The problems I hear most about are bikes. I get emails. People stop me in the street. People complain at neighborhood meetings. I bet you hear the same complaints even if you don’t write a newspaper column.
Bikes shoot through intersections against the light. They weave in and out of traffic so drivers can’t see them. They have few lights after dark. They blast over crosswalks, barely missing pedestrians.. They go too fast with little time to recover if something goes wrong. They ride the wrong way on one-way streets. They ride on the sidewalk.
I’ve never been hit by a car, but bikes have hit me twice. I saw an elderly man mangled by a wrong-way bike in my neighborhood, and a friend spent many months recovering in a hospital and at home because a bike hit her. I know few people who’ve been in car accidents.
Bikes are a nuisance and a threat. But bicyclists have problems of their own, as we have tragically observed in the last few months. A bus and a large truck killed two bicyclists. Drivers of such large vehicles probably couldn’t see the bikes.
Despite the dangers and the frustrations, most of us support bike use, especially as an alternative to driving in the city.
So what is the story with bikes? Do they really mow down pedestrians? If you are driving, are you likely to run over a bike rider because he’s zipping from lane to lane and you can’t see him? Or will you mow him down because you are not paying attention?
Reliable data are actually hard to find. Pieces of evidence are contradictory.
One thing is clear. Despite my personal experience, bikes rarely hit pedestrians. “The vast majority of bicycle accidents are bicycle/vehicle related,” said Kristopher Carter, the city’s interim bike director, in an email.
In 2011 there were 576 accidents in Boston that involved a bicycle, according to Boston EMS. Fifteen of these, or about 2.6 percent, involved a person.
Most bike injuries were not serious. In Massachusetts in FY 2010, the latest year for which data are complete, hospital emergency departments counted 1,205 discharges of bike injuries due to motor vehicle collisions, but only 176 hospital stays of such persons, according to Omar Cabrera in the Department of Public Health. Cabrera said the databases don’t tell who caused the crash.
David Watson, executive director of MassBike, an advocacy group, said, however, in an email, “Statistically, the vast majority (as much as 90%) of bike/car crashes are caused by the motorist.”
He directed me to Google. But there were contradictions. A doctor claimed that Toronto police collision reports showed, “The most common type of crash in this study involved a motorist entering an intersection and either failing to stop properly or proceeding before it was safe to do so. The second most common crash type involved a motorist overtaking unsafely. The third involved a motorist opening a door onto an oncoming cyclist.” He concluded that cyclists cause less than 10 percent of bike-car accidents.
But the doctor was a bicycle advocate. Was he biased? In my whole lifetime on the streets of Boston, I have seen only one bicyclist stop at a traffic light. (I count.) With such behavior, how could motorists be mostly to blame?
A Pittsburgh lawyer told a different story. Bicyclists, he said, were at fault for half of the recorded accidents between 2006 and 2012 according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Was he biased?
Motorists caused accidents most frequently by sideswiping a bike or making a careless turn, he said. Bikes were at fault when they ran a red light or stop sign or rode the wrong way. There was no information on pedestrian/bicycle crashes.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 2010 introduced a new consideration. Almost one-fourth of bicyclists killed had been drinking. Oh, my.
So we don’t know much more than when we started, except that drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians are frustrated with one another.
Solutions are emerging. The painted bike stop zones at intersections look as if they could be successful—if bikers actually stop in them and wait for the green light. Bike lanes protected with curbing or parked cars are also promising. Ninth Avenue in New York City has been reconfigured in that way. Years ago, the sprawling University of Illinois campus in Urbana was saturated with separated bike lanes, equipped with stop signs, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. They seemed to work well, but those lanes are much reduced now in number, eradicated by pressure from the auto-loving faction.
There is another strategy that might reduce the friction between bikes and everyone else. Remember when dogs were disliked intensely by the non-dog owning population? There were outcries against dog poop all over the sidewalk and the smell of dog urine in the parks.
But complaints are considerably reduced. Dog owners banded together. They pressured one another to behave properly. For example, RUFF, or Responsible Urbanites For Fido, has taken hold in the North End. One of its missions is “to promote responsible dog ownership.”
With bicycle ridership up, bicyclists might try the same tactic. Monitor one another for safety habits. Call out the scofflaws.
Kris Carter and his team at City Hall are distributing flyers pointing out how motorists can avoid hitting bicycles. They continue to stripe roadways to separate bikes from cars. They are campaigning to get cyclists to install brighter lights and urging them to follow traffic laws, although it is doubtful they’ll find success until the police enforce such laws.
And, by the way, it is lawful in Massachusetts for bicyclists to ride on sidewalks outside business districts unless signs prohibit it.
Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com.