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Bike tragedy shows need for new safety measures

The death on Thursday of a bicyclist near Sullivan Square in Charlestown adds a sober urgency to the city’s efforts to create a safer environment for the hundreds of thousands of cyclists who’ve taken to the city’s streets since former Mayor Menino launched his biking initiative in 2007.

The cyclist was allegedly hit by a garbage truck whose driver says he left the scene because he thought he hit a pothole. It isn't an entirely unlikely scenario, as bicycles can sometimes be hit by vehicles so big that their drivers never see or feel the impact.

The tragedy comes at a time when Boston's efforts to encourage biking are increasing. Mayor Walsh recently announced a first-in-the-nation program for doctors at Boston Medical Center to prescribe $5 Hubway bike-sharing memberships to low-income patients struggling with obesity. The city already offers $5 Hubway memberships to about 900 additional low-income people.

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Such efforts recently earned Boston a designation as a "Green Lane Project" city by the national advocacy group PeopleForBikes. The award comes with $250,000 worth of "best practices" consulting to help Boston lay the groundwork for a network of European-style cycle tracks protected from vehicle traffic. It will build on an existing $15.5 million federal grant to improve pedestrian and cycling access to historic areas in downtown Boston. A major feature of the project is 1.4 miles of cycle track in the North End that would be part of an eventual 3.8-mile cycle-track ring around the whole historic district, from the North End to Boston Common, over to South Station and then back north along the waterfront.

But all that long-term planning is of small comfort to today's cyclists, who will share most major streets with vehicles for years to come. If the city has any hope of achieving its goal of 10 percent of commuters using bikes by 2020, major steps must be taken well before the cycle track is in place. It remains unclear just how the Charlestown cyclist was hit, but the accident may have been less deadly if the garbage truck had sideguards. Cycling advocates and the National Transportation Safety Board have called for such protections so riders would bounce off collisions rather than be swept underneath the vehicles that hit them. Sideguards have been used in Europe at a cost of $850 per truck and a 2005 British study found a 61 percent reduction in fatalities from certain types of collisions.

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Earlier this year, London Mayor Boris Johnson announced a ban on trucks without sideguards, saying in the Times of London, "These are the really dangerous beasts of the road." Boston last summer outfitted 18 public works trucks with sideguards as a pilot project, and has begun to ask for sideguards in new contractor bids for trash removal. This is all too late for the cyclist who was killed on Thursday. But Boston should pursue such a sideguards program aggressively, as just one of many steps needed before its reputation for bike safety can be equal to its enthusiasm for biking.