Requiem for a Librarian: Gigi Galich and the Church Street Protected Lanes

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Gigi Galich. Photo: Evanston Public Library

[This piece also runs in Checkerboard City, John’s column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in Wednesday evenings.]

From what I’ve read, it sounds like Gigi Galich, a children’s librarian who died after an Evanston bike crash, was a wonderful lady.

Shortly before 9am on the morning of June 30, Galich was bicycling to work eastbound on Church Street, a roadway where the city of Evanston installed protected bike lanes two years ago. As she arrived at the main branch of the Evanston Public Library, at the northeast corner of Church and Orrington Avenue, she began switching lanes midblock, according to a witness. It’s possible she was crossing the street to park at a bank of bike racks by the library’s main entrance.

As Galich, a fifty-five-year-old Evanston resident, was shifting lanes, a twenty-seven-year-old Chicago man, riding eastbound on a motorcycle, struck her from behind. Although the librarian was wearing a bike helmet, she suffered a severe head injury, according to Commander Jay Parrott from the Evanston Police Department. She died two days later.

Shortly after Galich’s death, the library issued a statement noting that she had originally begun working for the library as a high-school student almost forty years ago. “Gigi was energetic, dedicated and passionate,” said the statement. “Her work will live on through the many, many children who learned to love reading under her care and who will remember her presence and assistance as they came to the library for books, stories, crafts and fun.”

A week later, the Evanston Review ran a tribute to Galich with remembrances from family, friends and colleagues. Fellow librarian Brian Wilson recalled working with her on an early literacy program for babies. “She radiated a joy for these children who would match her captivating smiles with smiles of their own,” he said. “She understood them, loved them and was looking out for them, possessing the belief that all children could become lifelong readers.”

The motorcyclist in the fatal crash was not injured and has not been issued any citations, according to Parrott. When I first read about the case, I suspected that the motorcyclist had been speeding. The default speed limit in Evanston is twenty-five miles-per-hour, a speed at which studies show people struck by motor vehicles usually survive.

However, when I spoke to Parrott two weeks ago, he said the police had determined that “there was no excessive speed on the part of the motorcyclist.” That finding was based on witness statements and a crash scene investigation by a traffic reconstructionist looking for skid marks.

“There was nothing to indicate any wrongdoing on the part of the motorcyclist,” Parrott said. “Apparently, the bicyclist had made a tragic mistake.” He added that, while Galich was an experienced bike rider, it’s possible that the motorcycle was in her blind spot, or that she was distracted, when she began changing lanes.

I can relate to the experience of briefly losing concentration while cycling and accidentally making a risky move. Still, if the motorcyclist was really going the speed limit and had been attentive, he probably should have been able to brake in time to avoid the crash. It seems that, if there hadn’t been two mistakes made here, Galich would still be alive.

When I read about the case, it also occurred to me that the Church Street protected bike lane might have been a factor in the crash. Church features the suburbs’ first Chicago-style protected lane, where the lane is located next to the curb and, in general, cyclists are protected from traffic by flexible plastic posts and/or parked cars to their left.

On parking-protected bike lanes, parking spaces are eliminated near intersections to make it easier for cyclists and turning motorists to see each other. However, some cyclists argue that poor sightlines can still be an problem, increasing the chances of “right-hook” or “left-hook” crashes.

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The 600 block of Church Street in Evanston, where Gigi Galich’s crash took place. Photo: Justin Haugens

At first, I thought that parked cars might have obstructed Galich’s view of motor vehicle traffic as she attempted to cross Church mid-block. However, I learned that on the block of Church in front of the library, the bike lane is not parking-protected but is simply a curbside buffered lane, as shown in the above photo. Therefore, parked cars were not to blame for obscuring Galich’s view.

That’s an important point, because Evanston is currently in the process of expanding its bike network, with new PBLs planned for sections of Dodge Avenue, Davis Street, Chicago Avenue and Sheridan Road. It would be very unfortunate if this tragic case were used as an argument to derail these projects.

Protected lanes are great for encouraging less confident bike riders to try on-street cycling. Evanston officials have said they’ve seen a significant increase in bike traffic on Church since the lane was installed. After the city of Chicago installed PBLs on Kinzie Street in 2011, morning ridership increased by fifty-five percent, and after Dearborn Street got a two-way protected lane in 2012, the number of cyclists rose by a whopping 171 percent.

Furthermore, data from New York City, which has been installing PBLs since 2007, shows that protected lanes have a very positive overall effect on safety for cyclists, as well as pedestrians and drivers. For example, after protected lanes were installed on Manhattan’s 9th Avenue, there was a fifty-six percent drop in injuries to all road users, according to a study by the local transportation department.

It turns out that Galich had something to say about PBLs and safety. Last winter, on the public input webpage for the city of Evanston’s new bike plan, cyclist Lori Scott commented about the sightline issue. “Yikes!” she wrote. “On the Church Street protected lane, right-turning cars are often not aware of bikers going straight.”

“One way to remedy this would be to put in bicycle-only traffic lights such as those used in Europe,” Galich responded. “Cycle lights go green before auto lights, and cyclists are less likely to be hit by turning traffic.” That’s basically the situation on Dearborn, and it would be great if dedicated bike signals were added to more Chicago and Evanston protected lanes.

It appears that, in addition to being a talented and beloved librarian, Galich was well informed about bike infrastructure. Tragically, she died from a type of crash that perhaps couldn’t have been prevented by any kind of bike lane. That’s a huge loss for the children of Evanston.

  • rohmen

    “Still, if the motorcyclist was really going the speed limit and had been attentive, he probably should have been able to brake in time to avoid the crash.”

    Based on what facts? The motorcyclist has to live with the fact that a woman was killed in an accident he was involved in–with an official report indicating no “wrongdoing” on his part. I get the concern over the tragicness of her death while cycling, but your apparently groundless speculation isn’t fair to someone who has been investigated and cleared of responsibility. If you have a reason to doubt that investigation outside of your “gut instinct” I’d be all ears, but as a reader I would expect more out of you guys than your quote above conveys.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    When I see a cyclist riding mid-block in a bike lane my expectation is that unless there is a blockage up ahead that the biker will continue on in the bike lane and not veer into traffic lane. Same goes when driving on a street with more than one traffic lane going in the same direction. The expectation is the other cars will stay in their lane unless they signal or safely wait to merge in into the lane. Exercise poor judgement and tragic accidents occur. It’s easy to blame the motor cyclist but if he was probably not expecting the cyclist to veer out of the bike lane. Lastly, its not as easy for a motorcycle to come to a sudden stop and not dump the bike. They cant suddenly switch lanes without putting themselves at risk of being hit by by another road user as they are vulnerable too. Its sad. I’m sure she was a lovely person.

  • Perhaps I should have worded that a bit differently but here’s why, despite the police statement, I still suspect that speed and/or negligence on the part of the motorcyclist played a role in the fatal crash.

    It’s rare for sober drivers to hit bicyclists from behind. There aren’t many scenarios where it would have been difficult for a motorcyclist approaching from behind at 25 mph to notice a cyclist leaving a clearly marked, bright-green bike lane. When a driver strikes a person at 25 mph, it’s usually not fatal. The cyclist was wearing a helmet, and probably wearing it correctly, since she was an experienced bike rider, but still died of a head injury. It’s rare for police to charge motorists with wrongdoing in a fatal bike crash unless there was obvious speed and/or recklessness by the driver, or the motorist was intoxicated or fled the scene.

    It’s still possible that there really was no wrongdoing on the part of the motorcyclist but, if so, it must have been a case of extremely bad luck.

  • BlueFairlane

    This will inevitably become one of those situations in which you start a speculative conversation about an uncomfortable topic and then get squeamish about people having it. Nevertheless, here’s my take.

    It is rare for sober drivers to hit cyclists from behind when the cyclists are traveling in a consistent direction. A cyclist can alter their direction and shift into a lane in an instant. This cyclist could have moved into the motorcycle’s path in less than a second. Meanwhile, there are significant differences between a car hitting a pedestrian at 25 and a motorcycle hitting a cyclist at 25. One is that the relative speed of impact takes the velocity of both vehicles into account. The other is that unlike a car, a motorcycle won’t necessarily stay upright in a crash, and though they are lighter than cars, motorcycles are heavy enough that they carry a lot of momentum. My suspicion is that at some point in the crash, the motorcycle either passed over or landed on top of the cyclist.

  • Jack

    Yeah, John, I’m usually 100% behind you, but in this case, the speculation about the motorcyclist and the implication by default that the Evanston Police either through incompetency or conspiracy did not reveal reckless motorist behavior serves only to chip away at your objectivity and credibility…

    You might be right, but it appears that there is absolutely no factual basis for you to be publishing these claims. We all know that accidents can be very unpredictable events (by nature) with unique consequences and circumstances…

  • Cameron Puetz

    Additionally, many modern cars (all new cars that are also sold in Europe) have pedestrian safety features. These are design features like body panels that collapse to dissipate energy and front ends that are shaped to control how the pedestrian falls. Motorcycles do not have such designs.

  • Fred

    The collision was the bicyclist’s fault. She made a catastrophic mistake and paid the ultimate price. May she rest in peace.

  • Sue

    The bike lanes in Evanston are poorly engineered, if engineered at all. The city applied for “free” lanes through a grant system and did not do a full study in terms of how bike lanes should be designed. The one on Davis Street is a nightmare as trucks and cars park alongside it, blocking views. As well, the right hand turn onto Chicago Ave. by a Whole Foods is a death trap. To continue on Church from Chicago Ave., cyclists are forced into traffic because the lane ends. Same for the new lane on Davis. Construction bins push cyclists into traffic. Evanston is great in applying for either state of federal freebies. And it makes it look like it’s well-prepared for bike lanes. It’s one of the most un-green communities you could imagine. Divvy bike should not go up there. And the city, via the inept City Council, should invest time and an engineer to look into bike lanes rather than do it half-a–ed as it’s being done now.

  • T.C. O’Rourke

    First, the force of impact of a motorcycle is less, but more acute than a car, it is spread out over less area. Second, the 25mph thing is a benchmark, not a law of physics. Finally, motorcycles are lots easier to miss scanning traffic. Continuing to imply that the motorcyclist must be at fault is unfair, John.

  • tooter turtle

    It’s often tempting to speculate that the motorist was a fault when they kill a cyclist. We have all read many stories of motorists literally getting away with murder. But in this case, it’s not really fair to the motorcyclist to insinuate blame without having any evidence to back it up.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    While Gigi’s death is clearly a major loss for the people of Evanston, it is good that this tragic and true accident has gotten some of you to think twice about some of this new bike infra. I’m not against the idea of innovation and/or protected lanes but I’ve seen too much of it done very poorly or in cavalier manner regarding conventional traffic norms. I also feel that there is a political agenda steamrolling new infra despite clear and cogent skepticism about some aspects of these new designs.

    What would you have said however, if you found that the protected lane was in the area of Gigi’s fatal crash? How might you have addressed this differently? I’m actually quite glad that wasn’t the scenario but it’s still a tantalizing question.

    Anyway, always be a skeptic until you are comfortably proven otherwise! People lives might depend on it!

    A very good piece regarding a very tragic event.

  • Thanks Andy.

  • DavidBarish

    It is possible the lane had something to do with this tragedy but it does not seem likely. Gigi was apparently out of the lane and crossing on her way to the left side of the road where the library is. If we take everything in the story at face value the motorcycle was not speeding. There is no sun in the eyes at this time and if anything that section of the street is a bit dark. Either he did not see her or she did not see him or both. We may never know. I certainly don’t want to blame the victim but it is possible that an experienced rider who knew the area and who was loved by her co workers may have made an error. Or, she may have paid the ultimate price for somebody else’s error. The best we can do is take this cautionary tale with us every time we get on our bikes to know that in a moment anybody whether they be a driver, rider or walker, can make an act or omission that leads to tragedy. There is risk even on a quiet street in a quiet town in a familiar place. I write this shortly before getting ready to get on my bike to commute home and will do so with as much awareness as I can gather. Even so, there will always be risk and that is a sobering reality.

  • oooBooo

    When bike spaces like this are created that’s where motorists expect bicyclists to be and stay within. Novice bicycle riders have not developed the necessary skills for riding in traffic and these lanes actually require an experienced understanding to deal with to handle things like mid block turns. Novices are likely not to move out of the bike space in a vehicular manner. Right hooking and other intersection complication are also made worse. These things may encourage novices, but it’s trap because they hide difficulty.

    In the photograph the lines used show a thou-shall-not cross pattern to ‘buffer’ the bike lane. Motorists will interpret that exactly as it appears, thou-shall not cross.

    Many people both driving and bicycling operate their vehicles in a ‘other person shall avoid’ manner. (not saying it happened here, no evidence in the story to make that judgment) That is they signal (or not) and then expect other road users to give way for them. Now combine this with these road markings and there is a serious hazard.

    Motorcycles are often difficult to detect when when bicycling in traffic. The saving grace being they are only slightly bigger in road footprint than bicycles. A motorcycle coasting or with quiet exhaust I often don’t hear right away. For example, once upon a time a motorcyclist thought it was funny to coast up on me silently and then nail the throttle with a full exhaust roar. (again, not saying that happened here, there’s nothing in the story to make that judgment)

    It is also natural to avoid a bicyclist moving into the lane from the right by moving left. Problem is, if the bicyclist is making a sharp left move or otherwise keeps moving left that may not avoid the collision, it may actually cause it. One thing I’ve learned bicycling is to move towards the rear of something that is crossing my path if I have time to think about it. But a motorcycle rider may or may not be experienced enough or just reacts, not taking the best route to avoid. Which in this case, would be entering the bike space. (third repeat of the disclaimer, not saying it happened here, the info is lacking)

    There is not enough in the above story for me to make any judgments regarding how the bicyclist handled the lane change, but at the end of the day, by what is in the article, the motorcyclist was in the lane and had right of way and was apparently traveling at a reasonable speed. This is why he was not cited. Trying to blame him I think is misplaced. Regardless of what happened he was not doing anything wrong. Simply put, sometimes people do not react in the moment a hazard presents itself with the right move. This is why the golden rule on the streets should be never (at least minimize) to make a move that depends on another road user to take evasive action.

  • oooBooo

    Bicycle helmets, or foam hats as I and other detractors call them, do not offer any significant protection in a serious collision. I am over 6′ tall. If I fall over, I have just put the helmet through an impact that is beyond the standard they must meet. The standard is a 6′ impact.

    Foam hats protect against minor scrapes, bumps to the head, and other relatively minor sources of injury. To get actual protection for serious collisions, wear a motorcyclist’s helmet.

    A motorcycle-bicycle collision with the motorcycle moving at 25mph is more than enough to exceed the bicycle helmet’s capacity to prevent injury.

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