Hey, cyclist dudes. If motorists don’t own the roads — neither do you.
I was driving slowly down Boylston Street early Tuesday evening, passing by the Four Seasons hotel. To my right was a cyclist wearing ear buds. To my left another cyclist held a cellphone with one hand while the other gripped the handlebar. Neither wore helmets.
Is it victim-blaming to suggest they share responsibility for any accident that might occur? Does writing that mean I don’t care when cyclists are injured or killed on Boston streets? Or that I don’t understand data showing that the majority of people injured while walking and biking are children and older adults, not pedestrians or bikers plugged into headphones? I don’t think so. But someone probably will, given the hostile reaction to comments made by Mayor Marty Walsh on a radio show, that people should pay more attention when they walk and bike.
The mayor neglected to say motorists should be careful too. So advocates gathered at City Hall to hold a moment of silence for those killed by cars and present Walsh with a petition calling for more funding for street safety. There’s nothing wrong with protest. But there’s something over the top about the anger directed toward “clueless” Walsh for what Andrew McFarland, of LivableStreets Alliance, called “victim-blaming.” It’s also counterproductive, because it turns off those people who recognize the need for better urban planning — but who also find it scary when a bicyclist comes up too swiftly and closely and passes a motorist on the left. That also happened to me Tuesday, shortly before I drove wedged between those two oblivious cyclists on Boylston Street.
Yet Walsh’s overall reaction to the controversy is also disappointing. Instead of stewing self-defensively, he should meet with advocates like Becca Wolfson of Boston Cyclists Union and Brendan Kearney of WalkBoston. They are capable of dialogue, not diatribe, and want to talk about issues like dangerous intersections, the need to fix signal timing, and creating more protected bike lanes. “This really is about making Boston a city where it is safe for people to get around no matter how they are doing it,” said Kearney.
No mayoral challenger threatens to scoop up the cyclist/pedestrian vote. So Walsh is probably comfortable playing to Bostonians who view demanding cyclists as the unwelcome symbol of a changing city. That’s shortsighted politics. It’s tempting but misleading to cast this as a war between creaky, cranky boomers and fit but equally cranky millennials. Walsh’s predecessor, the late Mayor Tom Menino, became the city’s biggest biking booster when he was in his 60s. In 2007, Menino launched Boston Bikes, an initiative to make the city more bike friendly, and pioneered Hubway, a bike-sharing program. Boston needs to build on that legacy, and education is a good place to start.
What lanes are bike only? Which are shared lanes? I doubt I am the only motorist who isn’t sure. Motorists need to think before they swing open a car door. But cyclists also need to realize absent-mindedness is more to blame than any willful desire to hurt someone. Much of the road-sharing tension stems from the snarl of traffic that confronts everyone who travels in and around Boston. As a candidate, Walsh pledged to address it. Today, city streets are a tangled, gridlocked mess, and that frustrates everyone.
The beauty of Boston is that we all feel this is our city, as David Ortiz put it just a little more colorfully. That includes motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians, as well as those who work but do not live here. Baiting each other is classic Boston. But it doesn’t solve the basic problem. If the city belongs to all of us, all of us need to figure out how to share it.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.