Globe Editorial

More bikes jostling with cars means more safety challenges

May 1, 2011

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FROM MILES of new bike lanes to the ambitious bike-sharing program he announced late last month, Mayor Menino and his administration are taking big, tangible steps to make cycling a real transportation option in Boston. These efforts are heartening to cycling buffs, environmentalists, health advocates, and all those who believe that too many cars threaten the quality of life in crowded urban urban neighborhoods.

And yet the tangible steps aren’t enough; the city must also work to cultivate the good habits, among bicyclists as well as motorists, that will allow both types of vehicles to coexist.

Unlike cities in Europe with more bike commuters and fewer cars, and unlike Minneapolis and some other US cities, Boston isn’t entirely safe for riders. Boston’s roads weren’t built with bikers in mind, and the city has its fair share of aggressive drivers. That’s why Menino should accompany his biking efforts with a city-wide education program. It should promote vigilance among motorists, who need to be prepared for more bikers on already busy streets. The campaign must also teach cyclists where they can go safely, how to navigate around cars, and why they need bells, reflective clothing, and well-fitting helmets.

More than a casual safety check, such education is necessary if the city is to encourage more inexperienced cyclists to take to the roads. The US Department of Transportation reports that there were 630 bicycle-related deaths and 51,000 injuries nationwide in 2009. And Boston has had its own string of high-profile crashes, including the death of a 74-year-old commuter earlier this year, and two deaths last year.

According to Nicole Freedman, Boston’s director of bicycle programs, the city plans to send instructors to some of the new bike-rental kiosks to answer riders’ questions and offer advice on buying proper gear. The city should expand that program to include frequent in-person bike safety lessons at locations around town, as well as online classes bikers should complete before taking to the streets.

Special bike lanes have made many streets safer. In the past four years the city has installed over 35 miles of new bike lanes, and Freedman recently announced another lane along a busy stretch of Massachusetts Avenue. When completed, the new lane will tie together a network of bike lanes stretching from Milton through Boston to Cambridge.

Then again, when the city installed a pilot lane in Allston last year, one biker took a video of an SUV barreling through the bike-only corridor. Although no one was hurt, the incident made it clear that lanes alone don’t guarantee safety.

In other American cities the arrival of bike-sharing programs became watershed moments — when previously bike-wary cities finally embraced their two-pedaled commuters. Some studies indicate that by simply increasing bike ridership, cities naturally lower the number of bike-related accidents; higher visibility is a powerful safety tool.

Still, Boston faces unique challenges — including its own entrenched car culture. If increased bike ridership causes a spike in bike-related injuries and fatalities, the city’s initiatives will be doomed. By helping to establish the city’s new bike-share program, the mayor has guaranteed that more casual riders will join committed, experienced cyclists on Boston’s roads. Now he must do more to guarantee everyone’s safety.