance. The commercialization clogging Route 1 does not merit complaints, but a ghost bike does? The dilettantes deriding the celebration of safety and survival and civil rights made me think of those in the 1950s who told blacks to have more patience.

No, I want a bicycle superhighway running parallel to Route 1. And I want it now. Had Colleen Kelly Alexander had a bicycle superhighway ten months ago, she might not now have scar of at least a square foot of flesh that continues to weep on her left leg, to say nothing of what scars mar her stomach and pelvis.

Doctors weren’t sure that she would live. When she survived, they didn’t think she might walk. Now she is riding her bicycle.

Our little ceremony on super-busy Route 1 on Sunday morning featured Colleen and her husband, and some friends, my wife, my mom, my sister and her 8-year-old daughter, the EMTs who saved Colleen, and some of Colleen’s healers.  Even Tony Cherolis biked down from Hartford.

Tony and Colleen attached the signs saying “Cyclist Critically Injured Here” to the ghost bike, and then leaned it on a telephone pole at the intersection. Colleen then shared her story, and her inspiration from Nobel Laureate Jodi Williams: “Anger without action is irrelevant.”

Colleen Kelly Alexander and Tony Cherolis put signs on the ghost bike in her honor at the corner of Neck Road and Route 1 in Madison, CT. Her husband Sean is in blue, holding flowers for the bike. Photo by and courtesy of Pem McNerny.

Her husband Sean recited the mantra he said every day when he visited her in the hospital. Then, my mom responded to Colleen’s call for a volunteer to read a Buddhist prayer by the Dalai Lama:

May I become at all times, both now and forever

A protector for those without protection

A guide for those who have lost their way

A ship for those with oceans to cross

A bridge for those with rivers to cross

A sanctuary for those in danger

A lamp for those without light

A place of refuge for those who lack shelter

And a servant to all in need.

The Dalai Lama’s prayer sounds like Dr. King’s call to be a voice for the voiceless, or Bob Dylan’s plaintive desire for “Shelter from the Storm.”  In hindsight, I think we can add a line to the Dalai Lama’s prayer for what I want to be – “A bike lane for those who cycle on the roadways.”

If I was really quick, I would’ve come up with that on Sunday morning. But I, like Tony, the engineer who doesn’t cry, was wiping tears as Colleen told her superhuman story of survival. And if Tony keeps working on this ghost bike project, he may have to give up his engineering credentials.

And that is it – we have to keep working on this ghost bike project. I have more bikes in the basement, and more on the way to paint and then post around the state. At least 15 people have died on bikes in Connecticut in the last two years, and each of them should be remembered as heroes who perished just trying to ride their bicycles.

In the dozen years I have advocated for the rights of bicyclists, hosted fundraisers, served on boards of directors, made newsletters, organized rides, and lobbied legislators, nothing has forced the DOT to put a road on a diet like the ghost bikes.

Back in November, after Daniel Schultz was killed on Burnside Avenue, pure rage motivated Tony and Kevin Sullivan and Chris Brown and I to post the ghost bikes.  We did not imagine it would help people like Linda Piotrowicz mourn her late partner William Laramie, and celebrate his life.

In our wildest dreams, we did not think it would connect us to heroes like Colleen, or bring about a cover story in last week’s Hartford and New Haven Advocates describing how DOT is rethinking roads like Burnside Avenue.

Now, we must enunciate our wildest dream: a Connecticut with bicycle super highways. Not just rails to trails, but commuter paths to provide the dozens of happy cyclists who rode by us on Sunday morning safe places to exercise, commute and enjoy the wonderful act of riding a bicycle.

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