Commentaries Transportation

Downtown View: Bikes’ Behaviors Better

Bostonians are generally happy souls. Why shouldn’t we be? We’ve got easy walking, pretty parks, convenient shopping and generally good city services. But most have the same complaints. At the top of the list are bad bicyclists, trashy streets and dastardly dog owners who don’t pick up.

I decided to find out how bad some of these problems are. Let’s start with bad bicyclists. So between 8 and 9 a.m. on April 14 my friend Mary Fran and I settled in the sun at Au Bon Pain at the intersection of Blossom, Garden and Cambridge streets to take note of bicyclists and their behavior. We figured circumstances wouldn’t be that different from such other wide commuting streets as Atlantic Avenue, Washington Street, Boylston or Beacon. This location had the advantage of outdoor tables and chairs so we could sit and drink our coffee while we observed behavior.

We found that bicyclists were not as bad as we expected them to be.

We counted 147 people on bikes going both ways. It’s possible we missed a couple who might have been hidden by big trucks. We observed mostly men, but a fair number of women. Most wore helmets. Most rode in the bicycle lanes. One bicyclists signaled his change of lanes. We saw no near-misses. We saw no bicyclists riding close to big trucks, a situation that seems particularly dangerous, given the recent history of bike rider deaths.

Some even stopped at red lights. In one notable moment, we observed five bikes waiting patiently on the inbound side of Cambridge Street. They were all gathered together at the front of the line of cars. It was a sweet sight.

We wondered, after a while though, if Cambridge Street at rush hour was a good measure. We noticed, for example, that green lights were long lasting and red lights were extremely short. That makes sense on a street where the feeder streets are small with little traffic. But for our purposes, we may not have had enough red time to see how many cyclists would get frustrated with too many stop lights. As it was, we estimated about half blasted through and half stopped. We counted that as progress.

We saw several bicyclists put themselves in danger. The worst was when they rode along the left side of the lane rather than the right. These were all men. The same riders also had another disturbing habit—weaving through cars, which meant that drivers might check their surroundings in one moment, but in the next a bicycle would be in their way without their knowing.

One cyclist came roaring down Garden Street and as the light was turning, wheeled across traffic and turned left. He judged the traffic carefully and made it safely. But he left no margin of error if a car had moved as dangerously as he did.

We saw one man riding the wrong way. Two people rode on the sidewalks. We felt sympathy for the woman who did that, since she had a toddler on the back of her bike. Nevertheless, it was a busy sidewalk, and not appropriate or safe for either pedestrians or her baby if a pedestrian had not realized she was approaching from behind and made an unexpected move.

A friend who used to ride his bike from Cambridge over to the Longwood medical area said the best way to ride a bike was to pretend you are a car. This still sounds good, since many of Boston’s streets are not wide enough for cars AND bikes even though there is a bike lane.

As we were tabulating the bikes and their behaviors, we wondered why bikes weren’t licensed in Boston as they are in other cities, including all municipalities in California. Already you can register your bike with the police department. That might help find it if it were stolen. But it seemed reasonable that, as more bikes get onto the streets, they should be licensed, as are all other vehicles using the street, and a small fee collected that would help pay for dedicated lanes and bike racks and the license plates too.

Those five bikes stopped at a red light—I hope they are a glimmer of what might be to come. With more bikes on the road, we hope cyclists will adapt to rules of the road through peer pressure. That would make all of us, cyclists, pedestrians and even drivers, safer from the tragedies that we’ve seen too often in Boston.

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


15 Replies to “Downtown View: Bikes’ Behaviors Better

      1. It appears from the article itself that about half went through stop lights: “But for our purposes, we may not have had enough red time to see how many cyclists would get frustrated with too many stop lights. As it was, we estimated about half blasted through and half stopped. We counted that as progress.”

  1. Karen, I just read your lovely article on Boston. I can’t speak for all the neighborhoods in the City, but the North End
    has a serious trash problem, but with all due respect, we are dealing with weekend nights of those “heavily” intoxicated
    that are Urinating, Regurgitating, Defecating and Fornicating in our Apt. Buildings and Doorways. Our Clergy in
    the Neighborhood are dealing with cars pulling up under their windows, drinking & loud music and according to the
    Clergy this goes on until 4 a.m. and has been going on for years. The 2 Policemen riding around the Neighborhood just
    doesn’t cut it. There is far too much havoc going on in the North End on weekend nights and our cries are falling on
    deaf ears, pitiful, but all True.

  2. This may come as a shock to some people but there was a time in the city of Boston when breaking of laws like vagrancy, panhandling. loitering, jaywalking. public drinking , public intoxication and shooting up drugs in public were actually enforced.

  3. The cyclists are no worse than the erratic drivers in Boston. They fly through yellow lights; drive through reds;
    dodge in and out of traffic; and cut people off.

    1. The difference is, cars gets stopped for violations…bikers do not. Drivers are then assessed fines and insurance premiums sky-rocket. Bikers really don’t have any penalties levied against them. Also, I’ve never seen a driver get killed by a biker…so bikers need to be WAY MORE courteous and law abiding or they will very well end up dead. Whereas a driver of a car may merely have a fender bender for the same accident.

      1. I would argue the reverse.

        Drivers should be held to a higher standard, since the damage they can do is so much more devastating.

  4. Karen, I enjoyed your article and I thank you for your suggestion that bikes should be licensed. If they were then those few riders who cause damage and injury could be held responsible for their actions. A couple of years ago a friend of mine in her 90’s was walking on the sidewalk on Hanover Street when she was hit from behind and knocked down by a bicyclist who proceeded to ride off without stopping. She suffered a broken hip. Up until then she lived on her own and was able to walk around the neighborhood. After surgery she went into a nursing home and never left. If that bike had been licensed the rider might have been held responsible. Perhaps, if he knew he could be identified he wouldn’t have been riding on the sidewalk in the first place. Just let me conclude that most bike riders I have observed follow the rules.

  5. I could not disagree more with these results regarding the behavior of people who ride bikes in Boston. Seeing them stop at a red light or a crosswalk is a rare sight indeed. The worst at breaking every law on the books are bicycle messengers whose only thought is getting to the destination as fast as they can. That includes going up one-way streets, running red lights at high speed, not giving a damn about any pedestrians and changing lanes without any type of a signal other than their middle finger. There is so much concern when someone riding a bike gets killed on the streets of Boston but the one thing overlooked is that it’s usually their fault because it is they that aren’t paying attention to others.

    1. It is unfair and untrue to say that it is the fault of cyclists when an accident occurs. Absolutely unfair and untrue.

  6. There is bad behavior by all involved,bike riders who ignore every rule of the road,drivers who are on cell phones,texting, eating, reading, pedestrians who cross streets against the light while looking at their smart phones and lets not leave out taxi drivers who would run over an entire family for a fare..

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