Safe Streets for Susan
I met Susan when I was 9, and she was 7 when we were on swim team together in Northern Virginia. She was an incredibly fast and graceful swimmer, while I sort of moseyed along, barely not drowning.
Though never super close friends, our early lives were intertwined. Our little brothers were best friends, her mother was my geometry teacher, her oldest brother was the first crush of my youngest sister, and all of our siblings were on swim teams together until I was 15.
Every time I hear Metallica (which, admittedly, is not as often as you might think), I am immediately transported to memories of her older brother’s burnt sienna station wagon, forever blasting Metallica, as he drove us to our year-round swim team practice.
After high school, we lost touch for a while, as I zigged in one direction, and she zagged the other. She left Virginia to study at the University of Pittsburgh, and I studied abroad in Moscow through a program Pitt’s Russian department, where she later worked.
Reunited and It Feels So Good
The weekend she moved back to Pittsburgh, almost a decade ago, we ran into each other, just hours before I moved back to Washington, DC. We recognized each other instantly and enthusiastically reconnected. She had started living with an old friend of mine so we had the chance to spend more time together.
When her little brother became a father in 2015, Susan and I both visited the town where our parents still lived and I rode back to Pittsburgh with her and we laughed the whole way as we realized all the ways our lives had overlapped.
A month later, I was stunned to learn she was killed in Pittsburgh on her way home from work.
Brilliant, Beautiful, Joyful, and Loved Life
Susan was brilliant, beautiful, joyful, and loved life, and she was excited about the present and future. She had just bought a house and was preparing to move into it the following month. She was thrilled she’d be able to walk or ride to friends’ houses for dinner, and their tradition of reading plays out loud.
That Friday she was riding her bike home from her job as assistant director at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Russian and East European Studies. The next day her family was planning her funeral.
Another Life Wasted; Another Preventable Death
Susan’s death was preventable.
Initially her death was called an “accident.”
It was originally thought that the driver of one of the cars involved had a medical emergency of some sort, a heart attack or a seizure, and lost control of their car.
And that’s the thing: cars are multi-ton tools operated by hundreds of millions of people, and any momentary distraction can mean the end of someone’s life.
No matter how diligent and thoughtful a person is, while driving a car, even the very best driver is susceptible to some unanticipated emergency — and that could end someone’s life.
Why Drive with a Suspended License?
The person responsible for killing Susan did not have a heart attack or a seizure. Or a valid license.
He was driving with a suspended license.
But suspending someone’s license doesn’t physically prevent someone from getting behind the wheel of a car. It just makes the consequences a bit more unpleasant for them — if they’re caught.
Would someone risk the penalties, the fines, the potential imprisonment of getting caught — if there were other feasible ways to get around?
What Happens When Someone’s License is Suspended?
If someone’s license is suspended, are they taught about other transportation options? Is someone who is used to driving suddenly left to figure it out on their own?
We can’t know for sure, but it’s possible that — had there been other viable (and understood) transportation options — the man responsible for Susan’s death would not have gotten behind the wheel of the car.
He is in prison now and while this might bring solace to some, his imprisonment does nothing to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.
And that he is in prison does not change the fact that her family and friends will never be able to hear her laugh again.
There ARE Ways to Make Our Streets Safe for All Users
When I posted about Susan’s death the following day in 2015, I said, “We can build and rebuild our cities in ways that respect the rights, safety, and lives of all road users. We need to build infrastructure that separates and protects people on bikes.”
It should have said, “We can build — and must — rebuild our cities in ways that respect the rights, safety, and lives of all road users.
While we cannot prevent freak medical emergencies (or even something as common and small as a sneeze) which could send a massive hunk of metal careening off course, we do have options to make our cities safe for all.
It Shouldn’t Take Someone’s Death to Make Our Streets Safe
The process of making streets safer in Pittsburgh was dramatically accelerated after Susan’s death.
Forbes Avenue — particularly the mile-long stretch between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon — had been identified as a dangerous corridor for decades, and people had been begging for interventions to make it safer.
But it should not take the tragic death of someone with well-connected friends in order to for our cities us prioritize making our streets safe for all users.
What are We Waiting For?
Thanks to the tireless advocacy of countless individuals and Bike PGH, the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Oakland — where Susan Hicks worked and was killed — has gotten much safer for everyone.
That this dangerous neighborhood is becoming safer and more accessible for those biking or using a scooter is one happy outcome of the senseless tragedy.
Still, I’d much rather run into Susan on that corner instead of thinking of her in the past tense when I see the ghost bike that marks her crash.
We need inclusive infrastructure, mobility options that work for people of all ages and abilities, and we need education so people understand the numerous ways to get around.
- We need physical separation so one person’s emergency (or text or other distraction) won’t mean someone else’s death: we should immediately install the life-saving infrastructure that separates multi-ton vehicles from vehicles that weigh under 20 pounds.
- We need viable, reliable, and well-known alternatives to driving so if someone is unable to drive for any reason, they should still be to get where they need to go.
- We need education to ensure that if someone’s license is suspended temporarily or revoked permanently, they are taught how to easily get around without driving.
A Most Livable City for Everyone
We need to treat everyone — a licensed driver or not — as a valued member of our society.
Let’s do this for Susan, for everyone who loved her, and for everyone who has lost their life on our streets.
Let’s finally transform Pittsburgh into the “Most Livable City” that it’s always touted to be.