NICHOLASVILLE — The story of Cherokee Schill, the Nicholasville commuter who has been tried, fined and then subsequently arrested for riding her bike in the travel lane on U.S. 27 in Jessamine County, is gaining attention from online forums, cycling blogs and lawyers around the country.
The case isn't necessarily "front-page news in the bike world, but it's spreading around pretty fast," said Bob Mionske, a two-time Olympic racing cyclist who is now a Portland, Ore., attorney who stands up for cyclists' rights.
"When people get into it and look at it a little closer, they realize it's a complicated case," Mionske said.
Bicycling Magazine's Facebook page took note of the Sept. 12 decision by Jessamine District Judge Bill Oliver to fine Schill for careless driving and violating a law that requires a slow-moving vehicle to keep "as closely as practicable to the right-hand boundary of the highway."
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One cyclist in Chattanooga, Tenn., has suggested on Twitter that there should be a group ride in support of Schill. "Ensuring we can legally choose how we commute is necessary to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels," the cyclist tweeted.
It's all part of the continuing saga surrounding Schill, whose name gains more publicity with each succeeding ticket. She doesn't have a television, but she is aware of the public reaction she sees on her computer.
"I'm aware that I've gotten a ton of friend requests on Facebook," Schill said Thursday night. "I've got a ton of crazy people hating on my YouTube channel, and I'm just going to ignore that. It stresses me out."
Schill, 41, was arrested Tuesday on a new charge of second-degree wanton endangerment. She was jailed but has posted bond and is back home with her two teenage children. She is to be arraigned Oct. 2 on the latest charge in Jessamine District Court. In the meantime, she has two other pending cases of careless driving.
Schill said the public attention has been a distraction from her studies to be an EKG technician; she hopes to graduate Wednesday. Her bike was impounded after the latest arrest, but she paid to have it released from a towing lot. A friend drove her to class one day to avoid any conflict with police.
"I feel like I'm on house arrest, even though I'm not," she said.
State law defines bicycles as vehicles and, as such, grants them the right to use state roads. The law also says that slow-moving vehicles must keep as far to the right as practicable to allow faster vehicles free passage.
During the Sept. 12 trial, Assistant County Attorney Eric Wright argued that "as closely as practicable to the right" means Schill must use the paved shoulder of U.S. 27. Defense attorney Steve Magas argued that the shoulder was unsafe because of debris, rumble strips, private drives and intersections with public streets. The defense also argued that Schill, even though she rode in a travel lane, allowed more swiftly moving vehicles "reasonably free passage to the left," as state law specifies.
In regard to careless driving, the prosecution focused on language in the law that said one must operate their vehicle "with regard for the safety and convenience of pedestrians and other vehicles upon the highway." Police video showed cars slamming on their brakes and swerving into the left lane to avoid hitting Schill.
Judge Oliver decided that, in those instances when the paved shoulder was free of debris, Schill should use the shoulder. Oliver specifically noted that he was ruling on the "snapshot" of each specific case before him. At no time did he say that cyclists have no right to the road; he repeatedly affirmed that they do.
"He didn't say I couldn't be on the road," Schill said. "He was just saying, 'If it's feasible to use the shoulder, use the shoulder.'
But, she said, "For my safety, I don't use the shoulder. I've had many bad experiences on the shoulder."
Riding in the right-hand travel lane on Tuesday was not a deliberate attempt to thumb her nose at the judge's ruling, Schill said.
"I didn't do anything wrong," Schill said. "I was operating perfectly within the confines of the law. So how is that a violation?"
Schill said she intends to appeal Oliver's decision. An "appeal fund" on Gofundme.com had raised more than $6,400 by Friday afternoon.
Riding in harmony
In its Facebook post about Oliver's decision, Bicycling Magazine suggested "ways to help create better conditions for cyclists in every part of the country."
One suggestion was to "get more judges on bikes" and then added, "Lawyers, too. Once you've traveled on two wheels, you'll never see a rumble strip the same way again — or lecture someone about her choice not to ride over one for miles."
Judge Oliver said during the trial that he had not been on a bicycle in a while, but he didn't specify how long it had been.
In a blog, Rick Bernardi, a law clerk for Mionske, posted in an online commentary that the case "isn't about a failure of Cherokee Schill to obey the law. It's about a failure of the local and state authorities.
"If this were a county that cares about cyclists, cyclists like Cherokee would be riding in the protected bike lane, along with thousands of other residents, and nobody would see them as a target for their bullying, lawful and otherwise. But here, she has been given no other choices, and then criminalized for making the only choice left to her. And that is the real crime."
There are no bike lanes on U.S. 27, but Jessamine County authorities are exploring whether to put one on the busy road, said Joe Crabtree, director of the Kentucky Transportation Center at the University of Kentucky, the research arm of the state Transportation Cabinet. The final decision will be up to the Cabinet, Crabtree said.
Robert Nunley, branch manager of project development for the District 7 Department of Highways office in Lexington, said "currently there is no project" that says "add bike lanes on U.S. 27." However, he said that could change if there's ever work on that busy stretch of highway in the future.
"Let's say, in the future, we have a project to increase capacity — add lanes — we will consider exclusive bike lanes, at that time, but we don't have a project right now to add bike lanes on U.S. 27," he said.
The Lexington Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, a transportation planning agency for Fayette and Jessamine counties, has taken pains to plan bike trails in Jessamine County.
Schill said bike trails are fine because "they're scenic, they're pretty, they're great for recreational cyclists. But they're not great for people who need to get their errands run or go grocery shopping or get to the next town."
A 2007 regional plan by the planning organization shows that most of U.S. 27 in northern Jessamine — the section where Schill was encountered by motorists — had a "bicycle level of service" that was designated as "difficult or hazardous to cycle." The level of service takes into account traffic volume, motor vehicle speed, width of the outermost travel lane, the presence or absence of bike lanes, the presence of on-street parking and pavement condition.
Trouble with the law
Some people have questioned why Schill is being repeatedly cited or arrested in Jessamine County but has avoided trouble with the law in Fayette, where she commutes to take classes. When that question was posed to Jessamine County Attorney Brian Goettl, he said he would not speak directly about Schill's pending cases.
But he said, "You have to look at the roadway." U.S. 27, he said, is "an undivided, unlimited access, four-lane rural highway connecting to a major metropolitan area with speed limits of 55 mph. Plus the volume of traffic, 43,000 vehicles per day on that particular road. U.S. 27 in Fayette County from Man o' War (north) is not that kind of highway."
From that point north, there tends to be more congestion and generally lower speeds.
"If you've got somebody traveling 15 mph in a 55 mph zone, that creates a 40 mph speed dispersion," Goettl said. "When you get those types of speed dispersion, the chances for accidents greatly increase."
Crabtree, a cyclist and a witness for the prosecution at Schill's trial, testified that vehicles traveling 25 mph slower or faster than the posted speed limit had a 10 percent higher risk of being involved in an "incident."
In other reactions to the Schill case, Commute by Bike, a website that has tips and news for bike commuters, addressed Schill's arrest on a wanton-endangerment charge.
Writer Melanie Colavito commented that although it is Schill's 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. ... Still it seems that the law enforcement issue has been rather harsh."
Not all cyclists are lining up to support Schill.
"There is the 'legal right' and there is courtesy and common sense," one Vermont cyclist wrote on Bike Forums.
Another post from the San Francisco Bay area said, "I was on her side until I watched the news video. There is nothing wrong with the shoulder, and she's riding in the center of the lane going uphill at peak commute. She should share the road more."
Mionske, the former Olympian who is now an attorney, said the case is watched intently by "vehicular cyclists."
"Their position is that cyclists have the same rights as motorists. They use the terminology 'drive' instead of 'ride,'" Mionske said. "Some of these guys won't even use a bike lane when one is available and encouraged her to continue to ride the way she was."
Mionske said vehicular cyclists represent a small percentage of cyclists, "but they're very vocal."
Speaking for himself, Mionske said, "I ride on the shoulder in a case like that. ... I'm sympathetic to her as a person, but it's a messy case."
Schill said she doesn't seek to be the public face of cycling.
"People need to understand cycling takes many forms," she said. "There are people who bike with their families for pleasure. They don't get into Spandex and 'go for glory.' And there are weekend road warriors out there talking about 'bonking' (a condition characterized by sudden fatigue and loss of energy) and eating their protein bars.
"I definitely don't represent them. They're out there for recreation and pleasure, and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm a commuter. My bicycle is my vehicle."