If you’ve visited the streets of Boston for all of five minutes, you know that each commute is a gamble for those of us who ride on two wheels.
An hour spent navigating the Hub’s bike-hostile infrastructure teaches the average cyclist how to anticipate threats—an adjacent car blindly drifting into the bike lane in preparation for a signal-free right turn, for example. With such unforgiving circumstances, many crashes seemingly aren’t preventable absent a change in the way that drivers feel about cyclists.
As a former daily cyclist who now drives a four-wheel deathmobile, I’ve seen it from all angles, and the attitude of many drivers toward cyclists is clear: Your ability to ride on the same road as me is a privilege. You are responsible for anticipating my actions. Get out of my way, I’m late for the red light 100 feet ahead.
Such attitudes aren’t unique to Boston. Loathing for cyclists brings more people together than the United Nations and has reportedly helped pro-car goons like former crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford get elected to high office. Still, it seems that the Hub is particularly unfriendly toward cyclists, so we looked to the numbers. And the studies. And the data. A whole bunch of it.
The US Census Bureau conducts a perpetual poll called the American Community Survey, which tracks, among many other things, how many workers commute by bicycle in cities with populations of 100,000 or more. While Cambridge in 2014 was one of the top places for biking, with nearly 8 percent of people riding to work, Boston failed to make the top 20. (It wasn’t all kudos for Cambridge, where accident data for that same year shows that 26 percent of all crashes involving cyclists occurred on the same notorious concourse—Mass Ave.) In 2015, only an estimated 1.6 percent of Bostonians commuted by bike. And that’s not because everyone else just loves taking the T.
It’s often said that Boston is a city built for cars, with other modes of transportation not even an afterthought until recently. Taking into account the proportion of workers in various cities who commute by bike, Boston cyclists are more likely to be involved in a crash than their counterparts in comparably urban Portland, Seattle, and Washington, DC. (I calculated a rate of crashes per 100 “cyclist-workers,” and found that the sum of the rate in those three cities is about 8 per 100, whereas in Boston alone it is 8.9.)
All of these realities and dangers have spurred Greater Boston area advocacy groups to fight tooth and nail for piecemeal improvements; meanwhile, far too many cyclists continue to die and get injured. There’s no starting over and no way to redesign an already-built city, so minor impacts may be all we’ve got, though changes sometimes miss the mark.
According to a 2013 Boston Police Department report on collisions between 2009 and 2012, 60 percent of crashes involving cyclists occur at intersections. In other words, bike lanes that end where an intersection starts aren’t sufficiently effective at preventing tragedy ahead of time. This while bike lanes that force cyclists to squeeze between traffic and parked cars are likely to do more harm than good; the aforementioned study also found that the second most common cause of crashes between cars and bikes was “dooring”—when a driver or passenger of a parked vehicle opens the door without checking the bike lane for an oncoming cyclist.
Data also shows the merits of bike lanes that place cyclists between parked cars and the curb: A cyclist can avoid being doored by veering toward the sidewalk, instead of toward moving traffic, and can also be more visible to drivers by occupying their peripheral vision, instead of their blind spot, at intersections. Even better is a bike lane that is wholly separated from the road, the type that will soon be installed on parts of Comm Ave in Boston—though not at the intersections with Mass Ave or Beacon Street, which are two of the most dangerous intersections in the city, according to the same report. Nor will the critical initial phases of the separated cycle track stretch into Allston/Brighton, the most dangerous neighborhood for cyclists.
Despite apparently enthusiastic planning by the City of Boston in a few token places, by certain measures nil has changed since the BPD report four years ago. A map of traffic crashes created by Vision Zero, a group working to “eliminate fatal and serious traffic crashes in the city by 2030,” shows no significant reduction in crashes involving cyclists in the most problematic intersections over the past seven years.
As for whether cyclist behavior is a major factor in crashes: According to the City of Boston’s 2013 Cyclist Safety report, 38 percent of crashes between 2009 and 2012 were primarily caused by behavioral factors—a cyclist ran a red light, blew a stop sign, or rode into oncoming traffic. The same report also states that drivers were at fault only 45 percent of the time in that span, though it should be noted that in its analysis, the city attributed zero percent of the blame to negligent municipal planning.
Needless to say, every bit of data suggests that, just as drivers should obey the rules of the road—lest they kill someone—so too should cyclists. Because while roads cut for cars pit cyclists against drivers in a battle for chunks of pavement, it’s no surprise that the former are often aggressive and careless toward cyclists, while cyclists can be provocative and daring in their own right. I should know. I’ve been both. I am both. For cyclists, it’s a battle for visibility and even survival. For drivers, it’s a struggle to get to work on time and to brave tight streets clogged with traffic.
Which can seem like a good reason to bike after all.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its ongoing Vicious Cycle series. Learn more about the project and how you can contribute at binjonline.org, and share your stories about cycling in Greater Boston at facebook.com/binjnetwork