Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Clearer rules and better enforcement needed to make Boston safer for cyclists

Without fail, whenever somebody I know has a bad experience with a cyclist, they come to me about it.

Whether it be co-worker, friend, or family member, if they're not cyclists themselves, they feel the need to report to me that this cyclist was going up the street the wrong way or that cyclist almost ran over an old lady in the crosswalk. You know, because we all know each other. I should bring up these injustices at the next meeting we all have. It was a college kid in skinny jeans. It was a middle-aged Latino guy with window washing equipment. Do I know them?

It usually comes as something of a surprise to people that I do not know the people who are running lights or riding on the sidewalk any better than they know the driver who parked at a bus stop or refusing to pick a lane. All cyclists are not created equally.

In years past, I always wished people would ride more and that the city would be more bike friendly. In more recent times, I got my wish, and now I regret I made it. The rise of programs like Hubway, which rented its 1 millionth bike last month, and the cultural shift in acceptance of bicycles as an alternative form of transportation have led to an explosion of riders on Boston's roads. The problem is that most of them don't know how to ride in the city, and it's making us all look bad.

Part of this is an information problem. Many people, both in cars and on bikes, don't know that bikes are supposed to follow the same rules as other vehicles. The sidewalk rule is sketchy, but given that you're definitely not supposed to ride on sidewalks in "business districts" and there are businesses virtually everywhere in Boston, riding on sidewalks is, generally speaking, a good thing to avoid.

More than anything though, there's the problem of inability to enforce bike safety rules. Sure, the city of Boston can give you a $20 fine for blowing a red light, but they can't do anything if you don't pay it, and $20 is barely a penalty anyways. Meanwhile, folks ride the wrong way in the bike lane on streets as busy as Washington and Columbus right by police and nothing is said or done. This latter infraction, which is one of the more common, is incredibly dangerous to everyone. Not only is the cyclist who is going the wrong way increasing its velocity toward the vehicle it is potentially getting in an accident with, they are also speeding toward people who are going quickly in the right direction in a path that is too narrow to avoid collision in.

Barring any legal changes, there are still things that can be done to increase bike safety. Stopping cyclists who are breaking traffic laws regularly is not a great answer, but the hassle of having to be lectured by police when you're trying to get to work might deter some people. Better, more publicly displayed rules of the road posted strategically around bike areas would also help.

Good rules from Hubway,
but not visible enough
Since many of the folks in question are bike renters, involving organizations like Hubway in enforcement might also be a good deterrent. While police can't enforce tickets, Hubway certainly can ban users for infractions. It wouldn't be great for their bottom line, but setting up a report system that temporarily bans users who are stopped for reckless riding would be an easy fix. Hubway should also consider making their safety sign more visible. Currently, their safety information (posted very clearly on the website! Good going there!) resides on the bottom left corner of their signage at bike pick-up stops. This information should be more prominent, and perhaps a quick digital "I agree that I've read this" option would encourage more responsibility among riders.

Being a cyclist in the city is dangerous business, but it's on us as riders to contribute to the safety of our whole community. So long as seeing riders ride like assholes every day is common practice, it will be difficult to get folks to rally around the idea that kids who get hit by buses are victims rather than reckless.


Anonymous said...

Thank you!

Matthew Wilding said...

You're welcome?

MAJ said...

So true! I commute in and out of North Station so see the Hubway riders daily - and agree with your view. Many blow through the red light there and also ride on the sidewalk to return the bike, narrowly avoiding collisions with pedestrians in both cases. It seems like they think they are pedestrians, just faster (?). I also encounter sidewalk riders all along Atlantic Ave. during morning rush hour. I don't really blame them, but many seem to have little regard for pedestrians.

Matthew Wilding said...

Yeah, on some parts of Atlantic, they're actually in the right being on the sidewalk. That's why I mentioned that the sidewalk law is complicated. Technically, if they're not right in front of a store, it's okay. In dangerous riding spaces, I totally see why cyclists do this, but as we demand that cars share the road, we need to be cautious on the sidewalk.

Thanks for the input.