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D.C. Cyclist Jim Pagels Killed by Driver Hours After Tweeting About Unsafe Roads

Jim Pagels. Photo: Medium

Another well-known D.C. cycling advocate has been killed by a driver — and once again, friends are hoping this death will be a catalyst for long overdue safe street reforms in the nation's capital.

On Friday, 29-year-old urban economist and writer Jim Pagels was killed by the driver of a Honda Civic at the intersection of Second Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW while riding a Capital Bikeshare cycle. The crash occurred just hours after Pagels had posted on Twitter about the horribly unsafe multi-lane roadway he was forced to use to reach his COVID-19 vaccination appointment, even joking about about the irony of needing to brave a dangerous roundabout in order to access a life-saving vaccine.

The intersection where Pagels was killed is a few blocks from Union Station, one of the area's largest transit hubs, and less than a mile from the Capitol; both roads have at least four lanes for drivers in each direction, but neither has a bike lane. The driver was not initially charged.

Pagels was killed almost two years to the day since the death of another beloved and passionate D.C. bike advocate, Dave Salovesh, who died in a crash in April, 2019. Days before his death, Salovesh had also posted on Twitter about how frustrated he was at the pace of change and how many near-misses he had experienced as a cyclist.

"Good reminder that protecting sidewalks and bike lanes isn't just about keeping well-controlled travelers in their spaces," he posted. "Vision Zero would say ... 'people make mistakes, but nobody has to die from that.'"

Less than three weeks later, he was dead. And now, just as in 2019, friends of the latest victim are calling for changes to keep road users safe in the District, where four people — Pagels, plus Zyaire Joshua, 4; Evelyn Troyah, 54; and Brian Johnson, 30 — have died in the last nine days alone.

"Each of these deaths, and and the eight others this year, and the 37 people last year, and 27 the year before that, could have been prevented by fundamentally simple changes to how our streets are designed," said Colin Browne of the Washington Area Bicyclist's Association. "But despite a commitment to end traffic deaths by 2024, the District's political leadership has repeatedly failed to make policy, funding and infrastructure changes that would save lives on our streets."

Those closest to Pagels — an enthusiastic advocate for equitable cities, a talented writer, a fiercely competitive board-gamer, and a devoted son, brother and uncle — said it would be an insult to the memory of such an outspoken advocate for sustainable transportation not to discuss the systemic failures that lead to his death while mourning the extraordinary life cut short.

"I find it very annoying when people use someone's death to politicize anything, but knowing Jim as well as I did, he would have wanted us to make the urgent changes to our street design standards that we need to ensure that this never happens again," said urban planner and writer Nolan Gray. "It was very important to him that we build cities that accommodate all road users, and he was particularly moved by the need to make cities affordable and accessible to everyone. It's a sad irony that he lost his life because we didn't fix our bad policy decisions soon enough."

Friends described Pagels not simply as an advocate for better road design, but an advocate for more holistic economic reforms to address car dependency and other inequities in our society at large. After beginning his career as a freelance writer for publications such as Forbes, Slate and FiveThirtyEight, he pivoted to a career in urban economics, earning a masters at Georgetown and a fellowship at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors before entering the highly ranked PhD program at the University of Michigan's School of Economics, where he was completing coursework at the time of his death.

Just weeks ago, Pagels authored a fiery article on Medium about the negative societal impacts of subsidizing electric vehicle adoption, which would soon thereafter become the controversial cornerstone of President Biden's new infrastructure package. He detailed the trillions of dollars in state and federal subsidies that owners of both green and gas-powered vehicles currently enjoy — from robust highway investments to free parking and beyond — despite the countless negative externalities they impose on society, and particularly upon vulnerable road users.

"Subsidizing EVs isn’t even a next-best solution, or much of a solution of any kind," Pagels wrote. "It’s akin to saying, 'Sure, we can’t prevent shooting ourselves in the foot, but let’s at least also shoot ourselves in the toes.'"

Politics aside, Pagels also just loved cycling, and wanted active transportation, and the freedom that goes with it, to be afforded to more of his neighbors.

"He was a very rational person, and the importance of protected bike infrastructure just wasn't up for debate with him. But at the same time, he also just thought that biking was the best way to see a city," said Finn Vigeland, a D.C.-based transportation planner and friend of Pagels for more than a decade. "He hated getting in a car. He knew that seeing a city on two wheels was the best way to appreciate it. I think one of the reasons it's so hard for me to accept that he's gone is that Jim was so enthusiastic about everything — and cities and street safety were two things he really put his heart and soul into."

Vigeland is helping to plan a memorial ride to honor Pagels's memory this Friday, but says the best way to keep his legacy alive would be to make sure no one else is lost to traffic violence.

"One important thing you could do to honor his life and the way that it ended is to ask yourself if you need to take that trip in a car," Vigeland added. "A car trip felt so restrictive to him; you had to pay a lot for it, you had to deal with where that car was gonna go at the end of the trip, and you had to contend with the fact that even if you’re the safest driver in the world, you take the lives of yourself and everyone you pass on the street into your hands when you drive."

At the very least, friends hope that Pagels's death will prompt the District of Columbia to commit more seriously to saving vulnerable road users' lives.

"There's the bigger picture of car dependency in America, but then there's also just D.C.," said Gray. "Short of rethinking everything about how we subsidize the car in U.S., we also just need to rethink dangerous corridors like Massachusetts Avenue. That's something that we can do in a few weeks or months."

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