With its aggressive drivers, rutted roads, and maddening one-way streets narrowed further by double-parked cars, Boston isn’t particularly friendly to cyclists. But these pitfalls don’t stop hundreds of Boston University students, faculty, and staff from taking to the city’s mean streets on two wheels.
Katie Koch (CAS’09, COM’09) bikes about 20 miles a week, around campus and to her job in Cambridge. “It’s so much faster than walking or taking the T,” she says. “My commute used to take 45 minutes. Now it takes less than 15.”
Her commute may be quicker, but it’s also more dangerous — a fact that hit home last semester when she collided with a police car. “They had a stop sign, and I didn’t,” she recalls. “There was an illegally parked car, the officers didn’t see me, and when they pulled into the intersection, I smacked into the side of the car and fell off my bike.”
Koch, who wasn’t wearing a helmet, came away with a few bruises and a sore neck. “I was really lucky,” she says.
Bicycling magazine routinely ranks Boston among the worst big cities to bike in, citing, among other things, the lack of bike lanes, the poor condition of the roads, the bad weather, and the aggressive drivers. (A survey released last year by AutoVantage, a Connecticut-based automobile membership club, rated Boston drivers as the third worst in the country, after Miami and New York City.)
But the blame does not rest solely on motorists, says Sergeant Larry Cuzzi, of the Boston University Police Department. “I see hundreds of cyclists breaking the law every day,” he says. “The rule is that if you ride a bike, you abide by motor vehicle laws." Unfortunately, that’s not the case for a lot of bikers on campus. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see a cyclist who’s nearly been hit by a car scream at the driver to “share the road,” and then run a red light. “You can’t have it both ways,” Cuzzi says. “Either follow the rules or stay off the road."
Many cyclists fail to obey red lights and stop signs, yield to traffic or pedestrians when entering a roadway, use appropriate hand signals, or even ride on the right side of the road. “There have been a few accidents involving cars and cyclists in recent years,” says Cuzzi, “and in every case, the cyclist was at fault.”
The majority of bicycle accidents reported to the BUPD involve cyclists hitting pedestrians on the sidewalks. While not illegal, riding bicycles on sidewalks is highly discouraged. Cyclists must yield to pedestrians on sidewalks and travel with the flow of pedestrian traffic. “If you hit someone while biking, you will be held liable,” Cuzzi says. “We’ve seen some pretty brutal accidents up and down Commonwealth Avenue in recent years.”
Another violation BUPD officers frequently see is ill-equipped bikes. According to state law, all riders must display a white light on the front of the bike and a red light on the back between a half hour after sunset and a half hour before sunrise. Bikes must also be equipped with pedal reflectors and properly functioning brakes. “You’d be surprised at how many students don’t have brakes,” Cuzzi says. “They just kind of drag their feet to stop.”
But the most dangerous thing that BU cyclists do is ride without a helmet. “It’s just plain silly to bike without one,” Cuzzi says. “Helmets don’t guarantee safety, but they certainly prevent injuries.”
Larry Sawires Yager (SED’08), who is a technician in BU Photo Services, doesn’t ride without his helmet, for good reason. “I hit a low-hanging tree branch while riding on the bike path at night,” he says. “It didn’t knock me off the bike, but it broke my helmet.”
Sawires Yager’s commute from his home in Lexington is 10 miles each way — 100 miles every week. “I spend only about one-third of the commute on the actual road,” he says, “because I’m on the bike path for most of the ride. But it can get a little hairy when I hit the traffic in North Cambridge.”
The most important thing to remember when riding a bike, Cuzzi says, is to remain aware of your surroundings. “Bikers are in a pretty vulnerable position,” he cautions. “Don’t forget to use proper hand signals, and always try to catch the eye of the folks behind the wheel. The more you communicate with drivers, the safer you’ll be.”
Vicky Waltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally ran September 26, 2007.