On Two Wheels, Fingers Crossed

Bicycling in this city can be a scary joy

By Katie Koch (CAS’09, COM’09). Video by Nicolae Ciorogan

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, Questrom’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.

This article first appeared in BU Today on September 16, 2009.

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