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January 2019

Childís Play?

by John Allen

Is bicycling childís play? Let me speak from experience.

From age 7. I got around on a bicycle in the quiet suburb where I lived as a child. Mostly, that was practical and useful, but I recall an incident with the sound of a carís screeching tires. The mistake which led to that incident was mine.

Having survived childhood and having moved to Boston, I was pleased to discover the paths along the Charles River. They werenít quite like they are now. Example: along Charles River Road between North Beacon Street and Watertown Square, the broken surface of a path slanted toward the river. I was happy to ride that segment, in spite of the risk of falling into the river, because I wasnít comfortable riding on Charles River Road, which had been overbuilt as a four-lane highway.

Since that time, options for bicyclists along Charles River Road have improved. It has been restriped with bike lanes which, for the most part, are serviceable, because no parked cars. A newer, much better shared-use path runs next to the road. In its mile length, the path crosses only one driveway.

But most of all, I am different now. While the narrow, bumpy path near the river is still there, I would ride it only as a challenge or to enjoy the scenery. I might ride the newer path next to the road, if it takes me where I want to go in the riverfront park. But mostly, I ride on the road, using the bike lane when that works, leaving it to stay out of the door zone when necessary. It is faster, and the connections with streets at the end are more convenient. A survey a few years back showed that more bicyclists were using the roadway of Charles River Road than the path. The bicyclists were mostly adult commuters.

Riding on Charles River Road isnít for children, but wouldnít it be nice if children could ride their bicycles safely everywhere in the Boston area? Advocacy campaigns promote this vision with slogans: ďages 8 to 80Ē and ďbicycling for all ages and abilities.Ē

Clearly, this option doesnít reflect present-day reality, but also, it doesnít reflect the way I see that we are heading. Both an infrastructure issue and a behavior issue stand in the way of that. Paths in rail and riverfront corridors Ė like the ones along the Charles River Ė can have few enough intersections to be reasonably safe for children. Bikeways on streets with frequent driveway and intersection crossings, not. As to behavior, I have seen a general improvement in motorist courtesy toward bicyclists over the years, but a major culture change is still to be wished for. Even in Amsterdam, though, small children ride as passengers rather than on their own bicycles.

Reality: the actual population which is riding, and is capable of riding in reasonable safety, on Boston-area streets is of high-school age and up: people mature enough to earn a driverís license: to understand and apply the rules of the road and to interact competently with other road users. Not that all do that.

An incoming student at one of the many fine colleges and universities in the Boston area will probably ride on the newer path along the river. That can work well outside the peak use time for the park, or with moderated speed and caution when the path is crowded. But beyond that, unfortunately, we canít make bicycling safe for grownups through well-intentioned but flawed attempts to make it safe for children. I see three problems with this approach.

The expectation that safety must come from outside Ė through infrastructure and motoristsí behavior -- leaves bicyclists in a state of arrested development as to how they might create safety for themselves. Promoting cycling for people of all ages and abilities as if that were an attainable goal perpetuates the fantasy that bicycling is, and should be, childís play. The more likely trend is for people to accumulate bad habits as they find bicycling to be less dangerous than expected.

Attempts to create spaces which make people feel safe (ďperceived safetyĒ) create a false sense of security. For 25 years now, Cambridge, and for 10 years, Boston, have been installing door-zone bike lanes, with the predictable result, dooring collisions, right hooks, left crosses. Now, with the belated acknowledgement that the lanes arenít safe, the trend is toward placing bike lanes behind a barrier, and these also have a host of problems: crowding, drainage, black ice, forced conflicts at driveways and intersections.

Separate spaces promote motorist harassment. Call it tribalism, or segregation, or whatever, a bicyclist does not get to explain patiently to the motorist honking the horn, that the separated bikeway has potholes, or black ice, or a crowd riding at 8 miles per hour and you need to get to work on time, and yes, it is legal for me to ride on the roadway and how about just passing me instead of playing vigilante?

Iím all for infrastructure which avoids the problems, but that is a topic for another article. Let me return to the central issue of what needs to work for grownups.

It has to include education.

And Iím stressing this point now because just recently, on November 9, a right-hook collision with a large truck killed Meng Jin, a BU graduate student recently arrived from China. Over the past few years, Chris Weigl, also a BU graduate student; Kanako Miura, a young MIT research scholar with a list of professional publications as long as your arm; Anita Kurmann, a distinguished MD medical researcher, also died in right-hook collisions. All of them were riding legally. But all of them were riding at the right side of large trucks.

The loss of these highly-educated and productive people is not only to their families and friends. It is the loss of their talent, and their education, to their colleagues and to society at large.

Unfortunately, their education did not include the crucial few hours in a classroom and on bicycles which would have led them to understand that riding legally is not enough to be safe on a bicycle in Boston. It is necessary to ride to be visible, to recognize hazards as they develop, and to apply defensive driving practices. That will continue to be so, even following a transition to autonomous vehicles. These wonít have x-ray vision either.

Mea culpa, me too: in 1971, my first year in the Boston area, I struck a pedestrian who walked out from my left where she had been hidden by the third or fourth car waiting in line at a traffic light. What you canít see can hurt you. I was passing cars on the right and going too fast to avoid the collision. From this crash, I learned the hard way not to expect naively that other people would follow the rules. The pedestrian had it worse, with a broken bone. I was riding legally and she was crossing illegally but the point above all is to avoid crashes.

I picked up the first book to teach defensive driving for bicyclists Ė John Foresterís Effective Cycling Ė in 1977 and for forty years now, and it isnít all dumb luck, I have not had a collision with a motor vehicle. There are other resources, now, more refined and easier to digest, including video and online coursework. Foresterís book is still in print, in its 7th edition.

Yes, Iíd like to think that children could ride anywhere on a bicycle in reasonable safety. On the other hand, learning to be safe on a bicycle isnít childís play, but it isnít rocket science. The basics are a matter of a few hours. People need to understand that they have to look out for themselves and not assume that everything will be made right for them. After bicyclists have learned the basics, the many hours which they spend in the saddle offer ample opportunities to think things through and improve.

Iím waiting for a Boston-area college or university to take up the challenge and get beyond treating its bright incoming students, and personnel, as children when it comes to bicycling. The fatalities to date should have been enough to drive the lesson home.


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