When a motorist struck and killed cyclist Ron Repka as he pedaled along a rural stretch of Arcola Road in September 2001, his wife, Sharon, reacted with a mixture of heartbreak and resolve.
“Of course I was devastated, but my initial reaction was, I didn't want it to happen to someone else,” she said in a recent interview.
Based on figures provided by Fort Wayne-area hospitals, Repka's hope may be getting closer to reality. Annual cycling-related injuries that result in hospital trips appear to have decreased or held steady since 2007, the numbers show.
And at the least, Fort Wayne has shifted in the last decade to a more bike-friendly place to live, Repka said.
The apparent decrease in biking injuries comes as Fort Wayne officials and community groups push for more interest in cycling and awareness among motorists who share the roads with them, while at the same time, more people look to bikes as a viable form of transportation.
“The mayor and the city has really embraced bikes as an alternative form of transportation,” said Tim Hall, who with his wife Cara operates Fort Wayne Outfitters and the Bike Depot.
“More people are thinking of using their bikes to just get around for everyday stuff,” Cara Hall said.
Push for pedaling
Almost everywhere you look in Fort Wayne, the push for more cycling activity is obvious.
Over the last six years, the city has adopted the “Bike Fort Wayne” cycling-friendly transportation plan; expanded its trail network from 20 to 68 miles; created bike lanes on three city streets; installed more than 250 bike parking spaces around town; and helped launch a “Share the Road” safety campaign aimed at motorists.
Repka herself was closely involved in developing a trail system in Aboite Township that has since been connected with Fort Wayne trails. She also founded the Ronald Repka Foundation to promote bike awareness after her husband's death. This summer, the city is expected to name a small Aboite park for Ron Repka.
For the last three years, the city also has sponsored many cycling events for National Bike Month, including a local “Bike to Work Day,” “Bike to the Ballpark” day in collaboration with the Fort Wayne TinCaps and a summer guided bike ride series.
Recent data suggest Fort Wayne still ranks lower than comparable Indiana cities in regular cycling, according to figures compiled by the League of American Bicyclists, a Washington-based biking advocacy group.
Only 0.2 percent of Fort Wayne workers routinely commute on their bikes, putting the city behind Bloomington, Evansville, Indianapolis and South Bend, according to stats gleaned from the 2010 U.S. Census.
But local cycling shops report a steady increase in sales and interest, which they attribute largely to a combination of high gas prices and Fort Wayne's improving trail system.
“From our perspective, our business grows tremendously each time they add to the Greenway,” said Barry McManus, sales manager with Summit City Bicycle & Fitness.
The League of American Bicyclists honored the city's efforts this month with a bronze award for its biking transportation plan, putting Fort Wayne among a handful of Indiana cities to be recognized by the national group.
Bad wrecks on the decline?
Yet even with the push for more cycling, the number of people going to the hospital after bike crashes in Fort Wayne has declined, according to figures from one of the region's two major hospitals.
In 2007, Parkview Hospital saw 14 patients who had been injured in bike crashes within the city limits. That number jumped to 17 the next year and 19 in 2009 but then dropped to nine in 2010 and just eight last year.
Lisa Hollister, a nurse with Parkview's trauma unit, noted the figures indicate only the crash victims who are admitted to the hospital for treatment. That shows a decline in the most serious wrecks, but not necessarily overall, she said.
Hollister attributed the drop in serious injuries to basic safety precautions and awareness, such as cyclists wearing helmets and motorists looking out for bikes. Without those factors, an increase in cycling would more likely bring a greater number of injuries, she said.
“You could have riding in general increase and biking crashes and injuries increasing if you're not doing any prevention,” she said. “If you have a helmet on, the chances of you getting admitted are a lot lower.”
At Lutheran Hospital's adult and child trauma centers, meanwhile, the regional numbers have held steady but not decreased significantly over the same time period.
In 2008, the hospital saw 18 bike-related patients, then 25 in 2009 and 31 in 2010. Last year, the total dipped slightly to 27, and this year's total is behind that pace, with only 5 injuries reported to date.
However, the data from Lutheran shows all bike-related injuries treated by the hospital, not just ones that happened inside the Fort Wayne city limits, Lutheran Health Network spokesman Geoff Thomas said.
While a number factors including gas prices and summer weather could lead to changes in the annual number of biking injuries, Thomas said heightened awareness of cyclists could help explain a decline.
He noted that in 2008, as gas prices climbed steeply and more cyclists began taking to the roads, the Fort Wayne area saw a rash of bike crashes. Since then, motorists might have grown more accustomed to sharing the road.
“It's not as unusual to see someone on a bicycle, and drivers are more aware of it,” he said.
From Sharon Repka's point of view, Fort Wayne has made a huge shift toward greater bike-friendliness since her husband died.
“The change in the last 10 years from where we were when he was killed to where we are now is just mind-blowing,” Repka said. “I cannot believe what has happened in 10 years in our community.”