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scott kirsner | innovation economy

Tech alone can’t make biking safer

The Lumos bike helmet features a brake light and turn signals.
The Lumos bike helmet features a brake light and turn signals.Dave Lehl

There’s good news and there’s terrible news when it comes to biking in Boston.

The good news is how many people are willing to commute on two wheels: up 104 percent over the course of eight years, according to a City of Boston count in 2015.

The terrible news is that the increase in cyclists has been accompanied by an increase in gruesome accidents, like the fatal encounter earlier this month between a tractor trailer and a 60-year-old pharmaceutical company researcher, Joe Lavins. The Boston Cyclists Union, an advocacy group, has tallied 16 fatalities since 2010 — most attributable to trucks.


As someone who has been a fair-weather Boston cyclist for almost 25 years, the main improvement I’ve seen is that there are now lines painted on certain streets to designate a bike lane. As someone who has nearly been mowed down by a turning truck that didn’t signal, I was not confident in the protective power of the painted line.

In the aftermath of the latest cycling death, I’ve been wondering: Are there ways technology could help protect us as we wait for municipal governments to maybe, someday, take the safety of bike commuters seriously?

If you’ve ever used the navigation app Waze, now owned by Google, you’ve probably noticed that it can alert you about all sorts of hazards on the road ahead, from debris to cop cars to stopped traffic. Why couldn’t a biker using the Waze app click a “transmit location” button at the start of the ride to alert drivers who were also using Waze when they were approaching you?

I asked that question of Waze, and spokesperson Meghan Kelleher explained via e-mail that while “safety is an utmost priority for Waze,” my idea was “unfeasible at this time.”

Marc Regan, whose Boston startup, Mapkin, produces a navigation app that includes tips from local drivers, agrees that my idea raises problems. One is the inaccuracy of the GPS location on both the driver’s and the cyclist’s phones; another is how much battery life would be consumed by having the cyclist’s location updated every few seconds. But Regan, whose company was bought this year by Mapquest, where he is now director of mobile products, says his app has begun to add warnings to directions when a driver’s route will be crossing a bike lane.


Many new high-end vehicles are outfitted with systems that aim to prevent drivers from changing lanes without signaling or slamming into a car that has come to a sudden stop ahead. In 2013, Swedish carmaker Volvo began to add sensors to its vehicles that can spot pedestrians or cyclists crossing in front of the vehicle and automatically apply the brakes. Regan at Mapkin says he believes that similar computer vision systems, in the years ahead, are probably a better way to make drivers aware of cyclists — rather than having both parties using the same app. (Self-driving cars will have even more sensors and scanners on board, and we’ll expect them to be far less fallible than human drivers when it comes to any kind of collision.)

Last year, GPS maker Garmin released a $199 radar device for cyclists called the Varia. It looks for vehicles approaching behind you, as far as 150 yards back, and both flashes the tail light to alert the driver and displays an alert for the cyclist on a handlebar-mounted display. Useful on a country road, but perhaps not so much on Commonwealth Avenue, where there’s constantly a vehicle approaching from behind.


The Lumos bike helmet just began shipping to early buyers at the end of September. It’s one of a handful of new bike helmets with lights built in. The Lumos was the brainchild of two Harvard students, Jeff Chen and Eu-Wen Ding, who built the first prototype in an MIT basement three years ago. They sought to collect about $125,000 in preorders on the funding website Kickstarter and ended up banking more than $800,000.

The $149 helmet has about 60 LED lights built in — white lights in the front and red in the back — and there’s also a wireless turn signal button that clips to the handle bars, and lights up arrows on the back of the helmet to indicate which way you plan to turn.

“The key premise is that visibility is really important,” Ding says. With the Lumos, the lights are high up, on the rider’s head, so they’re more likely to be seen.

In road tests that have been taking place since January, Ding says that “the cars do seem to be paying more attention to them.” But he admits that even an illuminated helmet won’t “solve the entire problem of cycling safety.”

When I pressed him about what he thought would, Ding had two very nontechnological replies. One was a campaign to build awareness — making drivers more aware of cyclists’ rights and encouraging cyclists to abide by the rules of the road. The second: separate, protected lanes for cyclists, often called cycle tracks.


When I surveyed people on Twitter earlier this week about how we could enhance biker safety, I got an earful, and very little of it related to better gear or gadgetry. The Twitterati told me about drivers with phones perennially in hand; the need for more consistent police enforcement of proper cycling and driving behavior, like not parking in bike lanes; and better training for new drivers — and cyclists — about the rules of the road. But the top item on the wish list, amid more than 200 replies, was protected bike lanes.

While it can seem like Boston roads are packed with bikers, it’s hard to know how many people have stopped biking, or never started, because of the perceived danger level. That’s a problem if you support, as I do, zero-emission commuting, fewer cars on the road, fewer sardines on the T, and a way to get a good workout without joining a gym.

“I never started cycling, because I don’t have a single cyclist friend in Boston who hasn’t been hit at some point,” wrote Mikell Taylor, a longtime Bostonian now living in San Francisco. She wasn’t alone.

Changing that will require not just entrepreneurship and inventiveness, but old-school advocacy, education, and government action.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.