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 BostonColumn.com.