Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bike vs. Car Survivor Talks Cycling, Healthcare, and Cars

Back in March, my friend Scott Calvert introduced me to an avid cyclist (and now a new friend) who had been in a horrible bike vs. car accident in San Francisco. His story so beautifully illustrates cycling, healthcare, and insurance issues that I asked him for an interview on PlanBike.

His name is Johan Beisser (pronounced "Yawn"). He's lived all over the world and all over the country both as a cyclist and motorist. He currently lives in San Francisco. Up until 7 months ago, he was using his bicycle in the city as a major mode of transport. Then, on September 16, 2009, something bad happened to him while riding his bike.

He was moving through the intersection of Polk and Geary when a car darted right in front of him. Things happened so fast that he could not avoid collision. Instinct seems to have brought his leg up to brace himself for the impact. Unfortunately, his leg went through a side window of the car and his body kept traveling until it totaled the outside of the car. The primary injury was a shattered hip socket. Although doctors managed to put his hip socket back together, the final result will be potentially severe arthritis in a decade or so.

Johan was about done with physical therapy when we met. Amazingly, he's walking pretty well now. Still, he's facing a number of long term effects of the injury: physical, financial, and psychological.

What follows is a Q and A with Johan Beisser about cycling, his crash, and his thoughts on both now after his experience.

PlanBike: How long have you been cycling as serious transport?
Johan: Off and on since 1996. I ended up using it really seriously in 2007 after getting a job in Mill Valley while I was living in Sausalito. At that point I was even preferring to ride the bike to the exclusion of the motorcycles most of the time.

PlanBike: How far do you typically ride?
Johan: A minimum of 6 miles a day, with 40 to 50 miles on Sundays. Occasionally, I'd do a "short loop" of 17 miles to and from Ft. Point (just under the Golden Gate Bridge) in the evenings, along the waterfront (basically along Embarcadero).The objective would be to beat the sunset to the bridge, and be home before dark.

Right now, due to my injury and healing process, I can't seem to do much more than 10 miles on a stationary bike before getting frustrated and bored.

PlanBike: What motivated you to start cycling?
Johan: Honestly, I just like things that don't balance themselves until they're moving.

I've been using a phrase "Two Wheel Revolution" for a while as a motivator around personal transport being smaller and more involved. I generally like small, light, and fast modes of transit, especially those that permit me to really experience the thrill of zipping along with the wind, weather, and road ahead. Sports cars, sport motorcycles, and light bicycles all fall in to this category.

This last time, it was a combination of economics and health benefits. I turned 33 in 2007 and something about being older got me to plan for the future a little more, and take the time to invest in my body and long term health. So, the natural choice was to buy a cheap Bianchi Pista, and start riding that to and from my job site. It turns out I really like the simplicity of a fixed gear, but hate the pressure on my knees when slowing down.

In 2008 I moved to Portland, OR, and stayed carless there. By then I'd sold both my motorcycles, and pretty much lived the fixed gear lifestyle: riding it everywhere in the city. Upon moving back to the bay area, I supplemented the Pista with a geared bike, and used it for everything from grocery runs to transit to meet friends.

PlanBike: How did you find Portland for bikes?
Johan: Portland is actually very bike-friendly. It's shockingly easy to go from downtown to the outer areas of the city by bike, park and lock it up. For example, you can go from SE Portland to the airport with your bike with it being welcomed on the light rail system, and every bus.

The city has not only embraced bicycles, they've actively cultured a true cottage industry around bike building, cycling as a real urban transport alternative, and bicycles as transport first. I can't, off hand, name a single business that doesn't have bike parking of some sort nearby or on premises.

I suspect it helps that the larger portion of PDX is topologically flat (SE/SW side), with the harder grades being NE/NW. Combined with an easy grid layout.

That said, there's still the typical "road rage" aggression against people on bicycles. Mostly surprising out of just how atypical it is for the city. I can say I never encountered it myself.

When I was riding to and from my job outside of Parker, CO I had the occasional thing thrown at me, a couple encounters with drunken cowboys in trucks. But, once in the urban areas this was again atypical. From what I hear, Denver has become very bike-friendly since I lived there (over 16 years ago now) and has tried to encourage more cycling. It helps that it's the traditional home for most of the Olympic Teams to train in.

PlanBike: Given the accident, what would you do differently?
Johan: It's hard to say. Right after the accident I was wondering what I did wrong, and my conclusion has been "nothing." I could have kept my knee lower during impact, or hit the brakes earlier, or assumed the driver was going to turn well before he did.

I don't for a moment think that my accident, as traumatic as it was, has put me off of riding bicycles on San Francisco city streets. What it will have done is made me trust traffic and cars even less than before. I did let my guard down that night, and made the tragic mistake of forgetting that people in cages don't see you, and are out to hit you with their cars.

PlanBike: What would bikeways in SF look like, if you had your way?
Johan: SF has made the mistake of trying to embrace cars and the car culture without having rebuilt infrastructure to put them somewhere or let them pass through the City without having to fight with traffic.

It's kind of a shame that the bike lanes (painted, and otherwise) mostly don't go anywhere useful, or suddenly stop instead of continuing along a certain commonly used road or bike way; my favorite example is 7th Street to Market, which forces you to either play in traffic, wait through 2 cycles of the light, or attempt to make a left on to Market street from the turn lane, while the average speed of car traffic is over 25mph. Frankly, the City gives lip service to bike friendliness and infrastructure, while in reality not caring one bit.

I'd love to see better bike lanes that go somewhere, with signed, posted, and known bike boulevards, much like Oakland, Palo Alto, Mountain View and San Mateo have set up. Not just scenic, but useful routes for going from Point A to Point B, that have equal enforcement
for all kinds of traffic. Bike lanes aren't of any use if cars are double parked, pedestrians walk in them, drivers open their doors without looking first, or the cars "sharing the road" are giving you
almost no clearance.

As nice a gesture as they are, the "Sharrows" painted on many SF streets are just decoration on the streets that drivers tend to just ignore. It doesn't seem to have raised awareness of cyclists on the routes that are marked that way.

PlanBike: What should drivers do differently?
Johan: Pay more attention. I have this same complaint as a pedestrian, motorcyclist, bicyclist and driver: people need to understand they're driving a 2000+ pound machine that takes awareness to use correctly and safely. A car is not a mobile workplace, breakfast table, washroom, or phone booth. Yet, daily, I see people using it for all of these things.

PlanBike: All told do you know roughly how much this accident cost in dollars? Any breakdown in costs would be great?
Johan: It's cost my health insurance company around $172,000. Maybe a little more, little less, but at that scale what's another thousand or so? It'll cost me around $13,000 to pay off my portion. Possibly less, and probably more. I honestly don't know yet.

I haven't really gone in to the breakdown, and I don't believe I can share it until the associated lawsuit has either settled or gone forward.

PlanBike: Do you think the recent healthcare legislation will help with accidents like yours?
Johan: Definitely. At least in my case, if my doctor is right and my hip deteriorates to the point of requiring replacement in 15 years, I can still get coverage to help the replacement. I suspect the change will reduce the number of lawsuits for medical payments - which is what mine is - and reduce the overall cost of some of the care. It won't change the charging and billing practices of hospitals.

Speaking of insurance. If you have a car or motorcycle, I'd push you to maximize your UIM (Under-/Un-Insured Motorist) coverage to something just above "reasonable" in your mind. You should raise your medical liability coverage well above the CA minimums. It'll help you when you have an accident, even if it feels like gouging right now.

I've learned a bunch about insurance and coverages through this, and little of it pleasant. I'm grateful to Anthem for not denying coverage so far, and for not dropping me as an insured. It's a bit of an abusive relationship, when you think about it in those terms.

Thanks to Johan for this talk. Hope he continues to improve and continues cycling.