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Biking in Boston, Seriously

Comm Ave improvements promise a safer commute

Class is at the College of Communication in 20 minutes, but home base is StuVi II. Among the options for making it on time are catching the BUS (BU Shuttle), cramming onto the Green Line, or sprinting down Comm Ave. And one more: riding a bike.

But you need to know a few things before pedaling away.

Comm Ave is one of the most heavily trafficked thoroughfares in Boston—a strip of pavement that is clumsily shared by cars, trains, buses, pedestrians, and the occasional skateboard. Michelle Consalvo, assistant vice president for government and community affairs, says that more than 36,000 cars, 45,000 bus and train passengers, 20,000 pedestrians, and about 3,000 cyclists travel Comm Ave every day. And the biking contingent is growing fast. The US Census Bureau reports that nationwide, biking to work has increased 60 percent over the last decade, as city streets become more congested and people look for transportation that is less expensive, more environmentally friendly, and in Boston, a lot faster.

But while riding a bike down the avenue is often the fastest way between two points, it is also the most precarious. Boston Emergency Medical Services reports an average of 520 bike crashes citywide each year from 2010 to 2014, and some of those crashes have been fatal. According to the Boston Globe, at least 13 people have been killed on bikes in Boston over the last five years. Three of them were members of the BU community: Christopher Weigl (COM’13), who was killed in 2012 after a collision with a tractor-trailer at the Comm Ave and St. Paul Street intersection, Chung-Wei “Victor” Yang (CAS’15), who was struck by an MBTA bus the same year at the intersection of Harvard and Brighton Avenues in Allston, and Anita Kurmann, a researcher in Boston Medical Center/BU’s Center for Regenerative Medicine, also killed by a tractor-trailer collision at the intersection of Beacon Street and Massachusetts Avenue this past August.

The map above shows the location and number of bike accidents that the BU Police Department has responded to on the Charles River Campus between 2010 and 2015. Mouse over the map markers to see how many accidents have occurred in each location.

The BU Police Department has mapped 121 incidents it responded to from 2010 to 2015 on the Charles River Campus. The map above shows that accidents happen all over campus, from South Campus to Brighton Avenue, but that most—more than 75 percent—happen on Comm Ave.

After years of debate about how to make Comm Ave safer for cyclists, in 2013, a joint BU-city working group made recommendations for the avenue that included more warning signs, better bike lane markings, and highway reflectors.

Last March, the city of Boston unveiled a plan to install a barrier that will separate bikers from motorists on the stretch of pavement between Packard’s Corner and the BU Bridge. The 6.5-foot-wide bike lanes on both sides of Comm Ave will be separated from traffic by a row of parked cars and by 3-foot-wide raised buffers between the parked cars and the cyclists.

The plan also includes protected right turn islands that will allow bikes to veer slightly away from Comm Ave at intersections, so cars will cross a cyclist’s path after making the turn, giving both cyclist and driver better visibility and more reaction time. Expect to see bike boxes, painted lines that give bikes a head start on cars at intersections (think the BU Bridge area). An elevated crosswalk at the troublesome intersection of Comm Ave and St. Paul Street will also slow motor traffic entering the area. The $17 million project will begin next spring and is slated for completion by fall 2017.

The Commonwealth Avenue renovation plan (above) was spurred by the need to widen space for Green Line trolleys to meet the mandates of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. As a result, bikes will now have 6.5-foot-wide bike lanes, separated from traffic. Courtesy of the city of Boston

The Commonwealth Avenue renovation plan (above) was spurred by the need to widen space for Green Line trolleys to meet the mandates of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. As a result, bikes will now have 6.5-foot-wide bike lanes, separated from traffic. Courtesy of the city of Boston

“The project designers listened closely to the cyclist community, pedestrians, and drivers,” Consalvo says. “One of President Brown’s highest priorities is to make sure that Comm Ave is safe for all users of the community.”

Local police forces are joining the effort. On the morning of BU’s annual Sustainability Fair earlier this month, officers from the Brookline, Boston, and BU Police Departments handed out 200 free helmets in a span of 1 hour to cyclists spotted on Comm Ave not wearing one.

Bikers at the fair complained about pedestrians crossing the street after looking for cars, but without looking for bikes, which have the right of way over walkers. “Last week, a pedestrian walked out in front of me in the rain, and I flipped across my handlebars and skinned my hands and knees,” says Derek Hartnett (CAS’16). “They didn’t even stop to see if I was OK. But I’ll admit, I walk out in the middle of the street when I’m a pedestrian, too.” And too often, cyclists say, cars pull over in a bike lane to let someone out. Drivers complain of cyclists weaving in and out of traffic, or running a red light.

As another school year begins, Comm Ave commuters continue a kind of marathon free-for-all, with bikers complaining about the negligence of drivers and pedestrians, drivers complaining about bikers and pedestrians, and pedestrians complaining about drivers and bikers. The one thing they seem to agree about is that even with the scheduled improvements, Comm Ave will not be safe until all three contingents learn to be a lot more vigilant and more respectful of one another.

BU Parking & Transportation Services has created two infographics with tips and tricks for both bicyclists and drivers:

BU Bike Safety
BU Bike Safety

Devin Hahn can be reached at dhahn@bu.edu.

Amy Laskowski, Senior Writer at Boston University Marketing & Communications editorial department
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

28 Comments on Biking in Boston, Seriously

  • j on 09.28.2015 at 9:35 am

    Good article but I’m kind of torn. As someone who commutes by vehicle each day to work at BU I consistently see bikers not obeying the laws. As motor vehicle drivers we must have faith in certain things. For example if there is a 2 way stop and you are proceeding through you trust that the other vehicles will stop at the stop sign. We need to share the road with cyclists but we also need to have trust and faith that the cyclists will obey the rules and not just ‘go because it looks clear’. I work on Buick street which was cited as one of the most notorious locations for accidents and I cringe when I see bikers coming and going down Comm ave. Just because you bought a bike and a helmet doesn’t insulate you from the rules of the road. Perhaps there should be a ‘city biking certification’ that shows you understand the proper biking protocol?
    As the tenant goes – it’s a 2 way street! – so if we all follow the rules/laws then it will be much easier and safer for everyone.

    • Anonymous on 09.28.2015 at 8:24 pm

      Along the same lines: every day there are invariably cars and trucks double parked in the bike lanes on Comm. Ave., taxis/Ubers consistently pull into the bike lane for drop-offs, motorists regularly drive over the speed limit (25 mph) on Comm. Ave., motorists door cyclists (which is subject to a ticket and a fine), motorists fail to signal before turning, motorists stand within the cross-walk when stopped at red lights, exit or enter parking spots without waiting for an adequate traffic clearing, and the list goes on. Can those who drive a car honestly say that they have never rolled through a stop sign, and that they stop for the required 3 seconds every single time? I doubt it. So, cyclists are not the only ones that ignore rules.

  • m on 09.28.2015 at 9:59 am

    Great video and article, but you forgot to mention jaywalkers who stands in the middle of bike lanes before crossing the street. My friend tries to avoid one of them, hit the curb with her bike, and got a broken chin. On the streets, it is not fair that cars are allow more space on the road just because they are bigger. To not discriminate people who bike, the city should split the road in half so one side is for car and the other side for bikers. As a result, we would have more people who bike and fewer greenhouse gas emissions on earth.

    • Jose Artigas on 09.28.2015 at 4:38 pm

      Good points, thank you, M.

      Request to BU today: Can you please provide options to Like or Dislike (or vote Yes or No) on articles & comments alike? It’s helpful to know what is the readers’ response to both. Thanks!

  • Anonymous on 09.28.2015 at 10:20 am

    I am not one of the drivers who are looking forward to this. I expect vehicular traffic to gridlock because of this. I expect bikes to still be in the road, passing slower bikes inside the barrier. Jeff Jacoby wrote a piece in the Boston Globe the other week about biking in Boston. It is the only time that I have ever agreed with him about anything.

    • Anonymous on 09.28.2015 at 11:03 am

      Bikers will stay within the barrier once it’s established.
      More bikes mean less cars on the road. Safer cycling will not slow down traffic. Mayor Menino wouldn’t have promoted a more friendly city for bikers if that meant slowing down the motorized traffic. It may not be apparent today, but it means less congestion down the road for a greener and healthier city.
      Jacoby is entitled to his opinion. But his article was hurtful to the memory of Menino’s vision and to Anita Kurmann’s life and work.

    • Anonymous on 09.28.2015 at 2:56 pm

      Regarding the Jeff Jacoby article: the mindset that roads were designed for motor vehicles, and thus, bikes shouldn’t be allowed is not only outdated but also short-sighted. Unfortunately for Jeff Jacoby and company, that attitude fails to account for many other issues that an urban environment must balance. Access to motor vehicles and ecological consequences being two such issues among many. The fact of the matter is that infinitely increasing the volume of motor traffic is not sustainable. We simply cannot continue to drive motor vehicles at our convenience without significant environmental consequences, and we are already far behind in shifting the urban culture to one that is actually appropriate for the year 2015 and up to par with many European city counterparts. Traffic is not an uncontrollable phenomenon that we must accommodate- traffic is caused by too many individuals driving at once. Those who continue to resist the evolution of the urban city to one that is more sustainable are appropriately described by the common idea that if they are not part of the solution, then they are going to be part of the problem.

      • Jose Artigas on 09.28.2015 at 4:50 pm

        Anonymous is absolutely right about the trajectory of change, & also the sense of entitlement that drivers have developed over the past 100 years. At one point there were no automobiles; at some point there will be none or at least far fewer. In between, why should they hog most of the roads & the resources devoted to transportation, while endangering fellow citizens? One reason is their political clout: drivers are numerous enough to have & wield it. But the number & influence of cyclists grows every day. Eventually they will be fighting on equal terms — & winning — but without the biased presumptions of all too many drivers.

        Re Jeff Jacoby, once every few years or so, he writes something I agree with, & I’m equally astonished. But he’s such rank ideologue that even when he gets it right on some part of an issue, he usually misunderstands and/or insults someone in another part of his column. No doubt the Globe keeps him around to generate reader responses. His columns always earn at least one published letter that makes more sense than the original column, & they are never as heartless as ol’ JJ.

  • Cate Solomon on 09.28.2015 at 10:33 am

    I wish Boston would consider having the bike lane be between the parked cars and the sidewalks instead of between parked cars and the road – there would be no need then to build a barrier and moving cars and bikes would be separated.

    • m on 09.28.2015 at 11:05 am

      The problem is come winter time, all the snow on the road get shovel into the parked car lanes. Then these cars park in the bike lanes instead, leaving bikers with either biking on the road with dangerous cars or on the slippery sidewalks (either options are not ideal). By the way, I am one of those bikers who bike year round regardless of weather condition. We need a sustainability solution that would keep bikers safe on the road and make it easy for them to get from point A to point B (instead of dodging cars and pedestrians <- both are awful barriers).

    • Charlie on 09.28.2015 at 11:59 am

      The new bike lanes on Comm Ave between the BU Bridge and Packard’s Corner will be exactly as you’ve described, between the the parked cars and the sidewalk. That project will be happening in the next few years!

  • Charlie on 09.28.2015 at 12:05 pm

    Awesome video! The short answer to “Is bicycling safe in Boston” in my opinion is “It definitely can be.” I’ve been bicycling in Boston for about 10 years now, and I’ve never been hit by a car. The key is being predictable, riding away from parked cars, and being very aware. You want to avoid situations where you have no way out if a driver makes a sudden unexpected move. For example, when approaching an intersection, try to match the speed of traffic rather than going faster than it. You want to be able to tap your brakes if a car turns in front of you and avoid a crash. Also, be very aware of cars turning left from the opposite direction. If you are shielded from view by other cars, drivers turning might not see you. They also might misjudge how fast you are going. Be cautious and take it slow if needed to make sure you are seen or can react if you are not seen. There have been many times when I could have been hit but was not because I was very aware in these situations.

  • Catherine Caldwell-Harris on 09.28.2015 at 12:44 pm

    I appreciated the map showing where accidents have happened. In my decades of biking at BU, I have always tried to ride on the side streets in-between Beacon and Comm Ave. Riding by the lovely gardens and parks isn’t just safer, it is relaxing and restores executive function. Give it a try!

  • Biker on 09.28.2015 at 12:45 pm

    One more extremely important item for motorists is opening the driver’s door without first looking for oncoming bike – a major source of accidents, and one that have discouraged many good potential and former cyclists from riding in traffic. Motorists needs to be made aware of that danger. In Holland, there are specific instructions as to how to open that door. Open it with your right arm. That makes your body naturally turn and allows a good view of the oncoming traffic before opening the door. That simple.

  • Jimmy Chau on 09.28.2015 at 2:31 pm

    I’d like to recommend an important correction for the “Bicyclist’s Guide”, which says to “Always signal before turning or changing lanes.”

    This should instead be “Always signal before turning or changing lanes UNLESS it’s unsafe to do so.” i.e., don’t try to signal if you’re riding over a bumpy road or if you need to do emergency maneuvers to avoid a collision (where you’ll likely need both hands on the handlebar).

    The relevant law (General Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Chapter 85, Section 11B) states:
    “(2) the bicycle operator shall signal by either hand his intention to stop or turn; provided, however, that signals need not be made continuously and shall not be made when the use of both hands is necessary for the safe operation of the bicycle”.

  • Jose Artigas on 09.28.2015 at 4:55 pm

    Thanks Jimmy! Good catch on the variable circumstances of signaling, & also for digging up the already-existing relevant law.

    One thing (hopefully not the only thing) that will make drivers safer operators is more penalties for violations, AND consistent enforcement. The former is meaningless without the latter.

  • Biker on 09.28.2015 at 8:27 pm

    As a driver and a biker, I have a problem more often with cars while I am biking. Luckily I have never been hit and I fear it will be my first and last hit when it happens. The problem is drivers of cars feel that they need to teach me a lesson, by dangerously cutting me off so close that they almost run me over. They have told me that they did it because they feel that I should not be biking on the road. This has happened many times in multiple locations throughout the city. This is the think that truly scares me as a biker. I have had a few other cars get dangerously close to me a realize the error of their way and be apologetic, but that is in the minority.

  • E. Benson on 09.28.2015 at 8:37 pm

    Excellent video. I will make three observations:
    1) It would be better to start the cycle track at Kenmore Sq. rather than at the B.U. Bridge. I think Comm Ave has enough room for that (might need to take some space from the sidewalks, but they are very wide for much of that stretch).
    2) Something needs to be done about the B.U. Bridge / Comm Ave intersection. It is much more dangerous and congested than it was before the B.U. Bridge reconstruction. I can understand why there are many accidents there. Also, the intersection is now so congested during commuter hours that cars on University Rd often cannot get through the intersection and the traffic backs up onto Storrow Drive. Unsafe.
    3) Yes, bicycling can be safer for bicyclists who follow all the good rules and suggestions listed, but the area remains dangerous for cyclists. Being extremely alert while cycling is a must.

    • LarryO on 09.29.2015 at 9:55 am

      The entire Comm Ave., Carlton/Mountfort St., and University Rd. interchange needs to be completely rethought, redesigned and rebuilt. To do it right, much of the empty space over the train tracks and Mass Pike would need to be bridged over so the roads could be completely realigned to make them safer for all.

      An relatively inexpensive and desperately needed fix is to put pedestrian crossing lights on University Road. Hundreds upon hundreds of pedestrians a day step out into moving traffic coming from Carlton St., stopping the traffic, and creating gridlock by preventing cars from entering University Rd. Of course this then interferes with Comm Ave westbound traffic, and the cycle continues.

      When the Police directed traffic at these crazy intersections during the BU Bridge construction, there was a slight amount of order that helped keep pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists relatively safe.

  • Anonymous on 09.29.2015 at 9:39 am

    To have safer biking you need to have reliable public transportation. If the T worked, you would see less vehicles on the road. I strongly believe that the Schools, Colleges and University in the city need to take an active approach to working with the city and state to improve the transportation system that runs through their campuses. Then you have a better shot at safe biking. Transportation is all connected.

    • Anonymous on 09.29.2015 at 11:26 am

      Precisely correct: improving public transportation will encourage more individuals out of their cars and onto the T, which could drastically reduce congestion and chaos. The good news is that this project (Comm. Ave reconstruction from Packard’s Corner to BU Bridge) includes signal priority for the MBTA Green Line and the 57 Bus, which will reduce commute time for those riding the T.

  • Cindy on 10.08.2015 at 3:32 pm

    Amazing video by Carly! Very informative! I enjoyed all of the interviews. Thank you for this piece.

  • Idea? on 10.11.2015 at 2:33 am

    I’d like to suggest something. It seems like people have some really good ideas about the new changes that are going to happen on the BU streets for bikers. It would be nice if BU Today could make a poll with the option of people adding new ideas to brainstorm which of the changes can be beneficial for both the bikers and the drivers of BU.

  • Holly on 10.20.2015 at 4:29 am

    This dispute has been going on since I arrived in the early 70’s. Nothing, not even the verbiage has changed. Everyone is still whining and pointing fingers and no one has changed their own behavior, if anything, it’s gotten worse. People are more rude on teh road, on the sidewalks, on their bikes and on public transportation. It will never be resloved becuse of one thing: people. Everyone want everything their way and that’s that. I walk, drive, bike. One thing I don’t do is text and talk when I’m doing any of those activities. Until the the extrodinary need for gratification before it happenes (that’s even faster than instant gratification) wanes, before the inane need for connectedness without realizing you’re not connected at all and have no idea what’s going on around you, until people realize that there are other people besides themselves all around them, this issue of mobility will only get worse. Tearing up the streets every year will not resolve it. Taking away parking spaces and driving lanes will not reslove it (Mayor Walsh!) adding more bikes and public transportation (WHERE???this town was created for cows not trolleys) will not resolve it. But perhaps by Looking up, look around, put your hands on the wheel, handle bars, on one another and off of your little rectangular toys, take the stuff out of your ears, shut up – stop talking no one wants to hear you- practice some manners, try out some kindness, obey the rules of the road and sidewalks – ALL OF YOU- throw in a dash of civility and maybe we might end some of the gridlock and nastiness, because we are a nasty lot; this is Boston, home of the me, land of the Masshole. More destruction being created for new construction on Commm. Ave. is not going to resolve the traffic issue. Honestly, after 36 years of watching them try, all they do is tear up the streets and make things worse. We are living on a tiny lot of land built up on a swamp with a bunch of cowpaths. Stop building luxury condominiums and perhaps there will be more room to move about.

    • Amy on 10.28.2016 at 5:31 am

      Agreed, good points! GO to Europe and you’ll see many more bicyclists than we have here. The difference is that over all, they’re civil and polite. I complained about bad bicyclists below, but will add that I do see good ones and I make a point – as a pedestrian – of thanking them for that. They’re in the minority though. Bicyclists are supposed to follow the same rules of the road as automobiles. Problem is, anyone can climb onto a bike – with no training, no “license” – and pedal onto Comm. Ave. or elsewhere.

  • Amy on 10.28.2016 at 5:27 am

    The B.U. Bridge was refurbished a few years ago at a cost of millions of dollars. BiIke lanes were installed at the time. Despite that, seemingly half of the bicyclists who cross the bridge do so on the sidewalks, treating pedestrians like obstacles to be swerved around, sometimes at high speed. Elsewhere in the city, many of them run red lights, cut pedestrians off in crosswalks, ride with one hand on a cell phone, ride with no lights at night, etc. I’ve seen bicyclists ride with their leashed dogs tied to their bikes. Yes – I know – pedestrians and motorists do selfish and thoughtless things too, but bringing that bit up (as some avid bicyclists have done here) is deflection. This story is about bicycle safety – isn’t it. Well – you aren’t riding safely if you’re running red lights, putting yourself and others in danger, and disobeying the rules of the road that you’re legally obligated to follow.

  • Tomas Olivares on 10.31.2016 at 7:19 am

    I just loved the infographic! Very professional and good looking and the video is awesome!

  • Bernard on 08.12.2018 at 7:03 pm

    Love the infographics. Short and precise messaging.

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