Before Boston encourages more bicyclists to navigate its busy streets, it must take stronger steps to ensure their safety. That message took on a new urgency this month after cyclists were struck and killed by motor vehicles in South Boston and Dorchester within the same week. The crashes weren’t just flukes: There have already been 451 bicycle-related incidents this year, according to Boston Emergency Medical Services, which means that the number of 2012 incidents could exceed the 583 reported last year.
Boston’s determination to become a bike-friendly city is undoubtedly a plus for its environment and for residents’ health. Thanks to 56 miles of new trails, a popular bike-share program, and initiatives that put bicycles into the hands of the city’s neediest residents, ridership today is double what it was in 2007. But the city hasn’t matched its efforts to encourage biking with a forceful enough campaign to protect bikers on the roads.
The city has taken some steps to boost safety, and plans to do more. Over 9,000 public-school students have have already attended safety classes. Police officers have been trained to enforce the mandatory-helmet law for riders 16 and under. And the city is in the midst of drawing up a master plan for new bike lanes, which will include the gradual addition of lanes that barricade riders from cars. Each of these steps is worthwhile, but, when taken together, they don’t add up to enough of a safety net for inexperienced cyclists. Here are some additional ways the city could boost its safety efforts:
More education. Navigating city roads isn’t easy. Boston needs to provide more training — not just for students, but for adults who may have never learned how to make left turns in busy intersections. The city should also find new ways to spread safety tips, such as providing packets of information to anyone buying a new bike. There should also be more signs reminding motorists to share the roads.
Boost helmet use. The city has already given out hundreds of free helmets, but messages encouraging helmet use should also blanket the city. Celebrity endorsements could help. Boston should also raise the mandatory helmet age from 16 to 18, and explore helmet requirements for all cyclists in certain dangerous areas.
Encourage night gear. Laws already require the use of reflectors and lights at night; those rules should be better enforced. The use of reflective or bright-colored clothing should also be encouraged, if not made mandatory.
Publicize “best” routes. In cities like New York and Washington, D.C., both bikers and motorists know which streets are best for biking. That knowledge causes cyclists to converge on certain routes and helps drivers to remember to stay alert on those routes, or avoid them altogether.
Take advantage of new development. Creating stand-alone bike lanes in some of Boston’s older neighborhoods, which often have narrow, winding streets, will be difficult. But the city should max out their potential in neighborhoods that are still being developed, such as the Seaport District, by building separate lanes and trails for cyclists.
Compile better crash statistics. As it stands, up-to-date statistics aren’t readily available. That’s something the city’s Office of Urban Mechanics could fix. Finding a way to link those statistics with police reports and emergency room data would help officials identify the most common problems on city streets. It could also help bikers identify dangerous intersections and seek alternative routes.
An impressive number of Boston-area residents are eager to get out of their cars and start commuting by bike. Still others, including many people who may not have biked in a long time, wish to enjoy the health benefits of cycling. But their enthusiasm, and the city’s desire to encourage them, shouldn’t draw them into unsafe situations. Boston’s desire to create a bike-friendly environment conveys a deeper responsibility to ensure the safety of bikers.