If you happened to be in Shelby Bottoms on Aug. 3, a breezy Sunday, you might have seen Molly Meinbresse and her friends riding through the park on what appeared to be just another ordinary bike outing. Approximately two dozen people started out at the Shelby Bottoms Nature Center, riding up to a bridge that overlooks the Cumberland. Once they arrived, however, everyone got off their bikes and let out a collective scream that resounded over the water — then rode back to the starting point.
The ride marked an important anniversary for Meinbresse, 31, a researcher on homelessness and health care issues. Exactly one year earlier, she was riding her bicycle over Korean Veterans Bridge — a frequent route for the avid cyclist — when a motorist plowed into her. The driver of the car left her for dead.
Three witnesses came to her aid, protecting her from traffic as they called 911. Meinbresse was rushed to Vanderbilt Medical Center, where she would not learn until later the extent of her injuries. Doctors began treating her for a traumatic brain injury as well as multiple broken bones, including her jaw, nose, left hand, right leg and pelvis. If she hadn't been wearing a helmet, the injuries would likely have been fatal.
After a week in intensive care, Meinbresse was moved to rehabilitation, spending a month in the hospital. Upon her discharge, she was wheelchair bound, and she moved in with her parents for another month as she recuperated.
Today, Meinbresse appears the picture of health, though she still has physical limitations due to the accident. Regaining her balance, strength and depth perception all took time, an experience that Meinbresse describes as learning to live with a new brain and a new body.
"It's an emotional day," Meinbresse admits, motioning to the roughly two dozen friends and family joining her in Shelby Bottoms. "Right after the accident, I kept saying that I can't wait for a year to go by, and for all this to be over, because it was a nightmare. As soon as I was able to start walking again and get back into my house and back to work, I felt like life could get back to 'normal' for me. But it's never going to be the same. ... Almost every day I would bike to work. I biked to friends' houses, or to go out to dinner."
Meinbresse's traumatic experience points out some of the hazards of Nashville's baby steps away from its dependence on automobiles, and the uneasy interaction of bicyclists and motorists on the streets they both use. As Nashville's population expands, people are seeking alternate ways of transportation to avoid bottlenecked interstates and clogged intersections. Additionally, as more people move here — perhaps coming from cities with better cycling infrastructure — the idea of sharing the road is more than just a polite suggestion.
In 2001, Metro Public Works developed the Nashville-Davidson County Strategic Plan for Sidewalks and Bikeways. This initiative, fueled by public input, evaluated county roadways to assess the feasibility of incorporating bicycle lanes. Toward that end, the city conducted an inventory of more than 750 miles of sidewalks.
Since then, nearly 150 miles of bikeways — hike/bike trails and off-road/on-street bike routes — have been completed. In 2008, Mayor Karl Dean issued an executive order to establish the Nashville Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee to increase the safety of bicycle and pedestrian travel throughout the city.
Last fall, Metro hired Jason Radinger as the city's first Bike/Ped Coordinator, marking the first time that the city dedicated a full-time employee to focus on safely expanding both the sidewalk and bikeway networks throughout Davidson County. In addition to incorporating walkway and bikeway requests into a strategic plan, Radinger is currently working on a pedestrian and bicycle mobility study, which will assess current connectivity and possible resolutions to accident-prone areas.
"Pretty much every street is bike-able, it's just a matter of your comfort level," says Radinger, who routinely seeks feedback from different cycling groups around Nashville. "The strategic plan identifies certain streets as being a high candidate to put bikeways on there, but you've also got to listen to the people — where are they going, where do they want to go, and how can we help facilitate that by putting in some signs, some markings, or dedicated bike lanes."
But cycling advocates say that putting in bike lanes or road signs isn't a one-stop solution. Nor is implementing a three-foot law or requiring that cyclists under the age of 17 wear a helmet.
"A bike lane doesn't necessarily make a road safe for a cyclist," says Joe Pagetta, a Nashville publicist and musician who has been regularly commuting to work via bike since 2007. He says that while he thinks the overall experience of biking in Nashville has improved, many bike lanes are plagued by issues such as debris or uneven paving due to drainage areas, or by narrow roads with fast traffic.
"You have to treat yourself as a vehicle," he says. "I try to be really conscious of the driver, especially at red lights."
Metro Public Works outlines current laws at its website in the "Bikeways FAQ" section. But Radinger says that awareness surrounding laws for cyclists could be improved through education — perhaps through TV or radio spots, or through a more thorough section in a driver's license test. The core issue, he believes, is ensuring that everybody on the road is paying attention.
"It's a lot like marriage; you both have to compromise, and you both have to be aware of one another," Radinger says. "You can't just make a decision without looking."
Radinger says that overall, accidents between bicycles and cars have decreased in Nashville. According to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, the number of reported crashes in Davidson County dropped from 79 in 2004 to 60 in 2013, though the years in between did not show a steady decline. Sgt. Bob Sheffield, who supervised the investigation surrounding Meinbresse's incident — the driver has still not been identified — says that while reported accidents are infrequent, they could be avoided if both cyclists and drivers obeyed the rules of the road.
"Cyclists have been under the same rules as motor vehicles," Sheffield says. "They have to obey the same rules of the road, they have to stop at stop signs, they have to stop at signal lights, they have to yield to oncoming traffic, they have to ride in the direction the traffic is flowing, same rules as motor vehicles. A lot of times, especially in the downtown area, not trying to assign fault to anyone, you'll see cyclists that the rules of the road don't apply to them."
Back in 2010, Sheffield says, when he wrote a Tennessean editorial on bike safety, "the contributing factor went back to the bicycles just failing to obey the rules of the road" in the majority of the serious crashes he'd recently seen. Nevertheless, he stresses that motorists share responsibility for safe conduct. Even when cyclists are following safety guidelines as Meinbresse was, he says, they can still be clipped by "an inattentive driver," even on a route the bicycle rider has traveled 100 times. His inactive file still has unsolved cases from when he first started doing crash investigations in the mid-2000s.
"Fortunately, we don't have a lot of serious crashes between cyclists and cars," Sheffield says, adding that the Nashville Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee's role educating both drivers and cyclists is integral to reducing accidents. "Both have to be aware; both have the right to the road, so there's no question regarding that. If bicycle lanes are available, then bicyclists have to be in the lanes. Motor vehicles can't be in bicycle lanes. They can't park in them, they can't drive in them, they can't cross over them. There's always a need to continue this education, I think.
"Nashville is definitely not a pedestrian-friendly city," he continues. "It should be, it needs to be, and it continues to become a place where people's primary mode of transportation would be the bicycle instead of a motor vehicle."
Even if people would choose cycling over driving when possible, however, the fear of being out on the open road still prevents many from doing it. Especially Molly Meinbresse.
"I don't know if I'll ever feel safe enough to ride on the roads," Meinbresse admits. "I don't know if I'll be able to ride to work again, to ride in all the ways I was able to ride before. I still want to do it recreationally, and maybe one day I can get back on the roads. But Nashville is kind of a scary place for cyclists. Even before my accident, I was yelled at on a regular basis. People call you names, they want you off the road."
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