Lessons from Tragedies

Peter Furth is spreading the misinformation (as has Pete Stidman before him) that I prevented the installation of bike lanes in Boston. This is absolutely not the case. The Mayor was opposed to bicycling and bicyclists at the time, and of course the default in any road design project is no special bike lanes. I believe that bike lanes should only be installed when they don’t encourage dangerous behavior, but I never had the opportunity to make this argument in relation to an actual bike lane proposal during my 23 months working for the City of Boston.

Professor Furth’s comments came in the context of the discussion of the tragic death earlier this month of a bicyclist near the intersection of Huntington Avenue and Forsyth Street in Boston. Many bicyclists are claiming that Huntington Avenue is especially dangerous as shown by this and earlier bicyclist fatalities, and the city has started to make some small changes in reaction.

Despite Furth’s assertion that I was behind the lack of bike lanes on Huntington, I was not working for Boston in 1995 when Huntington Ave was redesigned nor in 1999 when it was rebuilt (I worked for BTD August 2001 to July 2003). During the design process I supported removing on-street parking on Huntington Ave in order to have enough room for motorists to pass bicyclists without changing lanes (at least 14 feet of usable space). The city agreed, but the state insisted on a 2 ft left shoulder, narrowing the right lane.  An insider connection to the Highway Department got the state to modify the striping slightly — but not to the design I would have preferred. Also, along the long stretches where parking was retained the lanes remain very narrow lane (8′ parking and 10-11′ travel). Cyclists must ride in the middle of such lanes not to get doored (shared lane markings would still be welcome here, in the middle of the lane).

People think Huntington Avenue is very dangerous because they will get run down by high-speed traffic, and the four fatalities over the past 12 years seem to be proof of that. Therefore a bike lane — or better yet, a separate bike sidewalk called a cycle track — is needed, they say.  Well, it doesn’t seem to me that these fatalities, tragic as they are, tell that story:

* Dr. Ruth Michler, November 2000: Bicyclist was run over by a construction vehicle of a type that is not allowed to be on the roads because the driver cannot adequately see in front of him. Lesson: Provide more supervision for construction and harsher penalties for criminally negligent behavior such as the driver’s. In this case the state refused to prosecute the driver, I think, because he was not operating a motor vehicle as it is officially defined. I think they were wrong about the law, and if they were right about it, it’s a crazy Catch-22.

* Gordon Riker, April 2007. “The bicyclist . . . was riding between two lanes of traffic on Huntington Avenue when he was clipped by a taxicab” and then fell under the rear wheels of a dump truck.  Lesson: don’t overtake between lanes of moving traffic. Tell cyclists to stay behind other vehicles unless traffic is stopped and can’t move (and then, pass only slowly and carefully).

* Eric Hunt, April 2010. Bicyclist fell due to the trolley tracks (near South Huntington, where they are in the passing travel lane, not in the protected median) and then was hit by an approaching bus (or fell into the side of the bus). Lesson: Post warning signs about the dangers of tracks (removing them in JP has dramatically improved bike safety & convenience); teach cyclists to stay far away from them.

* Kelsey Rennebohm, June 2012: Bicyclist was apparently riding on the sidewalk when she fell into the roadway and underneath a passing bus. Lesson: Don’t ride on the sidewalk. Tell cyclists about the dangers of sidewalk riding, and make streets more bicycle-friendly.

All of these four fatalities had completely different causes, only three of them were close to the same location, and not one of them was caused by a cyclist operating normally in the roadway getting run down by a motor vehicle driver approaching from behind (the construction vehicle was not legally a motor vehicle and was not allowed to be on the road). So let’s get our stories straight, and take the right lessons from them.

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