By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile.com —
When bicyclist Geoff O’Gara came to his senses in the Lander emergency room, he couldn’t recall the incident that sent him to the pavement.
The experienced cyclist had been riding the main street of Wyoming’s 13th largest city — one with more than its share of cyclists — on the shoulder of a highway that lacked protected bicycle lanes. He recalls seeing a couple of pickup trucks that August 2019 day, but none that seemed threatening.
No eyewitnesses came forward, O’Gara, a WyoFile board member, said. People only reported seeing others helping the dazed rider up from the highway, large bruises ripening on his face and shoulder.
Every indication to him and an emergency worker who responded — from the outline of the bruises to their location to a lack of scuffing on his clothes and bicycle — indicate that a pickup truck side-view mirror smacked O’Gara and sent him to the asphalt.
His case, however, wasn’t thoroughly investigated by police, O’Gara believes. Despite the forensic evidence, the official report simply noted that he fell off his bicycle, O’Gara told WyoFile.
“I was extremely lucky,” O’Gara said. A hospital scan revealed the impact bruised his brain. He was too concussed and worried about his recovery in the weeks following his crash to follow up on the hit-and-run. But nobody else did, either.
O’Gara’s predicament underscores the dangerous conditions that exist for Wyoming cyclists and pedestrians. Wyoming is last among states when it comes to bicycle and pedestrian friendliness, a recent ranking by a nationwide group found.
A decade ago, Wyoming earned an 11th place among the 50 states for its policies and infrastructures for bicyclists and pedestrians, the League of American Bicyclists reported. The next year it demoted Wyoming to 15th, and then to 17th.
In 2019 it put the Equality State dead last on its Bicycle Friendly report card.
The 2019 ranking by the 139-year old nationwide advocacy group gave the state a D- in infrastructure and funding, a D+ for policies and programs, C- for both education and planning and a C+ for legislation and enforcement.
“It’s been declining every year,” Tim Young, executive director of nonprofit Wyoming Pathways, said of the state’s ranking.
Wyoming has fallen behind because other states have taken the league’s grading parameters — from funding to education to laws and road-construction standards — more seriously than Wyoming has, Young said. “That’s why we’re lower down.”
O’Gara could have done more to protect himself, like wearing a helmet. The regular cyclist shunned it for the short ride from his home to a car dealership. But Lander’s layout and infrastructure contributed little to his safety. “I feel like people are at risk all the time when they ride,” he said.
The league report card says, “every federal data indicator for Wyoming suggests that bicycling is getting worse, and the core reason is a lack of state investment and a lack of using federal funds for bicycling and walking projects.”
That’s a “disappointing” assessment, Gov. Mark Gordon’s Spokesman Michael Pearlman said. He pointed to transportation-department funding challenges as an issue, questioned the report’s methodology and said Wyoming’s rural nature needs to be accounted for. Yet the report may lead the governor to “a conversation” with his new transportation director Luke Reiner on the topic, Pearlman said.
Overall the league gave Wyoming 31.7 points on its scale, compared to top-place Washington, which had 71. Wyoming neighbor Colorado ranked seventh, Utah eighth, Idaho 33rd and Montana 47th.
Wyoming needs to implement one of its recent cycle and walking plans and put money behind them, the league report said. Wyoming’s Department of Transportation should understand why the league’s indicators are trending the wrong way, the report continued.
The league spent three years tracking where drivers are killing people on bicycles. “It’s clear these deaths are disproportionately happening on state-owned roadways,” the report says. It ranked Wyoming second among states where local highways are over-represented in the grim statistic.
The state needs to incorporate protected bike lanes regularly in its plans, something most states achieved in 2017, the report said. Adopting a “complete streets” program would ensure the needs of non-motorized users are considered at the beginning of construction projects, Young said.
Wyoming should set goals that seek to improve, not just maintain, non-motorized safety, the report said. Lawmakers should act, too, the report said, adopting a law to further protect “vulnerable road users” like walkers and cyclists. Wyoming should improve its rumble strips to ensure there are gaps allowing cyclists to cross them easily.
Since 2013 WYDOT has distributed about $18 million in federal highway funds to cities, towns and counties for non-motorized projects, WYDOT Public Affairs Manager Doug McGee said.
Meanwhile, it struggles with essential maintenance funding. The department is $135 million short annually, “just to keep the roads in the condition they are now,” he told WyoFile. The state strives for a goal of zero highway deaths, he said.
“Every fatality on our highways, our system, is one too many,” McGee said. “I think we do our best to fulfill our mission.”
No new laws
A co-chairman of the Legislature’s joint Transportation Highways and Military Affairs Committee said lawmakers have adopted several safety measures in recent years, including one that requires vehicles to give cyclists three feet of space. Another allows cyclists to use a highway even when a pathway is available, enabling fast riders to separate themselves from slow-moving pedestrians, Sen. Michael Von Flatern (R-Gillette) told WyoFile.
“They were mixing the baby carriages with the pro bicyclists,” he said.
But he doesn’t envision passage of an enhanced penalty statue for those who injure or kill vulnerable non-motorized users. “I oppose enhancing penalties,” he said. It just doesn’t seem to me that it would be worth it.”
While Young agreed the league’s 2019 last-place ranking is bad, “it’s not as bad as it looks,” he told WyoFile. That’s because Wyoming is poised to make “some quick progress,” he said.
In addition to their other measures, lawmakers in 2016 established a task force to look broadly at safety issues. This led to a call in 2018 for the state to spend $10 million annually to build and promote walkable main streets, community pathways and rural cycling routes and trails.
At least 25 communities, from Story to Cheyenne and Casper, have plans that seek to add community pathways, main-street programs or initiatives like safe-routes-to-schools.
“There’s broad interest,” Young said, including in health and economic benefits. Yet, “there is no bicycle pedestrian program at WYDOT, for all practical purposes, compared to other states, that seeks to serve people however they travel, foot, bike, bus or motor vehicle.”
Agencies across Cheyenne could participate, including the office of State Lands and Investments that oversees the use of school trust property and Wyoming’s state parks department, a natural niche for cycling and walking amenities. Law enforcement could enhance officer training “so they can look for issues, like “was that a hit-and run?’” Young said.
Wyoming’s own 95-page report from 2018 contains 32 pages of recommendations, including that the governor assist the Legislature in establishing a state-level bicycle board. Gov. Gordon, however, is leery of long-term task forces, spokesman Pearlman said.
Perhaps this is where an advocacy group helps by playing a key role, he said.
Crash-victim O’Gara said he’s seen “so many close calls,” it’s unsettling. He has participated in the Tour de Wyoming several times, he said, and has encountered rude motorists.
“The traffic that is there is pretty dang inconsiderate of bikes,” he said. With the potential for bicycle touring the state holds, “it’s crazy not to make the effort to make it safer,” he said.
After two years of planning, Wyoming needs action, Young said, to bring it up to speed. “We should take this [League] report as something we can do better on,” he said.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.