Sunday, June 17, 2007

Spinning Their Wheels for Safety

Rattled by a spike in recent bicycle-related deaths in Boston, cyclists from the Boston area came together on Sunday at the Democracy Center in Cambridge to discuss bicycle safety. Participants focused primarily on possible legislation and education efforts that could be implemented city and statewide to protect cyclists as well as pedestrians and drivers from injury and death.

Organized by Boston bicycle courier Jaffney Roode, almost two dozen riders discussed a number of issues facing the cycling community. In part, the gathering was inspired by the death of Kelly Wallace, a young woman who was was killed on May 6 when her bike was hit by a car in a crosswalk near the intersection of Cambridge Street and Harvard Avenue in Allston.

"Cyclists are really upset and feeling disempowered," Roode said, explaining the forum’s objective.

Passing around an inner tube of a bike tire, which signified that it was your turn to speak, the group had an impassioned discussion about bike rights, laws and etiquette, ultimately focusing on how to educate new riders about the rules of the road.

Although often ignored, cyclists throughout the city have long noted the dangers of riding in Boston, which has been sited by some trade magazines as one of the nation’s most dangerous cities for cycling.

Because of the perception of bicycles as toys, many of the group testified, and not as vehicles, many bike accidents go unreported in Boston. Coupling that with the city’s apparent unwillingness to release bike-related accident statistics was used to explain the lack of understanding of the issue that has silently plagued the city for years.

"To raise an issue," said Diane Akerman, a cyclist that commutes downtown daily, "you need to prove that there is a problem." Without hard statistics, though, that becomes a difficult task.

This was not to suggest that all bike injuries are the fault of drivers. The consensus of the group was that it is the ignorance of road rules by both car drivers and cyclists that has led to many accidents.

"It’s not that people are just jerks that just want to see cyclists crushed under wheels," argued Mike Gintz of Somerville. "It’s that they just don’t know. To cars, [cyclists] are pedestrians that should be on the sidewalk, [which is illegal], whereas pedestrians see us as blobs of steel that should be on the road."

In light of this, Gintz and others feel that bikes "need to be legitimized as vehicles with laws."

And although the Romney administration vetoed the MassBike-endorsed "Bicycle Bill of Rights and Responsibilities," almost identical legislation, now titled "The Bicycle Safety Bill," was recently reintroduced into the state legislature and was voted on Wednesday, June 13, three days after the meeting.

In addition to advocating for pro-cyclist legislation, the group emphasized responsibility for themselves, suggesting bullet-point handouts to give to both cyclists and motor vehicle operators to inform them about the cohabitation of the road by cars and bikes. MassBike Advocacy Associate Nadav Carmel also highlighted that MassBike, a non-profit bicycle advocacy group, offers classes to new city cyclists taught by volunteers to help people adjust to Boston’s difficult cycling environment.

Complaints about inadequate, or inaccurate, information given at college orientations was also raised. While many colleges in student-swelled Boston don’t mention cycling rules at all, it was reported that Boston University encourages their students to ride on the sidewalk — an act legally prohibited in Boston.

Another bicycle safety issue risen at the meeting included recklessness by MBTA bus drivers, who many feel have no respect for cyclists on the road.

Fundamentally, though, it was the goal of the meeting to change people’s habits — both cyclists and those around them. To do that, the group emphasized that bikes need to be looked at as vehicles.

"We need to be acknowledged more in the community," explained Akerman. "Laws will help that. Drivers need more education, and bikers need more education."

This article originally appeared in The Boston Bulletin on June 14, 2007.