As the bicycling community reels after the death of two Boston bicyclists within the past week, government officials and bike advocates are hoping to thwart a rise in collisions as bike ridership in the region surges.
The increasing popularity of bicycling as a mode of transportation, partly fueled by the expanding Hubway bike-share system, has outpaced motorists’ awareness and understanding of how to share the road with the growing throngs of bikes, specialists said.
“We’re in a transitional period where many more people are starting to use bikes to get around,” said David Watson, executive director of MassBike, the statewide bicycling advocacy group. “The relatively sudden increase in our numbers has caused some level of confusion on the roads among motorists that just don’t know how to interact with us.”
According to Boston Emergency Medical Services, there have been 451 bicycle-related incidents in the city so far this year. In all 2011, there were 583 accidents. EMS officials could not say how many of those incidents were fatal.
And the number of bicycle-related collisions is obscured by the lack of reporting, and statistics are difficult to compare, as tracking of ridership and incidents is not standardized.
Some cities and towns are more aggressive than others in tracking bicycle crashes.
And if a bicyclist is not seriously injured in a collision, Watson said, he or she will often leave the scene without calling police or filing an accident report. That creates a problem, he said, because statistics do not reflect the actual number of incidents.
In an attempt to collect data, Boston Bikes, a city initiative that encourages bicycling, is conducting an annual survey between Sept. 10 and Sept. 25. Volunteers will be posted at 32 spots around the city during commuting hours to count the number of cyclists, their gender, whether they wear a helmet, and if they are riding a Hubway bicycle.
Kristopher Carter, interim director at Boston Bikes, said that so far the group has seen “a huge jump” in the number of people riding bicycles throughout the city.
Boston Bikes is working with city agencies on a multiyear “bike network masterplan.”
“We’re looking at every road in the city,” said Carter. “We’re creating a real network to get from origins to destinations.”
In Cambridge, the skyrocketing number of bicyclists has also prompted an increase in collisions between bicycles and vehicles or pedestrians, said Deputy Superintendent Jack Albert of the Cambridge police, who has worked for almost two decades in accident investigations and traffic enforcement.
“When you have motorists that don’t have that as part of their driving psyche to be always looking for a bicyclist,” Albert said, “you’re probably going to have an increase in accidents.”
Albert said the rise in bicycling in Cambridge has caused the Police Department to focus more resources on educating riders. Because more bicyclists are taking to the road, he said, he hopes vehicular traffic will decrease.
“The fewer cars you have on the road,” because more people are biking, he said, “the less cars have an opportunity to collide with a bicycle.”
For the time being, as motorists grapple with safely driving alongside bicyclists, Albert said bicycle riders must act defensively to anticipate drivers’ shortcomings, even if they have the right of way. For example, that means being cautious when riding alongside cars stopped at a red light, lest a driver fails to look in his side-view mirror and veers into the bike.
“Even if a bicyclist is right,” Albert said, “if he’s struck by a car, the bicyclist is going to bear the brunt of the injuries.”
It remains unclear what caused an accident Monday, when a woman in her mid-30s was pinned by a tractor-trailer in South Boston.
The victim, Tanya Connolly of South Boston, had purchased her bicycle one month earlier, said her sister-in-law, Nicole Connolly.
Tanya Connolly was a buoyant and outgoing woman who grew up in Ireland and was passionate about the outdoors, her sister-in-law said. The athletic 37-year-old had told family she hoped the bike would be an opportunity for some exercise and fresh air.
Nicole Connolly said she knows her sister-in-law was a confident biker, even though it had been a while since she had ridden regularly. “I’m sure she was a good cyclist,” Connolly said Tuesday. “In Europe, everyone cycles.”
Also on Monday, Michael D. Ahern, 46, pleaded not guilty to a charge of motor vehicle homicide while drunk, speeding, and operating to endanger after he allegedly struck and killed a cyclist on Morrissey Boulevard last week. Ahern was released on $25,000 bail.