Bicycling tragedy in State College, PA, sparks safety ideas

Pink flowers and a candle now rest at the site where a car struck a cyclist on June 9 in State College, while community members continue to grapple with a tragedy and borough officials discuss what comes next.

The death of Jose Sajbin, a 36-year-old man with two children, has shaken the local cycling community and drawn both condolences and donations from around the area. Although police are still investigating the collision, the family still awaiting answers, borough officials and residents have wasted no time in publicly discussing ways to improve cycling safety, saying this can’t happen again.

“I’m just advocating that we do something,” local cyclist Matt Herndon said on June 13. “One death is far too many.”

Said State College Mayor Ezra Nanes, on Thursday: “When you have a tragedy, something that really hurts the community and causes great pain, there’s always a desire to say why and how we can prevent this. So I understand that, and I feel it emotionally, but the desire to make systemwide advances (in cycling) has always been there. It’s not a knee-jerk reaction.”

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Flowers and a candle sit next to a sign for the bike path that crosses Edgewood Circle on Thursday, June 16, 2022. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

What will change?

Because the police investigation of the crash is ongoing, it’s not yet known exactly what might prevent this in the future. But there are general ideas to make bicycling safer in State College, which many hope prevent future tragedies.

Several cyclists along with Nanes, who eschews his car for a bicycle within the borough, have focused two possible solutions — elevating certain crosswalks, so vehicles are forced to slow down and treat them like speed bumps, and using different colors on bike paths to increase visibility. The latter has been used in bicycle-friendly cities such as Minneapolis and Portland, while the former has been deployed in areas like New York City and San Francisco.

“There are things we can do, and we must do them,” Herndon said. “So I encourage Council to take real action on this. This is literally a member of our community, and we need to stop just accepting it.”

Because creating a bicycle-friendly neighborhood has historically been a State College priority — its “Bike Score” is fourth-highest among Big Ten towns, behind only those near Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern — the borough already has several related projects in the works or waiting in the wings. Councilman Gopal Balachandran wondered aloud during last week’s borough council meeting if at least one of those recommendations could be included in a future project that’s already been discussed — and he was told it was a possibility.

The borough is already looking to hire a consultant in the next month or two for a mobility plan. And several related projects appear on the borough’s upcoming 2023-2027 Capital Improvement Plan, which serves as a roadmap for future spending on projects over $100,000. That includes $280,000 for bicycle facility maintenance like asphalt repairs and a sealcoat, and $1.1 million for a separate project that includes constructing a shared-use path on the south side of Easterly and Westerly Parkway.

“I personally am continuing to push those bike and pedestrian safety projects up the list because I just feel, personally, those are among the most important investments we can make in the community at this time,” said Nanes, who stressed those projects even before he was sworn into office.

“And the tragedy is raising this to the top of a lot of people’s awareness.”

Community response

Christian Kurpiel-Wakamiya, a local cyclist, spoke during last week’s borough council meeting and echoed the sentiments of many.

“I’m trying to absorb what happened to Jose,” Kurpiel-Wakamiya said. “He’s a father of two; I’m a father of two. I get around our greater State College region by bicycle with my children; he got around, I suppose, by bicycle as well. And it — it strikes home.”

Sajbin was riding just before 8 pm on June 9, along the bikeway that crosses Edgewood Circle in the borough’s Greentree neighborhood, when he collided with a 16-year-old driving a sedan, according to police. He was flown by medical helicopter to UPMC Altoona, before he died the next day from his injuries.

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A stop sign for cyclists on the bike path where it crosses Edgewood Circle on Thursday, June 16, 2022. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Sajbin’s death has touched parents and cyclists, residents of the Greentree neighborhood and Center County. Many have left thoughts and prayers on the GoFundMe page for his family and funeral expenses, and many — even those who never met him — are still trying to reconcile the sudden loss of a community member.

“It’s tough because when this happens, you think about, what could I have done? What could’ve been done?” said Matthew Cox, president of CentreBike, a coalition of Center Region cyclists. “I never met him, but it’s one less person out there. He has a family. … And I’m still trying to digest it.”

A friend of Sajbin’s family started a GoFundMe page two days after his death. As of noon Saturday, more than $23,000 has been raised from more than 440 supporters. And, at the wish of his parents, Sajbin’s funeral services will occur in his native Guatemala.

Nanes offered his heartfelt condolences during the June 13 council meeting and, with help from Council member Deanna Behring, they arranged for a multilingual translator to interpret Nanes’ words. Nanes paused every few moments, nodding his head while the translator caught up.

“One death is too many,” he said. “And our entire community mourns the loss of this community member.”

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Flowers and a candle sit next to the bike path where it crosses Edgewood Circle on Thursday, June 16, 2022. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Josh Moyer earned his BA in journalism from Penn State and his MS from Columbia. He’s been involved in sports and news writing for nearly 20 years. He counts the best athlete he’s ever seen as Tecmo Super Bowl’s Bo Jackson.

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