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tom keane | opinion

The problem with bicycling in Boston

A bike is partly buried in snow while a cyclist shares the road with a bus on Commonwealth Ave.

JOHN BLANDING/globe staff/file 2010

A bike is partly buried in snow while a cyclist shares the road with a bus on Commonwealth Ave.

Over the last month, motor vehicles in Boston have struck and killed two bicyclists, one in South Boston and the other in Dorchester. So far in 2012, the city’s Emergency Medical Services puts the number of bike-related incidents (a fuzzy term, admittedly) at 451, running ahead of last year’s rate. Qualms about safety are getting ever greater as are the burdens imposed on bicyclists: always use a helmet; wear bright, fluorescent clothing; get special training; strictly enforce rules of the road.

The car looks ever more attractive.

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I was one of the first to sign up for Hubway — Boston’s bike share program — and I’ve used it many times, finding it more convenient and less expensive than my own car, public transit or a cab. I cheered when Boston Mayor Tom Menino proclaimed, “The car is no longer the king in Boston,” and the city set about remaking its roads — taking real estate from autos and creating lanes for two-wheelers. I appreciated the physical benefits (riding a bike is just like using aerobic machines at the gym, except the view changes) and applauded when the League of American Bicyclists this year ranked Massachusetts the third most “Bicycle Friendly State” — a giant leap from two years ago, when we ranked 19th.

But the prospect of death or severe injury has a way of putting a damper on all of those huzzahs, and these days the worries crowd my mind. Sometimes when I approach a Hubway bike stand, I find myself reconsidering. Maybe it would be better to get there a different way.

An observation: I feel safest when there are a lot of other bicyclists on the road. When we are everywhere, automobile drivers seem more aware of us. When there are only one or two of us, we’re easy to ignore. Drivers turn right or quickly change lanes without looking, forgetting we might be next to them.

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So anything that discourages people from riding increases the risk to the rest who are — but that’s precisely the effect of fear-mongering and plans to toughen the rules on cyclists.

I’ll grant that helmets are, on balance, a good thing to wear, although there is a lot of argument out there that they are either ineffectual (as currently manufactured, they don’t offer much real protection) or counterproductive (those with helmets tend to ride more aggressively). But if folks stay off bikes because they don’t have a helmet, then the level of overall danger rises. The same applies to proposals to require bright clothing and bike training. I don’t own fluorescent clothes and even if I did, I wouldn’t show up in someone’s office wearing them. And bike training becomes one of those bureaucratic requirements that doubtless would depress the number of riders.

So too, with all due respect to advocacy group MassBike’s slogan of “Same Roads, Same Rules,” the same rules don’t always make sense, especially in a city. Waiting at red lights when there is no traffic just seems silly. At a stopped intersection, it’s far smarter to edge up to the front of the line where you’re obviously visible rather than stay in a bike lane, hoping a right turning car doesn’t clip you. Then too, Boston’s one-way streets can prove maddening. Rather than circle the entire Public Garden merely to go one block west to Arlington Street (easy for a car — the only effort involved is pushing a gas pedal), riders at Boylston and Charles use the sidewalk (illegal, I know) to hop over to Stuart Street and ride over.

Then, of course, there’s winter. It’s tough to ride then; Hubway itself just shuts down. Streets are plowed to give cars access; bikes (and pedestrians) are shortchanged. A transportation system that only operates nine months out of the year is, basically, undependable. If an alternative has to be used for those three months, then odds are that, for many, it’s that alternative—– and not the bike — that becomes their mainstay.

The car no longer king? It’s a worthy aspiration but in Boston it’s not reality. Indeed, I worry it’s going the wrong way. The spandex set and a few others, like me, who foolishly take the risk may continue to ride. Others will find something else.

Tom Keane writes weekly for the Globe. He can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.
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