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On Two Wheels, Fingers Crossed

Bicycling in this city can be a scary joy

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In the video above, videographer Nicolae Ciorogan follows Katie Koch as she shares views and impressions of a typical bike ride on campus during rush-hour insanity. Take heart — both emerged unscathed.

Thousands of cars. Hordes of pedestrians. B-line trains and No. 57 buses. Kenmore Square’s Red Sox crowds at one end, double-parked tour buses unloading into the Paradise Rock Club at the other. And, of course, the Bridge.

For years, BU’s Charles River Campus has doubled as a cyclist’s worst nightmare. But as city leaders have stepped up efforts to make Boston safer for bikes, Commonwealth Avenue, for all its madness, has become a centerpiece of road reform.

“It absolutely has improved in the past year and a half,” says Greg Hum, president of the student cycling advocacy group BU Bikes.

When Hum (CAS’10) started riding two years ago, he “realized that Boston wasn’t really a bike-friendly place,” he remembers. “But if you learn the skills, like with driving a car, it’s a lot safer.”

The past two years have been an education on the cyclist’s role in the city landscape, not just for Hum but for BU and Boston officials.

In 2007, Boston’s biking fortunes began, slowly, to turn. Bicycling Magazine had named the city one of the worst in the nation for cyclists for the third time in eight years, citing “lousy roads” and “scarce and unconnected bike lanes.” As gas prices skyrocketed, more Bostonians took to the streets on bikes and experienced firsthand how harrowing and confusing a ride could be.

Meanwhile, BU faced its own problems. Necessary road and sidewalk construction from the Commonwealth Avenue Improvement Project — meant to make the road more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly — paradoxically strained bike-car relations even more. When students returned that September, bike accidents near the BU Bridge intersection occurred almost daily.

The situation soon garnered national attention, not as embarrassing as the Big Dig, but a transportation black eye nevertheless. That October, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino (Hon.’01) hired Nicole Freedman, a former Olympic cyclist, as the city’s “bike czar,” outlining an ambitious plan to install bike lanes and bike racks around the city and to develop a bike-sharing program.

A lot has changed since then for BU students brave enough to bike Comm Ave. Most notably, the addition of a bike lane from Kenmore Square to the BU Bridge has made cyclists and drivers more comfortable sharing the road.

“The bike lane’s great, because it encourages new riders to try riding in the city,” Hum says, although he cautions cyclists about having a false sense of security because they’re riding in one.

Bike racks have reduced the once-common sight of bikes locked to trees, handrails, and parking meters. The city also has toughened punishments for drivers and cyclists who don’t follow the rules of the road (although critics say they’re rarely enforced). Boston went from being one of Bicycling’s worst cities to one of its “Future Best Cities” last year.

Still, Comm Ave will never be completely safe for cyclists. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that 72 percent of bike accidents occur in urban areas, most often between 5 and 9 p.m., prime time for commuters in cars and cyclists to bang into each other at the BU Bridge or the entrance to Storrow Drive.

“Pedestrians and motorists don’t really know how to behave in relation to bikes,” Seth Pritikin (MET’06, GSM’10), BU Bike’s faculty/staff advisor and a School of Social Work IT analyst consultant, says. “I don’t want to pin it on one group. But in general I think a cyclist tends to be slightly more aware, just because of the physical dangers.”

Massachusetts has a relatively low number of bike fatalities each year; 10 cyclists died on the road in 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. By contrast, Florida, the deadliest state for cyclists, had four times as many fatalities per million residents.

More common are injuries, whether caused by collisions with cars, pedestrians, or potholes. Although 44,000 were reported across the country in 2007, experts say thousands go unreported (I didn’t report my own worst collision, with the front end of an SUV — nor did the driver, an on-duty Cambridge police officer).

But whether it’s the thrill of weaving through traffic on a fixed-gear bike or taking a relaxing meander along the Esplanade on a beat-up old cruiser, bicyclists love moving through Boston more than they fear the dangers or curse the obstacles. It’s a vantage you can’t get from a car, on the T, or even on foot.

“On a bike, you’re really experiencing Boston as it should be experienced, out in the open air and moving,” Hum says. “It gives you a whole new sense of freedom.”

Love to bike? Hate it? Have a harrowing tale to tell? Let us know in the comments below.

Katie Koch can be reached at katieleekoch@gmail.com.

16 Comments

16 Comments on On Two Wheels, Fingers Crossed

  • Nathan Phillips on 09.16.2009 at 8:22 am

    What a refreshingly frank video – no whitewashing at all of the serious safety issues on Comm Ave. All BU Bikers or those considering starting biking should take a look at this video. Thanks for doing this!

  • Anonymous on 09.16.2009 at 8:45 am

    I think it is important to remember that for the most part Bikes should not be coming into contact with pedestrians. It is against the law for bikes to be on the sidewalks in a commercial area, which all of BUs campus is considered to be commercial. I think that this needs to be enforced more because in some cases bicyclists are putting pedestrians in danger. I understand that riding a bike in the street can be dangerous but that is a choice that the bikers are making. Bicyclist also need to follow the traffic rules, this means that they should not be going through red lights. I think that drivers need to be more aware, and cautious, of bikers but bikers also need to follow the rules of the road.

  • Anonymous on 09.16.2009 at 9:34 am

    Bicycle Protocol

    I was glad to see that Katie follows the chief bicycling rule of riding in the street and wish that everyone would follow her example. Bicycles belong on the street, going along with NOT against traffic, and if you need to use the sidewalk, please walk your bike. Regulations state that on a heavily used pedestrian walkway such as the sidewalks at BU, a bicycle should go no faster than the pedestrians, yet I have had near-death experiences just walking on the sidewalk!

    There needs to be more education, outreach, and oversight to ensure that pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists know and obey the rules. Plus, I hope to see BU bicycle police use the street instead of the sidwalk, too!

  • Anonymous on 09.16.2009 at 10:06 am

    Bicyclists are the biggest danger.

    I agree with the above comment that hints at the dangers that the bicyclists themselves pose. As a pedestrian, I have never once come close to getting hit by a car or the T in Boston, but I have had so many close calls with bicyclists. This is because, if there is a red light, I’m not going to be so careful about looking both ways. I’ll glance in each direction, but if I have a cross sign, I’m going to cross, if I don’t see any CARS coming my way. Bikes are hard to see, usually blocked by parked cars along the road. And NONE of them obey red lights. So, I’ll begin crossing, and all of a sudden, a bicyclist comes shooting through the intersection, and then blames me for not watching for him, even though he broke the law. I think, at this point, bicyclists are abusing their new privileges in this city, and the book of law needs to seriously be dropped on their often-unhelmeted heads.

  • Galen Mook on 09.16.2009 at 11:54 am

    two-wheel consideration

    What the video so adeptly shows is how Boston’s streets can offer terrible conditions for cyclists who are simply trying to use the road as they are legally allowed and required to do. All this complaining about bikers not following rules, riding on sidewalks, tying up traffic misses the point. Sometimes, but not always, it is unsafe for bikers to follow the rules of the road, especially when the roads are being crowded by merging SUVs and double-parked Fed-Ex and BUPD trucks. Looking at the video of the BU Bridge, it’s obvious the cars are not keeping within their lanes, yet no one is berating the drivers in these responses. What is needed is a rational understanding on all parties – drivers, walkers, and bikers – so that they know how to maneuver around and with each other to make the streets safe(r). Katie’s comment about cars passing with “respect” is amazingly insightful. Most drivers don’t know what it means to bike, so they don’t respect the danger many cyclists constantly face. It’s too easy to say “bikes should stay to the right” or “bikes should stay on the road,” but that logic fails when bikers need to make left turns, or when merging traffic-jams prevent bikers from sharing the road with cars.

    What is evident from most responses I read is that the average Bostonian doesn’t know what to do with bikers, is unaware of how they move, and is unprepared when seeing them on the streets. Much of that is because the roads are built for only cars and pedestrians — but we’re changing that, and Comm Ave is a first for the City. Unfortunately, that misunderstanding leads to ire and anger, and bikers then become subject to what amount to hate crimes by the other modes of transport.

    So I appreciate this video mainly because it gives viewers a chance to see what it’s like to be on a bike — all the trials and tribulations that come with flying down the road on a self-propelled two-wheeled vehicle.

  • Anonymous on 09.16.2009 at 12:13 pm

    I agree that bicyclists need to remember to adhere to pedestrian right of way laws (stopping at red lights, etc.). However, pedestrians also need to remember that if there is a green light at an intersection, even if there are no cars coming, then the bike has the right of way. Bikes are still vehicles and should be treated as such. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a green light on comm ave only to be entangled in a horde of students crossing the street in front of Warren Towers. Then I become the evil one who caused all this trouble because I’m on the bike. I’ve even had pedestrians yell at me about pedestrian right of way when I obviously have a green (and I NEVER ride my bike on the sidewalk). In my opinion, pedestrians pose a greater threat to bicyclists than cars, at least cars are somewhat aware of their surroundings. Most pedestrians are completely oblivious, listening to ipods so they can’t hear me announce that I am coming, or choose to assert their *incorrect* right of way. I’ve fallen off of my bike in the middle of traffic trying to avoid oblivious pedestrians, it’s not a harmless thing!

  • Patrick Allen on 09.16.2009 at 12:45 pm

    Courtesy is often reciprocal

    Some cyclists have a combative view of commuting in Boston–something like “the road is a war zone where bikers are constantly under threat from malevolent motorists. Thus they have no incentive to follow the law, and should take every advantage they can to get to their destination and out of harm’s way sooner.”

    In reality, while rarely very courteous, only a tiny handful of Boston drivers actually want harm to come to cyclists. I had a semi-scofflaw attitude for my first year of commuting by bike. However, my attitude changed when I realized that when I am courteous towards drivers, that courtesy is usually reflected back to me. Now I obey the lights, and try to minimize instances of drivers having to pass me multiple times in traffic, and as a result my rate of close calls has gone down very much. I think recognizing this pattern is the key to both encouraging new bike commuters, and also increasing the perception of bikers as legitimate road users.

  • Anonymous on 09.16.2009 at 1:14 pm

    I bike frequently and find that pedestrians are more oblivious than car drivers in not seeing bicyclists. It makes sense: cars are more of a threat. Let’s not forget that many pedestrians don’t always obey the red lights either, and that’s when I’ve had a number of “near hits” of pedestrians on my bike as I go through a green light.

    As far as obeying all traffic lights, etc, my strategy has been that I am going to ride the way that keeps me out of harm’s way the most. If this means going through a red light (safely, when no cars coming the other way are close) to beat a line of cars behind me that want to accelerate into the narrow lane ahead, then I will do so. It is much easier for cars to perceive a biker moving ahead of them than one slowly trying to compete for space in an intersection.

    One time at a light I pulled up to a group of cyclists waiting for the light to turn. I saw that the road was clear and started to go across when one shouted to me, “Cars will respect you more if you follow the rules!” Well, my response is that cars/drivers will respect you more if you get the h— out of their way. If that means breaking a traffic rule made for car traffic, then so be it.

  • Anonymous on 09.16.2009 at 3:53 pm

    Nicely produced and edited video.

  • Anonymous on 09.16.2009 at 4:38 pm

    Left turns & Red lights

    As a car driver, when I see a bicyclist go through a red light, they better d**n well keep to the right and share the lane ahead when I overtake them. If they wait for the traffic light like everyone else, I give them more slack.
    * * *
    In the video example, the biker followed all the rules, but they complained about coming off the BU bridge on not being able to cross into the left lane in the intersection. I consider that action pointlessly rude. If traffic did not allow her to START into the intersection in the left of the left lane, then she should have taken the right lane fork – waited a few seconds for traffic to clear, and then hopped the curb into the left lane heading back to COM ave and BU central. She is usually going to be able to pass a dozen standing cars once she gets in the left lane anyway.
    * * *
    One of the attitudes that works best in the roads is: Don’t slow anyone else down. A bicyclist should not expect to slow down a car while sharing a lane, any more than a pedestrian should slow down a car when crossing against a light, or a car should slow down a bicycle when the car is moving slowly or stopped. To return to my opening issue, A LOT of bicyclists run a red light because they don’t want to slow down and then slow down a line of cars a few seconds later by not sharing the lane.
    * * *
    Am I not anti-bicycle. Ignoring the stupidity of the lights/traffic routing at the BU bridge, clueless pedestrians are BUs biggest traffic hazards. Rude bicyclists come in a distant second – mostly west of campus.

  • Anonymous on 09.17.2009 at 9:16 am

    As an occasional and perhaps timid cyclist, I sometimes deal with tricky left turns by getting off the bike and waiting to cross a street as a pedestrian. There are times when this is the only way to cross safely and avoid angering people (drivers) who can pretty easily kill you.

  • Aleks Zosuls on 09.17.2009 at 9:46 am

    Getting door-ed

    My biggest bike fear riding in the city is on roads with parked cars. There is a fine line between riding too close to the parked cars and risk getting a door opened into you and riding too far into the lane and flustering drivers. Many drivers are not aware of the dangers to a rider of opening car doors and don’t understand why I ride three feet off the parked cars. Public awareness of this danger could possibly diffuse some of the animosity about riding in the car lanes. The bike lanes do a great job giving enough room in these situations. Of course when there are delivery trucks double parked in them often like in front of Warren Towers it defeats the system.

  • Anonymous on 09.17.2009 at 9:51 am

    more bike lanes

    It’s great that there is a bike lane from Kenmore to the BU bridge. However, the bike lane needs to go at least to West Campus. No one rides to the BU bridge as a final destination.

  • Anonymous on 09.17.2009 at 6:34 pm

    If you ride in traffic, even if you’ve ridden for years, or are interested in commuting by bike check out MassBike.org. It’s got great info about riding safely, and it’s the organization that has done the most to promote the concept that biking in the city is legitimate. Believe me, it’s better than it was 25 years ago in Boston.

  • Elena on 09.17.2009 at 8:06 pm

    Just moved here

    I also appreciate Katie’s honest video, telling it like it is. I drive, walk and take the bus all pretty equally and it can suck to be on every end. Last month, I hauled my bike here all the way from CA hoping to use it more but so far I’ve been pretty intimidated. Where I lived before, the city offered bike safety classes and there was a coop where one could learn more about maintenance, etc. I’m also interested in bike clubs for people who aren’t serious bikers (no 10 mile treks yet, thanks) but I’d love it if anyone could point me in the direction of those kinds of resources locally? I live in the South End. Thanks

  • Anonymous on 09.23.2009 at 7:33 am

    Have Some Respect

    While I appreciate the comments of the driver in “Left Turns & Red Lights” (don’t slow anyone else down) I think cars can handle being slowed down a bit by pedestrians and especially bikers in Boston, particularly in the colder months. Bikers are bearing the cold and using their own physical energy to get where they need to go. When I’m driving, I’m sensitive to the fact that if I’m on an uphill, it’s not a lot of skin off of my back to stop briefly and start up again. Once a biker loses his momentum, he’s not slowing down a bit, he’s slowing down a lot, and it could take another half mile for him to gain it back. I think bikers need to to be smart–keeping to the side of the road, not making any irrational or unexpected moves–but drivers should be aware that bikers are not tucked into a warm compartment where ‘go’ means a little pressure from your right toes.

    And while a natural response to this post might be “you choose to bike,” that is not always the case. With the price of gas and parking in Boston, not to mention high rents, it is not economically possible for many people to own a car and the T is hardly a comprehensive enough system to make it an option for everyone. Bikers are also doing you a favor–creating one less car on the road, one less occupied parking space, and abstaining from the production of fumes that hurt your lungs, too (though not as much as ours, as we gasp for breath in your wake.)

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