Bike Commuting and Social Justice in Kentucky

The name Cherokee Schill is going viral this week. If you haven’t heard of Cherokee yet, here’s her story (as I have pieced together from the Interwebs).Earlier this year, Cherokee first made the news after she was ticketed three times for “reckless driving”. Cherokee is a single mother of two who bike commutes 18 miles each way to her job at Webasto, a car parts manufacturer. She must report to work by 6am, so she leaves in the wee hours of the morning. She hasn’t been able to find carpooling options, and commuter services don’t leave early enough for her to utilize them. Her 1992 Camry has a mere 360,000 miles on it, so that’s not a reliable option either.Which leaves Cherokee with the bicycle. A most reliable – not to mention affordable, for a single mother – option.She travels from Nicholasville, Kentucky, to Lexington, Kentucky, which requires that she ride on U.S. 27, a major highway in northern Jessamine County. Just out of curiosity, I looked at Google Maps to see what the options are for her commute. Here’s the recommended car route, which is 11.9 miles (I don’t know where exactly she’s coming from or going to, of course) along U.S. 27. The recommended bike route is significantly longer at 17.4 miles (again, we don’t know exactly where she’s departing and arriving), though likely it uses less traveled (but not necessarily safer) roads. Since the news has reported her commute as being 18 miles already using U.S. 27, we can assume the extra 5.5 miles of the recommended bike route is probably more than she has time for, since she has to get to work at 6am.Before I go on, the woman has some serious cojones for riding on a major highway. I would only do that if it were seriously my only option. So if we give her the benefit of the doubt, and assume this really is her only option, then that is a real bummer. Anyone who has ever spent a minute on a highway on their bicycle knows it is not fun, and it can be utterly terrifying for even the most experienced cyclist. Yet Cherokee does it everyday to get to work. Because she has no other choice. Man…

On a happier note, she is glad to report that she has gone from a pant size of 22 to a pant size of 8 due to all the great exercise she’s been getting.But now she’s dealing with a legal battle. After her initial legal issuesthis past April, a judge upheld her right to ride on U.S. 27. But the Jessamine County Sheriff’s Office wasn’t too happy about this, arguing that she posed a danger to herself and motorists alike.As a side note, Kentucky considers bicycles to be legal vehicles (here’s the bike law). So that means slow moving vehicles need to move to the right, and Cherokee claims to always ride as far right as is practicable. However, she does not ride in the shoulder, which she argues is dangerous due to rumble strips and other debris. And we all know that rumble strips and bicycles do not play nice.But it is a little hard to tell from the news stories how viable an option the shoulder of U.S. 27 would be for riding. Dodging some debris for the safety of the shoulder is one thing, but if the shoulder isn’t even ridable, that’s another thing. The picture above shows a decent shoulder, which I would certainly prefer over the traffic lane. But I’ve never been there, so I don’t know what it’s really like on a bike.Anyway, back to the legal battle. Just last Friday, she was found guilty of three counts of careless driving, as well as other traffic violations. She has been ordered to pay upwards of $400, as well as legal fees. I’m sure that is a pleasant surprise for a single, working mother of two.But that didn’t stop Cherokee. I mean, she still had to get to work to pay her legal fees and feed her family, so she kept riding. So this Tuesday, Cherokee was arrested and charged with 2nd degree wanton endangerment. For riding her bike. Geez, Kentucky! Really?Oh, and the District Judge who initially sentenced her reportedly told her, “I will caution you at this point you want to avoid any further violations of the law. I’m not telling you that you can’t have your bicycle out there. We’ve established that bicycles have some rights out there.” I take that to mean she is still legally allowed to ride her bike, so why was she arrested?So in sum, there is currently a woman in Kentucky who is in jail for riding her bike. Not only is this just ridiculous, it’s also a social justice issue. She is a poor, working mother who doesn’t have any other options. For so many of us, bike commuting is a luxury and a choice. I can afford not to ride my bike on a highway, thank goodness. But that’s not the case for everyone.

There is currently a fund to help with Cherokee’s legal fees, if you feel so inclined. In the meantime, maybe Kentucky could consider better bike infrastructure or expand their mass transit options. But the bottom line is that no one should be in jail for legally riding their bike. There has to be a better way to deal with this situation.Update 9/18/14I have a friend who lives in the same area and actually bike commutes on U.S. 27. However, my friend uses the shoulder of U.S. 27 and feels that it is a perfectly safe place to ride (and not surprisingly, preferable to the main vehicle lane). So it seems that perhaps there is more to this story than what can be pieced together via the web (also not surprising). Since Cherokee doesn’t seem to have some greater political message she’s promoting or other reason for riding in the main roadway, it seems that her perception of where it is safest to ride is perhaps somewhat distorted, making the shoulder seem less safe than the main roadway. I find this a compl
etely odd as I would never prefer the main roadway to the shoulder, rumble strips to be crossed or not. Although it is her right to ride in the main road when there is no safe alternative, it may be the case that she has made that her preferred lane, which isn’t something I can really support when the shoulder appears to be safe for riding. This poses the question of whether it’s simply a lack of bicycle know-how on her part or something else. Still, it seems that the law enforcement on the issue has been rather harsh. Anyhow, an interesting development nonetheless.

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