Ever since I visited Berlin in 2015 I have been a huge fan of built-in bicycle lighting using hub dynamos. They were all over in Germany, since there most bicycles have built-in lighting (with an exception for sport bicycles). Unfortunately hub dynamos are almost impossible to find on new bicycles for sale in the USA. To my knowledge the only choices currently available on bicycles selling for under $1,000 are the Hoprider 100 and Hoprider 500, both available from the French sporting goods giant Decathlon.
When the Hoprider 100 recently went on sale for $499, I couldn’t resist trying it out, even though I own a Breezer Uptown 8, an excellent transportation bicycle with a hub dynamo. Breezer stopped offering this model in 2019, and currently offers no bikes equipped with hub dynamos in the US. Let’s look at the features of the Hoprider 100.
The Hoprider 100 comes with an AXA Echo 15 headlamp and fender-mounted taillamp, powered by a Shimano Nexus dynahub. The rear light has a capacitor that can hold a charge for several minutes after the bicycle is stopped.
Fenders, Rack, Kickstand, Bell, and Lock
The bike comes with serviceable black plastic fenders, including a rear flap, that are well mounted. The rear luggage rack includes a spring-loaded clasp on top and hooks and frames for paniers. There’s even an attachment that seems to be designed to hold a minipump. The kickstand has a nice spring to it. The bell is small and functional. Unlike the Uptown 8, the Hoprider does not come with a frame lock, but the frame includes braze-ons to mount one, and Decathlon sells one currently on sale for $10, but out of stock. (Although a frame lock can be convenient at times, it is not secure enough for most urban applications, and is awkward to use since the key cannot be removed except when the lock is closed.)
Gearing and Chain Guard
The Hoprider has 3 x 7 gearing, with a Shimano Altus rear derailleur and Tourney crankset and cassette with twist shifters. A better and still low-cost alternative might be a 1 x 9 setup, for example with an 11-36 cassette and a 38-tooth cog. This would provide a similar range but would be easier to use and maintain, at the expense of slightly larger jumps between gears. The chainguard seems to do its job of keeping your pants leg away from the chain, even though it is not the fully enclosed type used on the Breezer Uptown 8.
Frame, Tires and Wheels
The aluminum frame is finished in a pretty purple metallic, although it has an unsightly oversized downtube. The 700C wheels have 1.5 in (38 mm) wide tires that can be inflated to 90 psi. It seems to be somewhat faster than the Breezer, which has 26 inch wheels and 1.75 in (44 mm) tires with a maximum pressure of 55 psi,, but it’s also somewhat less forgiving on bumps.
The Hoprider includes a Wave saddle from Selle Royal. It’s just about the right shape and size for efficient riding, in my opinion. However, it is ironically too soft to be comfortable: the gel padding doesn’t really stay in place when riding and may lead to more chafing. Saddles are often a matter of personal opinion, and are easy to replace.
Ease of Set Up
Decathlon ships the bike in an oversized box with both wheels attached, which makes assembly much easier than with most boxed bikes. The brakes and gears were well adjusted and the lighting worked. All that is needed to make it ridable is:
Turn and tighten handlebars and stem with 6 mm hex wrench.
However, there are a few modifications that I would recommend.
Like most bikes designed for use in an upright position, the Hoprider’s bars are mostly straight across. I find that this puts the wrists in an uncomfortable position, compared to the swept-back bars found on English 3-speeds. Fortunately you can find replacement bars (pictured) for about $25 that will fit twist shifters. I also swapped the stem for a longer one to compensate for the greater reach of the new bars.
I replaced the plastic pedals with metal ones I had lying around. This change permitted me to add Zefal half toe-clips, which help in starting, in keeping feet from sliding off the pedals, and in overall pedaling efficiency–while allowing the use of any shoes.
The Hoprider 100 is available in M, L, and XL sizes for riders from 5’5″ to 6’5″. Unfortunately no smaller sizes are sold in the US. In Canada and probably all other markets, Decathlon also sells a “low frame” version in sizes M and L. Confusingly, the L low frame is the same size as the M high frame. The M low frame is intended for riders between 150 and 160 cm (4’11” to 5’3″).
Hub dynamos are extremely practical: bright lights are available at all times, without having to remember to bring fresh disposable batteries or to recharge USB batteries. If you want one and live in the US, currently you have very few inexpensive options. What about the Hoprider 500? As far as I can tell, for the additional $300 you get an 8 speed cassette instead of a 7, and a suspension front fork. The first of these is not necessary, and the second may actually be a negative since suspension forks add weight and are not needed on urban bikes. You could instead increase comfort by running the tires at less than the maximum pressure.
One other option you might consider for a general transportation bicycle: a used Breezer Uptown 7 from the now defunct Zagster bike sharing company, available for $350 + $75 shipping. The open-frame bike has an internal 7-speed hub and would likely fit riders who are not tall enough for the Hoprider 100.
The Hoprider 100 is not perfect, but it’s a very capable and complete bicycle for transportation at an unbeatable price. I hope it stays on the market and maybe even gets some competition!
In search of family recreation, a substitute for closed gyms, or a way of getting around when public transportation is unsafe, Americans are rediscovering the bicycle (again). The New York Times, NPR, CNN, and the Guardian have all taken note of the new bike boom, which is also occurring in Germany, the UK and probably other countries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are lots of great reasons to start bicycling, including fun, fitness, and transportation. The reduction in car traffic during the pandemic has made streets more accessible.
There are still millions who have not yet acquired the equipment, information, and skills to make bicycling practical, enjoyable, and safe. Let’s fix that! I’m assuming you are an adult who knows how to balance and steer a bicycle, but who has minimal riding experience. I will walk you through what you need to know to get bicycling safely, comfortably, and efficiently.
A Beginner Bicycle
First you will need a bicycle! That has gotten harder now that everyone wants one at the same time. You might already have one that is suitable, or you might be able to get or buy a used one. There are some potential dealbreakers. If your candidate machine is not the right size, find another. How to tell? You know it’s too big if you can’t stand over the frame with both feet comfortably on the ground–and really there should be at least an inch or two of clearance. Too small is trickier to determine. The seat needs to be able to go high enough so that you can extend your leg almost completely at the bottom of the pedal stroke. You might also be too close to the handlebars.
A low quality bicycle is not worth your time and effort. Bicycles sold at stores such as Walmart and Target for under $300 are hard to adjust properly and not very durable. Any bike that has been unused for some time will likely need adjustment and part replacement that could cost $100-$200 at your local bike shop. That is a good investment for a decent-quality bicycle that fits and is generally suited to your needs–but otherwise not.
If you need to buy a bicycle, your local bike shop will likely have an array of options that is bewildering for the beginner. I recommend a bicycle intended for pavement use with an upright riding position–such as a “hybrid” (so-called because they are between road bikes with drop bars and mountain bikes designed for rough trails). These bicycles generally have flat or low-rise handlebars, front and rear derailleur gearing, and tires that are 32 to 38 mm (1.25 to 1.5 inches) wide. Confusingly, some brands label these as “cross” or “fitness” bicycles. Prices start around $400, but it may be difficult to find one in stock at that price.
There are a number of “features” on some bicycles that you should avoid, including suspension fork, an extremely wide saddle, knobby tires, and suspension seat post. All of these add weight or inefficiency without improving comfort. For these reasons, you should generally avoid “comfort” and “‘cruiser” style bicycles.
A note on handlebars: an upright position is the best starting place for beginners, but unfortunately most manufacturers use mostly-straight flat or riser bars derived from mountain bikes rather than the swept-back bars found on traditional utility bicycles, which provide a much more comfortable wrist position. It is often possible to replace handlebars. Grip or twist shifters require longer handlebars than thumb or trigger shift levers, so the latter gives you more replacement handlebar options. The swept-back design will reduce the reach to the bars, potentially making your posture more cramped, but this can be corrected by swapping the handlebar stem for one with a greater forward extension. Ask your bicycle shop about making a handlebar change when you are buying a bicycle.
A note on seats: wider, softer seats (or more properly, saddles) would seem to be more comfortable but they are more likely to induce chafing as you pedal. With any seat, the beginning bicyclist may experience some discomfort after the first ride or two, but this quickly disappears as your body gets used to riding.
Hybrid bikes will virtually always come with a wide range of gears and mounts for accessories. They can be made into a usable bike for transportation by adding a baggage rack, fenders, lights, and a bell (if you know this is your purpose, see the discussion below about transportation bicycles that come with these accessories).
There are some items beside the bicycle that every bicyclist will need. These include:
a floor pump
water bottle and cage
I strongly recommend getting an LED front and rear light set to carry even if you never intend to ride your bicycle after dark. Even with reflectors, bicycles are hard to see in the dark, and lights are cheap and highly effective.
An important upgrade to your new bicycle is a set of mini pedal clips. These perform two extremely useful functions: (1) they let you easily raise your pedal into a high position for smooth starting from a stop and (2) they prevent your feet from sliding off, such as when pushing hard to climb a hill. They can be found for less than $10. Many pedals have a reflector that can be removed, revealing holes where the clips are mounted (if not, you will also have to replace your pedals). Check the pedals when you are buying a bicycle; the bicycle shop may agree to swap pedals at minimal cost.
An electric bike?
Thanks to improved batteries and miniaturized motors, pedal bicycles with electric power are widely available. They are especially useful for riders frequently carrying kids or cargo, confronting steep climbs, or both. Many electric bikes come with integrated battery-powered lighting. They are considerably more expensive and heavy than conventional bicycles and require recharging time. The slowest e-bikes are limited to 20 mph on electrical power alone, but can go faster when combined with pedaling.
I don’t recommend considering an e-bike until after you’ve put in substantial riding time on a regular bicycle. Higher speed and inexperience are a poor combination. Under your own power, you will develop stamina and riding skill together, practicing both climbing and descending skills.
So the prior question is, how can I ride safely? The short answer is: follow the same rules as drivers. It is very much worth your while to learn how this works in practice; the best way is to take a CyclingSavvy course. If in-person courses are not available, you can take an online class, currently available for half price. The Essentials Short Course is free. The CyclingSavvy Basics Course, $17.50, covers the rules of traffic and how bicyclists operate within them. Another excellent resource covering this material is John S. Allen’s Bicycling Street Smarts.
In brief, here are the things you must do to avoid causing a collision:
Ride on the right half of the road, with, not against, traffic. Don’t ignore Do Not Enter signs.
Do not move across the road without first checking that no one is coming.
Look and yield before entering the road from a driveway.
Yield to cross traffic when you have a red light, stop sign, or yield sign.
Yield when you are turning left.
Don’t pass on the right unless the driver ahead is signaling left.
Don’t ride so close to parked cars that you could be hit by a suddenly opening door.
Practice your bicycling street skills in a low-traffic, residential area. If your home neighborhood is not suitable, take your bike to another one. Then gradually increase your range. Too many American cities have cul-de-sac residential neighborhoods surround by major roads with high volumes of fast traffic. Plot a route to avoid those roads, and only cross them at a traffic signal.
Bike lanes, bike paths, and sidewalks
Attempting to “stay out of traffic” does not necessarily make bicyclists safer. Don’t ride within range of parked cars, or pass on the right of a vehicle that could turn right, even if there is a bike lane. If you choose to ride on a sidewalk (where legal), you will need to expect to go more slowly than on the road, following sidewalk rules, or your risk will increase significantly. Identify and avoid hazards on sidewalks. Riding on sidewalks and paths next to roads increases the risk of colliding with turning and entering traffic at driveways and intersections, especially if you are facing opposite the flow of traffic on the road.
Well-designed bicycle paths are typically wider than sidewalks, have fewer surface hazards, and are generally not adjacent to roads. However, you must stop and yield at every road intersection and moderate your speed between intersections, especially when paths are crowded with pedestrians. And beware of bollards that are sometimes placed on paths near road crossings. Lastly, it is harder to practice social distancing on paths.
A Bicycle for Transportation
If you know you want to use your bike for getting around, not just for recreation, I recommend looking for a “city bike” (sometimes styled as “urban” or “commuter”). These models are more likely to be pre-equipped with fenders, rack, kick stand, and chain guard.
A note on frames: most city bikes have aluminum or steel frames. Either will do. Some manufacturers offer models in diamond, step-through, or mixte versions. The step-through frame makes getting on easy, and lets you ride in a skirt. The mixte is a French frame style that is between the two–and not too different from the sloping top tubes that have become fashionable on other bike styles.
A note on gears: city bikes are more likely to be offered with a limited number of gears, or even a single-speed. Most either have internal hub gears (which require little maintenance) and 3, 7, or 8 speeds or have a rear derailleur with 7 to 9 speeds, rather than the front and rear derailleurs typically found on a hybrid bicycle. Any of the 7 to 9 speed options should be sufficient for transportation purposes, unless you live in a hilly area or are looking for a bicycle that will double as a weekend machine (but you may soon want to obtain a road bike for that purpse–see below).
Although the handlebars on city models typically have some bend, few brands offer the swept-back design that offers the most comfort for upright bicycles. Some of the few models available with at least 7 speeds and swept-back bars are:
Although it does not come with completely swept-back bars, the KHS Manhattan Green 8e, has a sprung saddle, fenders, rack, and bell, for only $379 (if you can find one, of course). Velo Orange offers several upright handlebars that give a comfortable wrist position.
Integrated lighting. If you are riding a bicycle for transportation, you need front and rear lights. The most dependable option is an integrated lighting system powered by a dynohub–a generator built into the front wheel powered by pedaling and always available. Unfortunately retrofitting a bike with this system is expensive, and if you are looking for a bicycle that comes already equipped with one for less than $1,000 there are currently only the following choices:
The Uptown 8 is also one of the very few bicycles on the market with a fully enclosed chain case, which prevents your pants from touching the chain. Including internal gears, a rack, fenders, bell, and self-lock, the Uptown 8 is a good value for $799. The Electra Townie Commute 8D has all of the same features as the Uptown 8 except derailleur gearing and a partial chain cover. It also adds a front rack and lists for the same price. The “foot-forward” riding position may or may not suit you. The saddle seems too wide and heavy–but could easily be changed.
The three Hoprider models all have a partial chain cover, and, unlike all the other city models mentioned, have front and rear derailleurs providing a wide range and selection of gears. The Hoprider 100 is a very good deal for $649. The 500, for $100 more, adds an extra cog (3 x 8 gears instead of 3 x 7) and a front suspension, that in my opinion offers little benefit on paved roads and adds 2 lbs. The 900 has a brighter lighting system, hydraulic disc brakes, and a 9-speed cassette.
In addition to those mentioned, brands that offer urban bikes include Detroit Bikes, State Bicycles, Civia, Biria, Jamis, Fuji, and Momentum (Giant).
If you are a more experienced rider and you have longer distances to cover, you may prefer a transportation bicycle with drop bars. Most touring bicycles are well suited to this purpose, since they are designed to carry loads and accommodate fenders. The Italian bicycle builder Cinelli had a touring bike on sale for $700. The Public R24, $800, is a steel road bicycle that is pre-equipped with fenders and attachments for a baggage rack. Another option is the Windsor Tourist for $600. Many of these are sold out currently.
Bicycling is a great way to get in shape. You can gradually increase your effort to achieve aerobic fitness and then improve muscle strength. Bicycling is almost too efficient: you will soon be seeking climbs and longer distances. Fitness riding is most efficient using the traditional techniques and equipment of road bicycling: a rapid cadence of around 90 pedal strokes per minute and an aerodynamic riding posture using drop bars. The entrepreneurs behind Spinning, SoulCycle, and Peloton found that adapting the road bicycling tradition to indoor bicycling is popular and lucrative.
Outdoor bicycling doesn’t require membership fees, and is easier because wind helps with heat dissipation–like an air-cooled engine. You also get sunlight (which lets your body produce needed vitamin D) and you can see the world–more of it compared to walking and driving. During the pandemic, being outside is much safer, although it is still best to avoid group rides.
The first upgrade I recommend for fitness cycling is your clothing: cycling shorts, jersey, and gloves will greatly increase your comfort. The stiff soles of bike shoes improve power transmission and reduce foot problems. You can get bike shoes that can be used with standard pedals, but can also accept recessed cleats (SPD-style) if you later purchase clip-in pedals.
Even an inexpensive road bike will be far better suited to fitness riding than any mountain, hybrid, or city bike. In fact, a lower-priced road bicycle is likely to have features that will make it more usable, durable, and comfortable such as 32-spoke wheels, low gears, wider tires, and attachment points for racks and fenders.
What about swapping handlebars? Unfortunately switching the flat handlebars of your hybrid bike to drop bars is not simple, since drop bars use a different brake and gear shift system. A road bike will also be lighter and have a geometry more suited to fitness riding. Instead, buy a road bike for fair-weather fitness riding, and set up your hybrid as an all-weather, all-purpose transportation bicycle. Two bicycles are better than one!
A note on pedals: Some road bikes come without pedals, so you can pick your own style. Clip-in pedals, available in several styles, provide a better connection between your feet and the bicycle. You should practice using them in an empty parking lot until clipping out before stopping becomes automatic.
The new “protected” bike lanes (between the parked cars and the sidewalk) on Commonwealth Avenue along Boston University are finally (mostly) usable after about two years of construction work. But according to a report last week in BU Today, not all is going well.
According to the article, “Speeding and wrong-way cyclists, and even those who are traveling slowly and safely in the proper direction, are experiencing close encounters with inattentive or distracted pedestrians in the tracks, not to mention unpermitted travel by skateboarders and wheelchair users.” Already the first injury was reported to police: “aBU employee fell and broke her wrist after a brush with a cyclist riding a Blue Bike in the protected lane.”
According to the article, BU’s transportation demand management and marketing manager says that “people on bikes should not expect to ride as fast on the new bike lane as they might have in the street.” He also realizes the dangers from turning traffic: his “lie-awake-at-night concern is the intersection of Comm Ave and St. Paul Street” because drivers “’don’t necessarily realize that they are required to yield to people in the bike lane before turning [onto St. Paul]. Eastbound riders are particularly at risk, because the hill allows them to travel faster than a motorist might expect, making them hard to notice before turning.’”
Who could have predicted that seemingly “protected” lanes might increase these risks? Back in 2014, BU Today ran a story discussing the proposals for improving this stretch of Comm Ave, including excerpts of my analysis of crashes in the corridor. Back then, I noted that motorist right turns were one of the most common crash types and proposed right-turn only lanes to separate straight-through and right-turning traffic (cars and bikes). I also noted the issue of higher bicycling speed downhill and the likelihood of increased crashes not involving motor vehicles with separated bike lanes.
The intersection that keeps BU’s TDM and marketing manager up at night because of the high risk of a crash between right-turning cars and hidden, fast-moving bicyclists was the site of a 2012 bicyclist fatality involving a right-turning truck. One of the comments on the new article reads:
Cyclists need to be much more careful and vigilant now than before. I was riding on Comm Ave eastbound, about to cross Amory with a green light, and a tractor trailer took a right turn in front of me. I was able to swerve right to avoid collision, but I have never come that close to being hit in my 4 years biking in Boston.
Who could have predicted such a surprising outcome?
Protected bike lanes are popping up everywhere in the Boston area and around the country. These newfangled facilities, where the bike lane is separated from travel lanes by on-street parking or flexible posts, are generally popular among bicyclists because they feel safe and, well, protected.
But how well do they really protect you, the bicyclist?
When a protected bike lane crosses a street there is no separation between bikes and cars. Intersections normally have clear rules about who gets to go first and who must wait. The first U.S. implementation of protected lanes, Ninth Avenue in New York, in 2007, had separate traffic signals for bikes. But hardly any of its imitators, and none in the Boston area, use this design.
Instead, when the signal turns green, you are allowed to go straight, even though motorists are allowed to turn right, directly across your path. Cambridge asks drivers to “Please make sure to look for and yield to bikes when entering or exiting a driveway or when turning at an intersection.” Boston tells drivers, “Do not make abrupt right turns in front of bicyclists; check to your right and behind you to be sure there are no bicyclists.”
But beware! Some drivers will yield, but many will not. Stopping and looking back and to the right in advance of every right turn is not part of the normal rules of the road, despite what Boston and Cambridge advise, and is not something drivers are taught. Even if they stop and yield to a nearby bicyclist, often drivers will not wait for a line of bicyclists approaching on the right. Most troubling, large trucks and buses have blind spots to the right rear, and colliding with them can easily be fatal.
In short: it’s not safe to trust that right turning drivers will see and yield to you. At a minimum, you must go slowly and cautiously to make sure that the driver is yielding — and don’t go at all if the turning vehicle is a big truck or bus.
And enforcement won’t solve this problem, because there is no statutory basis to the advice from Boston and Cambridge that right-turning drivers must stop and wait for bicyclists approaching from their right, police cannot cite drivers who fail to do so. In fact, four bicyclists were killed by right-turning trucks in Boston, one in each year from 2012 to 2015, but no charges against the truck drivers were filed.
The statutes says that drivers turning right must first signal intent, then move as close as practicable to the curb or roadway edge (MGL Ch. 90 Sec 14), (yielding for bicyclists and motor vehicles to their right as part of the merging process), then yield to any pedestrians in the adjacent crosswalk. After having safely merged to the right, there is no rule that they must stop and wait for bicyclists on the roadway approaching from behind.
You might think that this Massachusetts statute protects you from turning drivers:
“No person operating a vehicle that overtakes and passes a bicyclist proceeding in the same direction shall make a right turn at an intersection or driveway unless the turn can be made at a safe distance from the bicyclist at a speed that is reasonable and proper.” (MGL Ch. 90 Sec 14).
However, the driver must be overtaking; the statute does not apply if you are the one who is passing. This special Massachusetts rule is simply a clarification of the standard rules on passing and making right turns: Since a right turn must be made from the right-most part of the road, and drivers passing a bicyclist “shall not return to the right until safely clear” of the bicycle ahead (M.G.L. Ch. 89 Sec. 2), drivers may not both pass and turn right at the same time.
Drivers turning right, even on a green signal, are required to yield to pedestrians in an adjacent crosswalk. While they should also yield to bicyclists riding on a sidewalk, it does not apply to bicyclists on the roadway. Moreover, pedestrians have reciprocal responsibilities: “No pedestrian shall suddenly leave a sidewalk or safety island and walk or run into the path of a moving vehicle which is so close that it is impossible for the driver to yield the right of way.” If you ride on the sidewalk, at every intersection you are effectively running into the path of turning cars unless you stop to make sure that there are none approaching that might be turning across your path.
Once you are clear of right-turning drivers, you still have to worry about drivers coming from the other direction making a left turn. You are not protected from them either. They are required to yield to you, but they may be focusing on yielding to cars and not notice bicyclists at the far edge of the road. In congested situations, the cars going in your direction may not be able to make it across the intersection, so they often stop, leaving a gap for left-turners coming from the other direction. If you pass on the right of one of these stopped cars you are screened cannot see or be seen by the left turning cars until it is too late.
At Alleys and Driveways
When you ride in a protected bike lane you are also unprotected at alleys and driveways. When drivers are turning, there are the same problems as with intersections. Drivers entering the roadway from alleys and driveways must yield to traffic already on the roadway. But they may not realize that the space between the parked cars and the curb is a lane of (bicycle) traffic. And even if they properly yield to you, they must stop and block the bike lane in order to see and yield to the cars on the other side of the parking lane. In congested situations, cars blocking the protected bike lane this way may be a serious impediment to getting where you are going.
From Parked Cars
When protected bike lanes are separated from the travel lanes by parking, there is a buffer zone between the parking stalls and the bike lane. That’s an improvement over ordinary bike lanes, which are frequently within the range of opening doors of parked cars. But without the guidance of a raised curb, drivers may sometimes encroach on the buffer area, putting their doors within reach of you. There are no clear statutes on where drivers must park near protected bike lanes (especially since they are still required by law to park within 12 inches of the curb!).
Even if car doors are out of range, you still need to worry about people getting in and out. The City of Boston advises: “After exiting cars, people should look for people on bikes before crossing the bike lane to the sidewalk.” But two sentences later the same web page says: “As always, bicyclists must yield to pedestrians crossing the street.” So if you collide with a pedestrian in the protected bike lane, is it automatically your fault because you were supposed to yield? Where there is a sidewalk, pedestrians are required to walk along the sidewalk, not in the road, and they may only cross the roadway at crosswalks. But what if they need to cross the bike lane to get to parked cars or bus stops? Where will they stop when dashing across when the traffic light is about to change? A bike lane is legally part of the road (unlike a bike path on the sidewalk), but that doesn’t mean pedestrians will treat it that way — which means you need to be extra cautious. At the extreme, when there are lots of pedestrians, you can end up with “a Chaotic Circus Of Dangerous Depravity:”
From Other Bicyclists
You also need to be cautious about other bicyclists. There may not be room for you to safely pass another bicyclist–or for a bicyclist to pass you. The problem may be worse in hilly areas, when speed differences are largest on up slopes–and it’s easy for anyone to go dangerously fast on down slopes. And you also need to worry about wrong-way cyclists coming right at you.
From Snow, Ice, Leaves, and Debris
Because of the narrow space between the curb and parked cars, protected bike lanes need special snow plows. Also, you won’t benefit from the snow-clearing effect of passing cars. Protected bike lanes can accumulate leaves and debris if they are not swept, which requires special equipment. You should be concerned about surface hazards, since falls (not involving another party) are the most common cause of bicyclist injuries. Colliding with the flexible posts that separate the protected bike lane from the travel lanes could also cause a fall.
From Drunk and Distracted Drivers
Even though they may make you feel protected, flexible posts are designed to fall over and cause no damage when hit by a motor vehicle. They provide no protection from a drunk or distracted driver. All of the protected bike lane implementations in Boston and Cambridge use these at places where no parking is allowed.
I have been doing some research about bike lanes and on-street parking over the past few years and have found:
Most crash data sources do not include crashes where a bicyclist comes in contact with the door of a parked motor vehicle because this crash type does not involve a motor vehicle in transport.
Other sources show that “dooring” accounts for 12% to 27% of urban bicycle-motor vehicle crashes, making it one of the most common types.
Most design guides used in North America permit bike lanes to be installed within reach of the doors of parked cars. By contrast, more recent guidelines for “separated” bike lanes on the curbside of parked cars require a buffer zone.
Shared lane markings help to encourage bicyclists to ride away from the door zone and could be used in place of bike lanes that are too close to parked cars.
There is no excuse any more, if there ever was one, for making door-zone bike lanes. Yet I have no doubt that many places are still marking them.
Ironically, now we hear that separated bike lanes are better because they account for the door zone. But if you can put a buffer zone in with separated bike lanes, you can put one in with ordinary bike lanes. And if you can’t or won’t, then it is much better to do shared lane markings guiding bicyclists to the middle of the travel lane, outside the door zone. (Before you get all huffy about bicyclists not wanting to be in fast-moving traffic, consider that when there is on-street parking, it is expected that there will be cars that stop and back up in order to get into on-street parking. If motorists can avoid them, surely they can avoid moving bicyclists. Provided the bicyclists are sufficiently visible at night — that will be the subject of a future post.)
The U.S. DOT/NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System now includes a code for bicyclist crash type. The map below has the 2015 fatalities that involve motorist overtaking in urban areas.
Of the 817 total fatalities:
380 (46.5%) occurred in daylight; the remainder occurred in darkness, dusk, or dawn (with one unknown lighting condition);
214 (26%) were on roadways classified as urban;
233 (29%) involved motorist overtaking;
113 (14%) were on urban roadways in daylight;
94 (12%) were motorist overtaking collisions on urban roads, and 44 of these occurred in daylight (5% of the total).
This last group is the ones that urban bike facilities can possibly prevent. Although these roadways are classified as urban, they are not necessarily the type that are targeted for protected bike facilities.
If you have any more information about these overtaking fatalities, particularly the ones in daylight, please add it in the comments below, including links to news stories.
On June 28 2016, a year after causing the death of 18-year-old bicyclist Fritz Philogene (pictured below) in Dorchester, Mass., Gregory McCoy plead guilty and was sentenced to 8 to 12 years in prison. This is a significant punishment given the many cases where motorists receive little or no jail time for causing a traffic fatality. McCoy, who never received a driver’s license, was speeding and slammed into a car waiting at a light, sending both cars across the intersection, where Philogene was “at the corner with his bicycle and apparently waiting to cross the street.” McCoy then fled the scene of the crash and was found, thanks to his blood trail, four hours later asleep in his mother’s house.
Whenever a bicyclist dies, we often hear it repeated that bicycling is dangerous — sometimes even to the point of blaming the bicyclist for putting themselves at risk by being on the roads. Early reports of this tragedy suggested that the bicyclist was “struck and killed while riding his bicycle along Talbot Avenue.” It’s not clear that the teen was on the road. The D.A. reported that he was “on or with his bicycle” and the description that he was “at the corner with his bicycle and apparently waiting to cross the street” sounds like he was using the sidewalk (instead of “stopped at a red light,” which was how they described the car that was struck). One of the cars went on to the sidewalk and knocked over a light pole. Being off the road does not protect bicyclists (or pedestrians). Shouldn’t we be working on getting the dangerous drivers off the roads, not the bicyclists?
Prosecutors had a blood sample suggesting McCoy was above the legal alcohol limit at the time of the crash. This detail is crucial because under Massachusetts law, the penalty for homicide by a motor vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicating substance is 2.5 to 15 years in prison, whereas the penalty for homicide by a motor vehicle is 30 days to 2.5 years in state prison. In other words, without the crucial evidence of alcohol use, McCoy’s minimum sentence of 2.5 years would have been the maximum. In other words, with the same facts–a speeding, reckless, unlicensed driver causing a fatality–the potential punishment is grossly unequal.
Most states have a similar disparity in punishments. In fact, the Massachusetts maximum of 2.5 years in prison for vehicular homicide by and unimpaired driver is on the high side compared to other states, and also many state laws specify that a driver must be grossly negligent, not merely negligent, to obtain a criminal conviction.
Why do we punish drunk drivers more than bad drivers? No one argues that drunk drivers intend to do harm. But, thanks to the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the 1980s, the state laws reflect the notion that someone who is drinking and driving ought to know that they can cause serious injuries and is therefore criminally responsible if they occur. Similarly a sober driver who drives a car without a license and who greatly exceeds the speed limit does those things intentionally, even if there is no intent to cause harm. Shouldn’t the same logic apply?
Worse yet, given the sharp disparity in penalties, a drunk driver has an incentive to flee, hoping that by the time he is caught (or turns himself in) it will no longer be possible to prove impairment. Tragically, and disgustingly, this gives drunks an incentive to let their victims die on the road rather than seeking assistance that could be life-saving if provided right away. Two years ago, Florida fixed this gap in its state laws by increasing the minimum prison term for fleeing the scene after causing a road fatality to four years–matching the penalty for drunk driving and causing a fatality. In Massachusetts, causing a traffic death and fleeing the scene is punishable by 2.5 to 10 years in prison — similar to the 2.5 to 15 year possible sentence for causing a death while drunk driving. However, I would bet that many states have a gap similar to Florida’s before the recent change.
Another bicyclist has tragically and needlessly died in the Boston area. Not because bicycling is dangerous, but because harassment by motorists is — when it makes bicyclists politely stay out of the way, always leaving room for others to pass — even when this means riding in the door zone.
Dooring is the #1 cause of car-bike collisions in both Boston and Cambridge* — and probably everywhere else where on-street parking is common.
On June 23, 2016, Amanda Phillips was bicycling on Cambridge Street northbound just north of Inman Square (the intersection with Hampshire Street) in Cambridge, Mass. A door on the red car below opened suddenly, causing her to fall left into the roadway — just as a landscaping truck was passing. This image of police checking the door and the bicycle was tweeted by a reporter a few hours after the crash:
The crash mechanism seems likely to be exactly the same as in the death of Dana Laird in Central Square, Cambridge, in 2002. In that case, catching just the edge of the handlebar against the suddenly opened door was enough to turn the bicycle wheel to the right, quickly launching the bicyclist to the left — into the path of an overtaking bus, resulting also in fatal injuries.
Despite what is said in the news articles, this crash is not about a dangerous intersection or about a reckless driver. The problem is that bicyclists feel pressured to keep out of the way of traffic, even if it means riding in a dangerous place — too close to parked cars and doors that can suddenly open. Yes, motorists (and passengers too!) are supposed to look before opening a door. But too often they don’t. Therefore bicyclists need to keep out of range at all times. If there is parking, that means no part of the bike should be closer than 11 feet from the curb.
When there is a 12 foot travel lane next to a 7 foot parking lane (as in this case on Cambridge Street–see Street View image below), the bicyclist needs to be at least 4 feet into the travel lane–leaving no room for motorists to pass. Blocking traffic. An easy target for honks and yells. Either because they don’t want to be taunted, or because they feel it is impolite to block traffic, many bicyclists ride too close to parked cars. But doing so can be a tragic mistake.
If good is to come from tragedy, we need to take this moment of heightened publicity about bicycling (and its dangers) to make sure motorists know that bicyclists have every right to use as much of the road as needed to be safe–even if this means “blocking” traffic. (In many cases the bicyclist is not actually causing any real delay–which you can tell because bicyclists in Cambridge so often can keep pace with motorists, including waiting at traffic signals.) Generic messages such as “be careful” or “share the road with bicyclists” completely miss the point.
A lot of advocates are saying that tragedies like this mean that we must get bicyclists off the road, into “protected” bike lanes where cars can’t go. Really?
If the point is to keep bicyclists out of the ‘door zone’ by reconfiguring the road, the way to do it is to either eliminate parking or design in a striped buffer zone, or, if it is not possible to gain more width, use Shared Lane Markings (sharrows) centered in the travel lane and May Use Full Lane signs. If there is room to put in a protected bike lane with a proper buffer from parked cars, there is room to put in a buffer from an ordinary bike lane.
Protected bike lanes do not protect bicyclists at intersections and driveways — which is where most urban car-bike collisions occur (other than doorings). In fact the risk of intersection collisions increases when bicyclists are operating in something that is functionally like a sidewalk, outside the field of vision of turning and entering motorists. Bicyclists can compensate for the increased danger by riding extra slowly and stopping at every intersection and driveway — but they won’t.
Even with “infrastructure” everywhere there will always be times when bicyclists need to ‘get in the way’ of traffic – either to stay out of the door zone, to overtake slow or double-parked cars, to prepare a left turn, or to avoid hazards at the edge of the road. Motorists need to know that it is perfectly okay for bicyclists to use as much of the road as they need, and is completely NOT okay to honk and yell.
Although there was no marked bike lane at the site of this recent crash, there are many, many bike lanes in the region that are mostly or completely in the door zone. These should all be removed. They only reinforce the mistaken belief that staying out of the way of moving traffic is the safest place to be. And woe to the cyclist who deliberately avoids riding in a bike lane to stay out of the door zone. It’s open season on such miscreants (in the current view of many motorists).
We also need stronger anti-harassment and assault statutes, and we need to take enforcement seriously. If we try it, we could change motorists’ behavior. Drivers would not be so quick to use their vehicle as a weapon of intimidation if they knew that a) the bicyclist might have a camera which could provide video evidence in court; b) some bicyclists are plainclothes police officers and c) the punishment for a first offense is the loss of driver’s license for 6 months and a $1,000 fine. Let’s put this on the advocacy agenda.
*The Cambridge crash data shows “angle” crashes as the largest category (32%) and dooring as second (20%). However if you separate angle crashes into the PBCAT categories of bicyclist signal violation, bicyclist stop sign violation, motorist signal violation, motorist stop sign violation, dooring would almost certainly be the largest.
I’ve finally completed a report analyzing almost 1,800 bicyclist crash incidents reported by Boston Police between 2009 and 2012. The City of Boston produced a report in May 2013 summarizing this information (and also EMS data), but this new analysis uses the raw data (released by the Boston Area Research Initiative) to code the incidents by crash type, using the PBCAT system. Some highlights:
Based on data from the Mass Department of Public Health, the Boston police reports almost entirely miss 76% of bicyclist emergency department visits and 60% of bicyclist hospital admissions–the ones that do not involve a motor vehicle. Only 9% of the incidents in the BPD data did not involve a motor vehicle.
However, the DPH data provides no information about how crashes occurred, whereas the BPD data does. Looking at the police-reported data I found:
The single most common crash type in Boston, with 12% of the total, is when a bicyclist hits a suddenly opened car door (“dooring”). Not only are these crashes common, but they can be fatal, especially if the bicyclist is thrown into the path of moving traffic after hitting the door. Bicyclists can avoid these crashes by keeping a door’s width from parked cars.
Almost as common as dooring (also 12%) is motorist left turn. Although the turning motorist is required to yield, there are sometimes complicating factors, as when the bicyclist has no headlight after dark, is approaching from the sidewalk or the wrong side of the road, or is overtaking a car on the right and thus screened from the view of the driver of the turning car.
The third most common type, also representing 12% of the cases, involves a motorist driving out from a stop sign or driveway without yielding. In nearly half of the cases, the bicyclist was approaching from the wrong way – in fact this is so common that the PBCAT authors used a wrong-way bicyclist in their illustration of the crash type.
The fourth most common is motorist right turn across the path of a bicyclist (10% of cases). While some occur when the motorist is overtaking the bicyclist, in Boston it is much more likely that the bicyclist is overtaking the car (or riding beside) when the motorist turns right. There were five “bicyclist overtaking” situations identified for each single “motorist overtaking” situation.
The fifth most common type was bicyclist signal violation – where the bicyclist fails to stop for a red signal (also 10%). There were 160 cases of this crash type in the data. By comparison, there were only 14 cases where a motorist failed to stop for a red signal – more than 11 bicyclist violations for each motorist violation.
The sixth most common type involved a bicyclist failing to yield when riding out from a stop sign or driveway, or entering the road from between parked cars (8%).
The seventh most common type was a fall due to surface conditions, mechanical problems, or alcohol use. None of these crashes involved moving motor vehicles (6%). (Keep in mind that the hospital data show that this is in fact the most common reason for bicyclist injury, it’s just that most incidents not involving cars are not reported to police.)
“Other crossing” collisions were the next most common type with 6% of the total. These are intersection collisions that would probably be included in one of the other categories if more information was available about the exact mechanism of the collision (e.g., who failed to yield).
Motorist overtaking was the ninth most common crash type. Being hit by a car approaching from behind is probably the crash that bicyclists fear most, but it accounted for only 4% of crashes. Nearly half, 43%, happened in the dark. Of the daylight cases, 11 involved bicyclists swerving to avoid an object ahead. Of the remaining cases, all but one involved a sideswipe – suggesting that motorists see bicyclists in daylight, and when there is an overtaking collision it is because they misjudge the passing space needed. The single daylight rear-end collision involved a motorist who was driving so recklessly and erratically before hitting the bicyclist that a witness had been watching him
The tenth most common type, with almost exactly the same number of cases as the previous one, was bicyclist overtaking (4%).
Together these 10 crash types account for 82% of the incidents. Except for dooring and overtaking, all involve intersections or driveways.
[Note: This post was originally written in 2013 but never completed until now.]
I first came across the tragic story of Alice Swanson when reading this letter to the Boston Globe:
“MY DAUGHTER was killed by a truck while riding her bicycle to work in Washington in July 2008. You reported this at the time. She was in a bike lane, had a green light, and was wearing a helmet. It was not enough.
The laws may say bicyclists have equal rights and responsibilities (“Boston’s unruly riders,’’ Aug. 7), but when a multi-ton vehicle collides with human flesh, the damage is not equal.
Before goading the police to enforce traffic laws against bicycle riders, consider that your readers could submit accounts of bicyclists being “doored’’ by parked cars, being struck by hit-and-run drivers, or reporting an accident to the police who then take no action against the driver. Let’s first make the streets safe for bicyclists.”
“Alice Swanson was uneasy about riding her bike through city streets to work every morning, so a colleague told her to always wear a helmet for the trip, which was just over two miles.
The helmet was not enough yesterday morning. Swanson, 22, was hit by a trash truck during rush hour near Dupont Circle and killed.
The accident took place at 7:40 a.m. in the 1900 block of R Street NW, just north of Dupont Circle. Police said Swanson was riding in or next to a designated bike lane. She and the truck driver were traveling west on R Street when the truck driver turned right onto 20th Street, hitting her, police said.”
This case was also cited as an example of outrageous motorist behavior:
“Both Alice and the truck had a green light, the driver hit her by what cyclists call ‘a right hook’ meaning that the truck took a right without yielding to her; an illegal act in most jurisdictions. No charges have yet been filed against the driver.” (from GhostBikes.org)
And from a comment posted on the WashCycle: “Folks — realize that they can run you right over when you are riding perfectly legally — and they will suffer no consequences. Please ride very defensively — and note that for bicyclists that has very little to do with riding legally.”
All the witnesses cited in the police report say that the garbage truck was at the intersection first and the bicyclist attempted to overtake on the right of the truck in the bike lane. At least one of the witnesses interviewed by police saw the truck’s right turn signal illuminated. The police found that on that particular model of truck there are four separate lamps illuminated on the right side when the right-turn signal is activated. One witness said the bicyclist was attempting to male an “unsafe pass.” Another “blamed the collision on the city constructing bicycle lanes alongside vehicular travel lanes with both vehicles operating on the same green signal.”
The police report concludes that “it was the duty of the bicyclist as with any other operator of a vehicle on a public roadway to reduce her speed to avoid the collision and yield right of way to the truck.” The police cite the general speed rule (“reasonable and prudent under the conditions then existing”) but don’t give any evidence that the bicyclist was traveling faster than a reasonable and prudent speed, except that she was going faster than the truck. They do not cite any regulation for the requirement to “yield right of way” under these circumstances.
What does the law say?
DC law says that “Both the approach for a right turn and a right turn shall be made as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge or the roadway.” The police reconstruction showed that the truck was “close to” but “not encroaching upon” the bicycle lane. Drivers of motor vehicles are specifically authorized by 2220.2 to enter a “restricted lane” (including a bike lane) to make a right turn. The police may have thought the truck driver should not be in the bike lane. In any case, a garbage truck cannot make a tight turn, and in fact a witness mentioned that the truck was making a wide turn to avoid a car parked and pedestrians near the corner on the side street.
Shouldn’t the truck driver have looked to the right and yielded before starting on a new green? The police reconstruction determined that only the uppermost portion of the bicyclist’s head would have been visible in the in the small lower mirror and “only for a split second as the bicyclist continued forward and the truck continued turning.” Drivers do not expect to look for traffic passing on the right, and are not required to. They are only required to signal and to begin the turn from as far right as “practicable.” On the contrary, it is the duty of the overtaking driver (or bicyclist) to avoid the collision: DC law says that “A person operating a bicycle may overtake and pass another vehicle only under conditions which permit the movement to be made with safety.” (Section 2202.6 has the identical working for drivers.)
The police report concludes that “it is unknown what had transpired to cause the decedent not to see the truck or recognize it as a hazard before it was too late.” It is on the contrary painfully apparent that too many bicyclists expect that it is safe to continue moving straight a head in a bicycle lane, regardless of what other traffic might do. Thus it is not surprising that the truck’s right turn took her by surprise.
Following this collision, DDOT extended the bicycle lane markings through the intersection, but did not otherwise change them. WABA proposed and the DC Council adopted the “Bicycle Safety Enhancement Act.” This law includes the following items:
A requirement that municipal heavy duty vehicles be equipped with “blind spot mirrors, reflective blind spot warning signs, and side-underrun guards to prevent bicyclists, other vehicles, or pedestrians from sliding under rear wheels” and a requirement that their operators “receive bicycle and pedestrian safety training.”
A new statute the motorists must pass a bicyclist at a distance of at least 3 feet.
An increase in the penalty for improper use of a restricted lane (such as a bike lane) to $100.
However, to my knowledge, no one has attempted to spread the message that bicyclists need to pay attention to what is happening in the travel lanes, and not go past a vehicle that is on their left anywhere near an intersection, and especially not a truck. Unfortunately, since Alice Swanson’s tragic death in 2008, there have been many more bicyclists killed in collisions with right-turning trucks, including four in Boston, all involving bicycle lanes. In response to the latest (August 2015) fatality, I prepared this brief video.