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Boston’s rash of bicycle fatalities: what’s their lesson for us?

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by John Allen



As ever, a large percentage of cyclists in the Boston urban core are college and university students or recent graduates. For them, a bicycle is much more convenient than the bus. As for cars, where would a student be able to park on campus, or nearby, if even able to afford one?

The cycling scene has been changing in Boston in recent years, as the city has more actively promoted cycling. This has its good side, and its not-so-good side.

On the good side, at last, there is on-street bicycle parking in Boston. There is an annual mass ride. The Mayor says nice things about bicycling. There are rental bikes in automated kiosks on street corners.

On the not-so-good side, one can’t say as much for the City’s street modifications. Mostly, these consist of door-zone bike lanes on major streets. Many of the new bike lanes can encourage cyclists to pass motorists on the right and motorists to turn right across the paths of cyclists.

Case in point. Five cyclists were killed in Boston in 2012. Three were students. The pattern is similar from year to year: in most of these crashes, a cyclist is overtaking a truck or bus on the right, and the truck or bus then turns right. Each of these cyclists may have thought that he or she was safe because of a painted line (bike lane marker) between him or her, and the truck or bus.

Signs on the back of many trucks and buses read “if you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you.” What it doesn’t say is “if you can see my mirrors, I still might not see you.” A cyclist who is in the path that a truck’s rear wheels sweep when turning is defenseless. That place next to a truck has a name among knowledgeable cyclists: the suicide slot.

All modern credible educational materials for cyclists instruct cyclists to control a lane if riding at the speed of other traffic, or if the lane is narrow; also, to merge into the lane that leads to the cyclist’s destination.

I had my “aha” moment about this as I approached the River Street Bridge on a ride from Allston to Cambridge, over 30 years ago. Following advice in John Forester’s book Effective Cycling – the first to teach lane control -- I merged out of the right lane. All the traffic in the lane to my right turned right onto Soldiers Field Road. I had a straight shot across the bridge. “Wow, hey, this works!”

That’s how I have ridden ever since, and it has served me well.

While a popular cycling magazine has repeatedly claimed that Boston is the nation’s worst city for cycling, cyclists who know how to take their place in the traffic flow can ride reasonably safely in Boston.

Every year, Boston gets its yearly influx of student cyclists. Most have probably had little or no instruction on how to ride, and they can get into trouble. Most recently, Chris Weigl, a promising journalism grad student at Boston University, was riding at high speed down a hill on Commonwealth Avenue when a large truck made a wide right turn; Weigl either didn’t notice, or was unable to stop or swerve. He went under the truck and died.

In response, a quote from a news report: “Biking has been growing rapidly, but most people in Boston are still too scared to bike,” said Jessica Robertson, Transportation Coordinator for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. “The city must install more cycle tracks and bike lanes with physical separation from traffic.”

There was a bike lane on Commonwealth Avenue, though it is unclear whether Weigl was riding in it. Riding at 20 mph or more next to a gauntlet of car doors isn’t a great idea. Also, the bike lane may have given Weigl less room to initiate a swerve to the right.
“Cycle track” is the current buzzword for bikeways in the street corridor, separated by some kind of barrier. They eliminate the cyclists’ option of merging into the traffic stream. Some cycle tracks are behind rows of parked cars. They have been built on Concord Avenue and Vassar Street in Cambridge (see linked articles for more details).

What is the solution? For one, education. Weigl, riding at high speed, would have done well to use the same lane position advised for motorcyclists.

It would be helpful, too, if cyclists had alternative routes on the Boston University campus, which amounts to a strip mall with classrooms along Commonwealth Avenue. See some detailed recommendations on my BostonBiker blog.

Another suggestion is side guards for trucks – though it wouldn’t have saved Weigl: his first contact was with the grille of the truck. Still, side guards have merits. They can prevent a cyclist from being run over when a truck turns across the cyclist’s path. They increase aerodynamic efficiency, and they also protect pedestrians. The sides of buses are low, but don’t cover the wheels, and that would help improve safety.

But, it will likely be a while before side guards and wheel covers become required equipment.

To summarize, the rash of cyclist fatalities in Boston suggests that action is needed, such as:
1) Cyclist education, with the colleges and universities at the core of this effort. It’s strongly in their interest. The future alumni contributions from only one or two students like Chris Weigl – not to speak of their contributions to society – greatly outmatch the cost of such a program.
2) Motorist education
3) Law enforcement for both motorists and cyclists
4) Well designed infrastructure improvements that increase safety and improve cycling conditions, rather than well intended “improvements” that do not.
5) Truck routes and bicycle routes should preferably be on different streets, or at least on streets that cyclists and trucks can share comfortably.
6) Side guards on large trucks and buses. However, side guards will not make it safe to ride in the suicide slot any more than cowcatchers on locomotives make it safe for cows to graze on railroad tracks.

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