In recent weeks, three Boston-areas bicyclists have been killed by cars or trucks, and the number of cyclist injuries has slightly increased from previous years.  As a recent Boston Globe editorial pointed out, increasing bicyclist safety is a pressing issue – although it is probably just as pressing for other road users as well:  people walking, in cars, using wheelchairs, getting on or off buses.

It’s not just acute physical safety that is at stake.  The overall health benefits of bicycling are so strong that even under today’s less-than-ideal conditions studies show that the positives heavily outweigh the negatives, statistically adding about an extra year of life to those who regular get on their two-wheelers.

The editorial is a welcome contribution to the city’s discussion of how to make our evolving transportation system  safe for all users, no matter how they are moving.  Although bicycles may seem like a newcomer to the street scene, they have a long history (especially in Boston, which was the nation’s original cycling center) and there is much we can learn from research done in other cities across the US and abroad where bicycling has already taken off.


Most of the Globe’s suggestions lie within the Five E’s suggested by the League of American Bicyclists’ “Bike Friendly Communities” programs:  Engineering better infrastructure, Education of riders and motorists, Encouragement programs (like Hub On Wheels), Enforcement of traffic laws for motorists and cyclists, and Evaluation to see what worked and what remains to be done.  (Some of us believe there should be a Sixth E for equity, meaning that there should be pro-active efforts to make bicycling affordable and accessible for low-income families and make bicycle facilities more inviting to women and the elderly.)

Implementing the E’s is intended to increase the overall number of people on bikes, not promote safety per-se.  However, the two are related.  Experience in cities around the world clearly shows that the more people who bike the lower the car-bike crash rate becomes – a phenomena called “safety in numbers!”  The most likely reason is that car drivers become more accustomed to the presence of bicyclists and drive appropriately.  In Boston, the number of cyclists has skyrocketed, mostly because of miles of welcoming new bike lanes along with the expanding Hubway bike sharing program, while the number of accidents has stayed relatively level.  Driving cars more carefully also leads to a lower rate of car-pedestrian accidents and even a lower rate of car driver and passenger injuries.


While the Globe piece was heading in the right direction, it didn’t go far enough.  Its call for more bike skills training for kids and adults is on target, especially if it leads to the School Department incorporating Bicycle Skills into Physical Education curriculum in upper elementary school.  And all bicyclists need to learn more about “defensive driving” – moving in a predictable direction at a safe speed and being especially careful at intersections..

But the editorials’ limiting of motorist education to the installation of more “share the road signs” misses the mark – given the limited ways that government interacts with drivers, we need a full-press marketing campaign to emphasize how valuable bicycling is not only to cyclists but to our entire city, making it clear that the person on the bicycle could be a family member, and pointing out important ways that motorists can protect themselves and cyclists.

The Globe’s call to “encourage night gear” is a beginning.  But reflectors aren’t enough.  Bicycles should have working front and back lights at night, as do motorized vehicles.  In fact, it might be worthwhile if all new bikes had to be sold with these already installed.  And the encouragement should go further – adding a rear view mirror makes it a lot easier to see cars coming up from behind (especially for those of us old enough to have trouble turning our heads all the way around).  Similarly, requiring (as do several western states) that all cars have day-light “running lights” would make them enormously easer to see in a wobbling bike mirror.


The Globe urges that we “boost helmet use”.  The Globe movie critic, Ty Burr, recently wrote about his own cycling experience: “I believe that not wearing a helmet is stupid. That biking with headphones is especially stupid. That both cars and pedestrians have the right of way over me on a bike, because one weighs two tons and could kill me, and the other likely doesn’t see me coming and I could kill him or her. That any cyclist who cuts off a car or a pedestrian or blows through an intersection without looking isn’t a free spirit but a self-absorbed twerp.”

In this country, most experienced cyclists wear helmets.  In European countries, cyclists typically only wear helmets when going long distances at higher speed – urban commuters and recreations cyclists typically ignore helmets because the bicycling infrastructure provides a reassuring level of security.  And even in this country, several studies have concluded that while helmets help prevent serious head injuries in certain situations they don’t reduce the injury rate or play much of a role in most accidents.

The key issue is that experience around the world shows that imposing a mandatory helmet law causes an immediate drop in the number of people bicycling of from 10% to 40%, which can actually increase the accident rate by reversing the “safety in numbers” process.  Worse: the heaviest drop-off is among teens, and long-term follow-up indicates that once off the bike, young people don’t return.  (State law already requires anyone under age 16 to wear a bike helmet, but most kids ignore the seldom-enforced rule.)  Of course, it would be better if young people – if everyone – wore a helmet.  But the overall health benefits of regular cycling are so high that doing anything to discourage it will have, on a population basis, a much more negative impact on public health than the absence of helmets.  Encouraging helmet use in ways that doesn’t scare people off from cycling is good; requiring them is counter-productive.


No one could object to the editorial’s suggestion of compiling “better crash statistics.”  We need to know where our problems lie.  But we then need to think about solutions.  Publicizing “best routes” is a good idea, but it only has value if the routes exist.  Unlike New York or even Washington D.C., Boston’s streets are not laid out in a grid.  Our roads are more like a series of tree trunks with haphazardly extending branches which makes creating a city-wide network much more complicated.

Another Globe suggestion, to “take advantage of new development” such as the Seaport district to build “separate lanes and trails for cyclists” is a step in the right direction.  But what we really need is a seamless network that allows people to go from home to work or out for a fun ride, whether they live in the suburbs or in an urban neighborhood. Boston is in the first stages of creating a city-wide bicycle system, mostly composed of standard “naked” bike lanes – painted lines that channel bikes between moving traffic and parked cars or the curb.  These alone have a positive impact.  They not only increase the number of cyclists but also organize the flow of both cars and bikes with a resulting decrease in accidents. The Federal Highway Administration found that the installation of bikes lanes in Eugene, Oregon both increased bike volume and decreased the injury rate by nearly half – as well as reducing the motor vehicle crash rate.  The study also noted that Davis, California decreased crashes by 31% after installing bike lanes.  Similar results occurred in Chicago, New York, and other cities.

But “naked” bike lanes just work for a relatively narrow additional slice of the population.  It’s a positive step, but not enough since most people remain too nervous about being next to moving cars.   A bigger boost in ridership requires creating low traffic stress “bikeways” that have some type of physical separation between cars and cyclists – just as the sidewalks provide a physically separate space for pedestrians.  The opening of bike paths and protected lanes in Montreal led to an immediate 40% jump in the number of cyclists using those roads.  Vancouver’s cycletracks prompted a doubling of bike activity.  In New York City, weekday bike traffic nearly tripled when the protected bike path was installed around Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. And, in each case, the accident rate declined.


Creating a low traffic stress bikeway system in the Boston area requires taking advantage (and improving) the existing off-road paths along river banks, through parks, and on Rail-to-Trail projects.  We need to return our Parkways into the multi-modal greenways they were intended to be, as was recently done along parks of the Alewife Brook Parkway.  These segments need to be connected with protected bike lanes separated from traffic with paint and flexible delineators (as on Boston’s Western Ave.) or curb-separated (at sidewalk level as on Cambridge’s Vassar Street, or at street-level as in Montreal).    And we need to close the remaining gaps with low-traffic “neighborways” that are structurally designed to allow low-speed cars while prioritizing walking and bicycling.

The Boston Globe editorial waved in this direction through its almost off-hand endorsement of “lanes that barricade riders from cars.”  But it would have been good if the editorial had gone the next step and called for what some advocates are calling a regional Green Routes Network – a seamless system of bicycling routes for people of all ages, abilities, and traffic tolerances – that will not only improve the safety of our roads for all users but also expand opportunities for family recreation, help relieve car congestion, upgrade our public health environment, and increase nearby property values while making the area more livable.

It’s not surprising that people on bikes have become a lightning rod for complaints about our roads. Bikes are the new entries pushing their way into already congested streets, just as cars were the anger-provoking newcomers in the 1920s.  Of course, there are bicyclists who act rudely, stupidly, and even dangerously.  As do many pedestrians and lots of car drivers –which is why calling someone a “Boston Driver” is usually taken as an insult.  But the basic fact remains that the biggest danger, to bicyclists, pedestrians, and even car drivers comes not from 20-pound bikes going 10-15 mph but from 2-ton motorized vehicles going 25 to 40 mph.

To reduce the risk, we need to get more cyclists on the roads, create better facilities, and increase our overall civility.  It’s not rocket science; it just requires a little muscle.


Related Previous Posts:

COMPLETE STREETS: Design Elements, New Priorities, Means To An End

SIGNS, PAINT, AND FLEXIBILITY: Creative No-Cost Ways To Improve Road Saftey & Intelligibility


SAFE CYCLING – Actual, Subjective, Social; Solo or Group

BOSTON BICYCLING: Five Changes To Move From Better To World Class

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