It is America’s longest war.
No one knows for sure when it began, but we are certain that one of the first skirmishes was fought on the Harvard Bridge on a Monday night in August of 1897. According to a story in the Boston Journal, “Escaped Death,” an electric car hit a cyclist head-on. Since that night, give or take, the battle between four wheels and two has been waged on nearly every street in this country, with particular ferocity here.
A few weeks ago, I visited that Lexington of vehicular conflict. Just past the same bridge, on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street, what I saw wasn’t pretty. In one hour, hundreds of cars and bikes drove by. Of the 74 cyclists, a third appeared to break some traffic law — running red lights, weaving between cars, plus hurling obscenities at what appeared to be innocent drivers. Not one scofflaw was ticketed or even given a warning. All this simply fueled my preexisting biases.
When I called Boston’s bike czarina, former Olympian Nicole Freedman, to ask her if part of the problem was this obvious failure to enforce traffic rules against cyclists, she barely took a breath, ticking off comparable sins by drivers — blocking the box, speeding up at a yellow light, double parking. She added, with understatement, that cyclists “are just part of a broader culture of not perfectly law-abiding people.”
So it was back to Mass. Ave. and Beacon for more research. She was right: There was widespread lawbreaking all around.
Did I have to rethink the conviction I occasionally admit to in private moments — that cyclists are the problem? Not really, because when I drove home through Central Square in Cambridge, a hilariously fluorescent spandex-covered rider ran a red light while taking an illegal left turn, which caused me to barely miss hitting him. The result, he cursed at me!
Why this all matters is that wars like this have consequences. Some are deadly; many result in serious injuries. The Globe’s Tom Farragher recently told of a near miss, where a driver swung a baseball bat at a cyclist’s bike, hard enough to bend a tire rim. The biker’s offense: tapping lightly on the assaulter’s car to let him know he was there.
There are no agnostics. Everyone has taken sides. A poll done last year at WGBH found a partisan divide. Statewide, more Democrats blame drivers for accidents than blame cyclists, while GOP-ers point the finger at cyclists more. Only a third of respondents believe that drivers and bikers interact safely. And the future promises more conflict, not less, as Boston’s goal is to move from 2 percent of commuters who cycle into town to 10 percent in just six years.
When I asked Boston’s mayor if drivers and riders can ever coexist in the city, Marty Walsh said it didn’t matter what he thought because “they’re going to whether I agree or no. I have to make sure both are safe. . . . Bicycles are a major part of the city’s transportation future.”
So, what to do to bring this more-than-century old conflict to a close?
First, there needs to be an immediate cease-fire. Who better to broker it than the man spotted riding a woman’s pink bike on Nantucket earlier this month during more violence in the Middle East, secretary of state and Boston resident John Kerry. If he could ever persuade both sides to halt the hostilities, the middle finger flipping, the corking (that’s when bike activists block an intersection to make their point, though I’m not sure what point that is), the solution is clear: separate but equal.
Not that separate but equal, but the type of bike lane that incorporates barriers between driver and rider for the safety of both. People in the business call them cycle tracks. Boston already has two. Over in Brighton, drivers on Western Avenue use the road, while cyclists pedal between parked cars on one side and the curb on the other. In Dorchester, on Mt. Vernon Street near Columbia Point, flexposts, as they’re called, separate driver from rider. Of the 82 miles of on-street bike lanes in the city, these pilot projects run less than 2 miles, though that’s about to change.
Freedman, who agreed that cycle tracks are the gold standard of bike safety, spoke of a future all sides could embrace. By 2043, Boston’s Bike Network Plan calls for increasing the number of miles of on-street bike lanes and related wayfares to 248, and the share of those that are separated from cars will jump to 59, with an additional 108 miles of off-street paths.
Between 1999 and 2006, Boston made Bicycling magazine’s list of worst biking cities in the United States three times. Today, it inches close to the top of their best. Investing more in physical infrastructure can also make us one of the safest.
Now if Beacon Hill could only mandate helmets and ban spandex, the long-elusive peace might finally be at hand.