Short Takes: Baby Strollers & Bikes on the T; Helmets & Impact; Walk Signals; Car Lights

  • BABY STROLLERS and BIKES on the T

The MBTA has come a long way in allowing bikes on the subway, commuter trains, and busses.  But there are still limits, especially during rush hour.  Which is why, when I got on the T the other day during commuting time, my attention was caught by the presence of several baby strollers.

These are no longer the compact, umbrella strollers they were when I was pushing infants around.  Today, they are more like mini-SUVs with enough space to carry an entire closet worth of paraphernalia on top of wheels about as big as the one on my wheelbarrow.  Some of them hold two or even three kids, often way past the toddler stage.  In other words, they’re big.  And there were three of them on the train.  No one complained, in fact, people happily moved out of the way and did the typical smile-at-the-baby routine as they moved.  I was particularly happy to see that it was mostly fathers who had picked up the kids at daycare and were taking them home.

But I couldn’t help wondering.  What is the difference between one of these strollers and a bike with an attached child seat?  And if it’s ok to bring these 5-foot-long-by-3-foot-wide devices on to the T without restrictions, why not bicycles?   And would it make a difference if some of the cyclists were willing to say “goo, goo?”

  • THE IMPACT OF HELMETS

From the research I’ve read, it’s not clear if wearing a helmet increases, decreases, or simply has no effect on the likelihood of being in an accident.  The available data is limited and mostly anecdotal.  I know helmet requirements discourages some people from cycling, which reduces the overall numbers and therefore the general safety.  And I know how wonderful it is to feel the wind in your hair, especially on hot days.

But one thing is absolutely clear:  if you are in an accident, whether involving a car or when riding alone, you are much less likely to have a serious head injury if your head is surrounded by a properly cushioned covering   I’m sure you’ve already heard the comment, frequently repeated by friends who work in the local hospital emergency room every time we pass someone bicycling without a helmet:  “There goes our next organ donor.”

(Yes, I know that new research shows that the “aero-styled,” pointy helmets that make us feel like professional racers can cause whiplash – which is why I wrote “properly cushioned.”)

Which raises the endless issue:  why don’t Europeans wear helmets?  The short answer is that they do…when they are racing, or going for long or fast jaunts across the countryside.  When they don’t is when they are traveling relatively slowly on separated cycle tracks in urban areas where the car drivers have a long history of watching out for cyclists….and when we get to that stage of development it is likely that wearing a helmet won’t be that important here either.

  • GETTING ACROSS the STREET SAFELY

Walk signals aren’t what they used to be.  In the past, signals were set to be “exclusive” – meaning that traffic would be stopped in both directions and then pedestrians would get a “walk” sign.  This made it safer to cross, except for the fact that it often took so long to get a walk signal that studies showed people were more likely to get impatient and just cut across the traffic.  In the past, people often had to press a button to get the walk signal, but the buttons never seemed to have a discernable effect so, again, people tended to ignore then and just cut across.

Newer pedestrian signals are (usually) set to be “concurrent” so that we can (as we were taught as children to do) “cross with the green” without waiting so long.  A “walk phase” is usually built into the regular traffic light cycle, so that its appearance is automatic and predictable.  Walk signals display the amount of time left so that we don’t have to panic and start rushing as soon as it begins to blink.

But best of all is the “Leading Pedestrian Interval,” the policy of turning on the concurrent walk signal a few seconds ahead of the light turning green.  This gives pedestrians a chance to get into the road before turning cars.  Walkers get across sooner, increasing the chances that they’ll be willing to wait for the walk signal rather than just cut across.  It also makes the crossing safer because pedestrians are more visible to turning drivers who tend to look down the cross street for potential on-coming cars but often forget to look at the sidewalk to check if anyone wants to cross.   Cambridge has used this method for several years, usually with a 3 second pedestrian advance, and Boston is beginning to do the same.

It’s great!

But here’s the gripe.  Maybe I’m just getting old and slow, but it seems that it usually takes me just about the full 3 seconds to notice that the walk signal has changed and begin stepping into the street.  It’s simply not enough time for me to get the two steps into the intersection that allows the whole concept to work – so I often end up having to step back on the sidewalk to get out of the way of turning cars whose drivers didn’t see me coming.

And I’m not alone – parents with baby carriages, older people, and gabbing teenagers all seem to have the same problem.

So here’s the suggestion – what if the lights were set to give us a 5 second advance?  It would cause traffic to have to wait for an additional 2 seconds during each cycle.  But maybe it would make our intersections more pedestrian friendly and safer – which might help reduce the number of cars needing to turn in the first place!

  • TURN SIGNALS on CAR MIRRORS

In a previous post (“Warm Weather Bicycling: On the Open Road Again”) I pointed out that it is enormously easier for both car drivers and bicyclists to see a car approaching from the rear if its headlights are on.  And I wondered what happened to the trend of a few years ago of including automatically-on “running lights” on new cars.  In the meantime, I now always turn on my headlights whenever I get into the car no matter what the time of day.

Today, as I was passing a double-parked car, I was able to safely swerve out of its way as it pulled back out into the traffic lane because I noticed a blinking turning light on its outside mirror.  Yes – it would have been better if the driver had looked in the mirror and seen me coming.  But given that he didn’t look, the visible turn signal kept me from  getting knocked off my bike and, possibly, on to the pavement in front of on-coming traffic.

So, now I’ve wonder about two things:  are there any rules, state or federal, requiring or otherwise incentivizing the inclusion of running lights or side-mirror turning lights?  Anyone know?

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