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, 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.
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 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.
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.
Susan’s death was preventable.
It was initially 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 they could end someone’s life.
As it turns out, the person responsible for killing Susan did not have a heart attack, a seizure…or a license. Instead, he was high and driving with a suspended license.
Suspending someone’s license doesn’t mean they can’t get behind the wheel of a car. It just makes the consequences a bit more unpleasant if they’re caught again.
There was a great deal of press about the crash, her death, and significant pressure to do something from her friends, family, colleagues, neighborhood groups, bicycle advocates like Bike PGH, and even local politicians.
The attention on her case had a somewhat unusual result — the driver was arrested, charged, and sentenced to five to 10 years in prison. The man responsible for her death is in prison, which could bring solace to some, but it obviously doesn’t change the fact that her family and friends will never be able to hear her laugh again.
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 a sneeze) that could send a massive hunk of metal careening off course, we do have options. We need physical separation so one person’s emergency (or text or other distraction) won’t mean someone else’s death.
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 a dangerous corridor for vulnerable users for decades.
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.
But it should not take someone’s death for us to prioritize making our streets safe for all users. It wasn’t outrage over an untimely death that led to PennDOT, the City of Pittsburgh, and Pennsylvania Statehouse to take action and produce results.
Those changes happened quickly, and I can’t help wondering if it’s because the person who died this time had friends who were loud, persistent, and connected.
I’m thrilled that this dangerous neighborhood is becoming safer and more accessible for those biking or using a scooter. I live in Pittsburgh again, and I appreciate and feel much safer riding on the protected bike lanes that were the happy outcome of this awful tragedy. I am pleased that this part of the city has become safer for everyone after her death; still, I’d rather see Susan on the corner than the ghost bike that marks her crash.
What are we waiting for? We should immediately install the life-saving infrastructure that separates multi-ton vehicles from those under 20 pounds. More people will be empowered to embrace the freedom of the bicycle as a form of transportation if they do not feel intimidated or threatened by sharing city streets with cars — and we need to make that possible everywhere.
Let’s have the will to prevent other senseless and tragic deaths.