Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Can't We All Just Get Along?: the Bicycle and Vehicle Edition

by Hannah Risser-Sperry

I have had doors thrown open into my bicycle, been hit by a cab who kept on driving, and been called every offensive name in the book. I’m not alone in these experiences, as any city cyclist would likely attest. Whether you are a downtown courier or a middle-aged commuter, these experiences are commonplace and unlikely to disappear anytime soon. The simple fact is that cars and bikes are not thrilled to be coexisting.

Nor should they be, necessarily. While bikes on city streets are in no way new, the past few years have brought increased ridership; the number of Boston cyclists has more than doubled since 2007, according to the Mayor’s Office. More wheels on the road, however, bring more hazards.

Obviously, a major issue is the simple sharing of the streets. Cyclists are allowed to occupy a full lane of traffic, much to the annoyance of their four wheeled friends. Cars frequently double park in bike lanes, forcing cyclists from their one designated safe space back into traffic. Oftentimes drivers will honk, which does little but scare a rider half to death. Beyond simply sharing the road, there is the constant threat of being doored.

"Dooring" refers to a parked car’s door being opened into a cyclist’s path, often leading to serious injuries for the rider as well as damage to both the bicycle and vehicle. Last year, a friend was doored while traveling safely in a bike lane when she was doored; she blacked out and awoke to the driver saying “you’ll be okay” over and over again. She was not okay; she required multiple cat scans and a brief hospital stay.

One cyclist I spoke with at length for this story (we’ll call him Benjamin) has been riding in Boston and Cambridge for five years. His very first day after buying a bike, he was doored on Boylston St. in the Fenway. While no significant damage was done, he still feels pain in his shoulder from time to time. Beyond dooring, Benjamin says he has bad interactions almost daily. Taxi cabs are a big issue: this fall, Benjamin was doored by a cab’s passenger exiting the car. The cab had stopped in the lane with no blinker to let Ben know what it was doing, so he pulled around it on the right, only to have the door thrown open just as he passed it.

Benjamin flew over the handlebars and his front wheel was totalled, so when the cab driver offered him $10 for his $200 rim, he called a police officer to the scene. To his credit, the officer was kind, polite, and understanding. However, he found Ben at fault because “he didn’t understand that cyclists have different rights than vehicles and pedestrians. Most of them are the same, but there a few different ones. One, cyclists are allowed to pass on the right of slowed or stopped vehicle traffic, just as they’re allowed to pass us on the left. The other thing is dooring is illegal, you cannot open a door into the lane of traffic of vehicles, pedestrians, or cyclists... So, this officer was ill-informed or just ignorant. He said there was nothing I could do because I had passed on the right; because of that, I was in the wrong. I printed off the law, just from the Internet, and brought it to the police station and dropped it off. I found this out; you’re supposed to be enforcing these rules and protecting people.” Benjamin was right; there is a long section on cyclists’ rights (available at mass.gov) that some officers seem not to know. It’s difficult to be the person harmed in an accident and then be blamed for it, all because there hasn’t been enough education for the men and women tasked with protection.

Following innumerable negative interactions with the police officers in Somerville, Cambridge, Boston, and Brookline, last year I had a very nice one. While riding to work, a police car cut me off and forced me into oncoming traffic. I was ultimately fine, but took note of the license plate and called Boston Police headquarters as soon as I arrived at work. After being passed around to a few different unpleasant men who seemed to scoff at my assertion that I’d been endangered by an officer, I was assured that the officer in question would be talked to. The following morning, my roommate knocked on my door to let me know a police officer was at the door to speak with me. After calming my roommate down (maybe he thought my illustrious criminal past had finally caught up with me), I answered the door and chatted with one of the nicest men I’ve ever met. He apologized profusely, explaining that he had been on the scene of multiple bike accidents and couldn’t live with himself if he caused one. He said he thought I was very brave to ride in the city, didn’t know how anyone could with the way Boston drivers behave toward those who do. He held my gaze and treated me like a human being. It’s a bit depressing how surprising that was.

The point is not that police officers are bad, or the largest threat to cyclists, or do not care about cyclists. It’s simply that many of them are ill-informed and at the end of the day, they’re human. Humans do not always remember to check their blind spot, after all. Police officers often get the wrath of cyclists simply because of all the cars on the road, we expect them to be the ones looking out for us and knowledgeable as to how to protect us.

Benjamin knows that his fellow riders can also tarnish the image of cyclists in general. He sees cyclists “blast through” red lights and knows this looks bad for all of us. He claims to “treat stop lights as stop signs,” meaning he will stop, look both ways, and continue on if it is safe to do so. He will also progress if there is a pedestrian crossing sign, though he points out he will, “of course,” grant pedestrians the right of way. These are pretty common actions, but they infuriate drivers. I can’t say that I blame them, as they are, most definitely, illegal. The issue is that bicycles should obey red lights, just as police officers should know the laws they are meant to enforce. However, Ben also says he is happy to pay any fines a police officer will give him. He knows it’s illegal, but feels his actions keep him safe: “I feel a lot safer going through a red light like that then I do starting at a green light with all the other traffic behind me; the impatient drivers trying to like, really quickly get by.”

Benjamin’s suggestions for better cooperation? For cyclists, he suggests “following the rules a little better, they need to stay in their lanes, they need to signal when possible...” Cars need to “signal; it’s illegal not to! Leaving a little bit of space on the right side in case a cyclist is there, always checking the mirror and over the right shoulder when making a right hand turn...” He even has an idea for a driving test: “You have to bike in the city for a week.” I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but empathy from drivers as well as cyclists being more obedient certainly couldn’t hurt.

1 comment:

  1. Really nice post. I too am frustrated daily by cycling in the city. I actually have a long commute, so I drive for part of it, and then ride my folding bike for the rest of it. Most of the riding I do is actually in the city, and driving on the freeway, so I don't see too many cyclists when I'm driving, but I agree that everyone just needs to be a little more courteous.

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