Leila Haery was frustrated. She had just been pulled over on her bike and issued a verbal warning by two Boston University police officers for running a red light at the intersection of Carlton Street and Comm Ave. While she acknowledged the need to obey traffic laws, Haery said the light was yellow when she went through it, and complained that officers don’t stop delivery truck drivers who block bike lanes or bus drivers who aggressively cut off cyclists—ironically, some issues she had written about in a letter to the department only the day before.
“I don’t see them trying to educate the motorists on how not to kill us,” Haery (GRS’14) said before pedaling away after the stop on Friday.
Everyone who travels Commonwealth Avenue knows the dangers it poses for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians alike. But the Boston University Police Department has recently received multiple complaints specifically about bicyclists and last week decided to station officers at busy intersections along Comm Ave to stop those violating traffic rules, issue them a warning or a ticket, and deliver a healthy dose of education.
“Some of the cyclists are driving a little too erratically, and they’re taking too many chances, driving through red lights, driving on sidewalks, and just basically not following the rules of the road,” says Scott Paré, BUPD deputy director of public safety.
Over the three days BUPD officers were stationed along Comm Ave, they stopped a total of 152 cyclists and gave 10 of them a $20 citation. About half of the offenders were members of the BU community, and some were stopped more than once. On Wednesday morning, three of the five people given tickets had been pulled over on Monday.
The safety campaign will continue this week and any cyclist stopped for a violation will receive a citation.
According to Massachusetts law, bicyclists are “subject to the traffic laws and regulations of the commonwealth” and can be ticketed for violations. Newcomers to Boston—whether from another state or country—may not be aware of this legislation, says Sergeant Larry Cuzzi, who supervises the 19 officers who patrol the University by bike and is coordinating the stops. But, he notes, the state, city, and University have issued plenty of information about the rules of the road. “There’s really no excuse not to know them,” he says.
Galen Mook (UNI’09), a cofounder of the student group BU Bikes, thinks cyclists on campus represent a “mixed bag” of experienced riders who know and understand the law, newbies who have a fuzzy knowledge, and others who “flat-out don’t know the laws at all.” He says BUPD’s effort to increase bike safety on campus by pulling over offending cyclists is a good move, but says that changing the cycling culture is not just about education; it’s also about improving roads like Comm Ave.
“There’s not a cycling infrastructure that is effective on that stretch of campus,” he says. “We do have bike lanes, but they’re unsafe. It would be more effective to see traffic engineering for bikers,” such as protected bike lanes and bike-specific lights. He also advises that the University review the League of American Bicyclists’ list of 5 Es (engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement, and evaluation and planning) addressing how communities can become safe for biking.
Cycling on the Charles River Campus has increased greatly in recent years, as indicated by the number of bicycle accidents reported to BUPD. In the past five years, there were 43 reported bike accidents, most of them involving vehicles, and more than 80 percent of them have occurred since 2010. That figure is believed to be only a fraction of the number of accidents on campus annually. Citywide last year, the Boston Police Department received reports of 365 bicycle accidents, including two fatalities. In just the past two months, three cyclists have died after being struck by cars in Boston and Wellesley.
Boston Bikes, a program administered by the office of Mayor Thomas Menino (Hon.’01), notes that the intersection of Comm Ave and the BU Bridge is one of the most dangerous in the city for cyclists.
“If you can prevent one accident from happening,” Cuzzi says, “it’s a win.”
Last week’s stops were about educating the community, says Paré, adding that his officers are cyclists as well. “They run into the same obstacles as everybody else,” he says. “Officers get cut off like everybody else. They know the troubles cyclists have to deal with navigating this busy place.”
But at least one BU cyclist sees the educational campaign as misguided. Wesley Savage, a College of Arts & Sciences postdoctoral fellow in biology, wrote in an open letter to the BUPD: “Please have your officers pay attention to speeding motorists who also make unsafe lane changes, drive aggressively at the risk of cyclists and pedestrians, run lights, cut off cyclists, and block the bike line (including stationary BU Police cruisers), as well as pedestrians who do not abide by road rules and traffic lights, which ends up increasing road congestion and motorist rage. Instead of targeting cyclists who actually reduce traffic congestion problems, focus on the real violators of traffic laws.”
Out at the BU Bridge intersection last week, Cuzzi said he understood cyclists’ concerns, but couldn’t justify their running a red light to arrive on time. He has seen too many accidents between cars and cyclists and knows how the story ends.
“It doesn’t matter how late you are if you’re dead,” he said.
An earlier version of this story stated that Haery ran a red light.