The Phoenix Gets it Wrong

Every time that a newspaper or magazine runs an article on laws and advice about safe bicycling, I cringe. I know that there is a good chance that they will get stuff wrong. Well The Boston Phoenix messed up big time in its “Boston Bike Bible 2010” special just in time for Bike Week. In So what are the rules, anyway? we get a lot of misinformation:

* Phoenix says: “You have the right to use . . . the sidewalks in business districts if you feel unsafe, unless posted signs say otherwise.” CORRECTION: You may never ride on sidewalks in business districts, and posted signs may prohibit sidewalk use elsewhere.

* Phoenix says: “You have the right to ride two abreast on any roads with multiple lanes in the same direction. (If there is only one lane in each direction, you must ride single file, but may pass on the right.)” CORRECTION: You may ride two abreast at any time. However, the rider on the left must move right if failing to do so prevents someone from passing where it would be otherwise safe to do so.

* Phoenix says: “You must follow all traffic laws — that means stopping at lights and crosswalks and riding on the right side of the road.” CORRECTION: You may go when the traffic signal is green, but may not enter the intersection when it is red. You only need to slow or stop at a crosswalk when it is not controlled by signals and a pedestrian is in it or within 10 feet of your half of the road. You must generally use the right half of the road, not necessarily near the curb.

* Phoenix says: “You must keep to the right when passing a car.” CORRECTION: While you may pass on the right, it is almost always safer to pass on the left. Passing on the right leaves you vulnerable to motorists turning right across your path and puts you within range of opening doors of parked cars and even sometimes of motorists stopped in a queue at a light.

* Phoenix says: “You must signal your intention to stop or turn using either hand.” CORRECTION: The law that went into effect on April 15, 2009 added, “provided, however, that signals need not be made continuously, and shall not be made when both hands are needed for the safe operation of the bicycle.” Furthermore, the general rule on giving signals says that they must be made “before stopping said vehicle or making any turning movement which would affect the operation of any other vehicle.”

* Phoenix says: “You must give pedestrians the right of way when riding on a sidewalk, and give a shout before passing any pedestrian on the right.” CORRECTION: Almost correct. The law says “A person operating a bicycle on the sidewalk shall yield the right of way to pedestrians and give an audible signal before overtaking and passing any pedestrian,” but of course it doesn’t say “on the right.”

* Phoenix says: “You must carry all items in a basket, rack, or trailer.” CORRECTION: The law says, “The [bicycle] operator shall not carry any package, bundle or article except in or on a basket, rack, trailer or other device designed for such purposes.” The phrase”other device” leaves room for backpacks, water bottle cages, paniers, and even shopping bags. The point is that your hands must be free to operate the bike, not that you must use a government-sanctioned carrying mechanism.

More importantly, the summary of “bike laws” from the MassBike website, on which this short Phoenix article is based, is fundamentally misleading, because it summarizes the special rules that apply only to bicycles. The most important rules for safety apply to bicyclists and motorists equally. These include the rules about where to ride on the road, how to pass and be passed, how to make turns, and when to yield the right of way.

And in the lead article in the same special insert, there are a number of statements that could be contested, but none more so than this one which appears without refutation:

“When it’s car versus cyclist, the car always wins,” warns [Boston] Transportation Commissioner [Tom] Tinlin. His advice: “Back off and be safe.”

We’ve heard this canard many times before. It’s absurd and dangerous. You could just as well say, “When it’s cyclist versus asphalt, the asphalt always wins. When it’s car versus 18-wheeler, the 18-wheeler always wins.” So back off and be safe. Don’t drive your car on any road where big trucks are allowed. Don’t ride your bike except on soft grass.

Too many bicyclists are already scared into riding dangerously. “Back off” means keep far to the right edge of the road, preferably on the sidewalk. Ride facing traffic so you can see the cars coming and jump out of the way to avoid them. Ride in the door zone because otherwise motorists might get mad at you. People do these dangerous things because everyone has told them riding in the road means sudden death. And thus they suffer crashes and injuries. The last thing we need in promoting bike safety is people in positions of authority such as Commissioner Tinlin repeating this stuff.

Use as much of the road as you need and be safe. Happy bike week.

P.S. The AAA gets it even more wrong, with such “bike safety” advice as “Bicycles should stay to the right along the curb” and “Walk a bike across an intersection rather than riding.” See the post on the MassBike website.


  1. You make important distinctions and clarifications here and its great. Its amazing how there is almost a magnetic pull to define bicycle use based on fear and assumption rather then reason and actual law.

  2. Paul, why has it taken me this long to find your blog? Your blog posts are right on target, and you have such a gift for the right turn of phrase that I’m actually finding it difficult to stop reading – and I’m supposed to be preparing dinner!

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