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Bike advocates call for a change of culture on the city's roads

Posted by Cara Bayles  January 28, 2011 11:51 AM

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(Reuters photo)

A bicyclist braving Boston's snowy streets recently.

Just days after the city's third fatal bike accident in two years, hundreds of cycling advocates flocked to the Boston Public Library to learn about how far the city has come in making Boston bike-friendly.

One bicycle crash occurs every 1,030 miles in Boston, according to a survey conducted by the city in 2009. In 2009, 43 percent of cyclists experience some type of crash, and 10 percent of bike accidents required hospital visits. Among those serious crashes, 45 percent of bikers hospitalized were wearing a helmet, which is significantly lower than the city's overall helmet usage, which has reached 72 percent.

Those figures were announced Thursday evening during the annual Boston bikes update.

Nicole Freedman, in the third year of her tenure as City Hall's official bike czar, typically starts off her year-end report reminding the crowd of Boston's reputation. The city has been consistently rated the country's least bike-friendly city by Bicycling Magazine and ranked "worst in the world" by the International Federation of Bike Messenger Associations.

"But what I'm very excited about is, most of you have seen those slides before. Now, it's time to throw them away," Freedman said during the third annual summit.

Since Mayor Thomas Menino announced an initiative to make Boston more bike-friendly in 2007, the city has created 35 miles of bike lanes on major thoroughfares like Commonwealth Huntington avenues, and has installed 700 new bike parking spaces. The city has launched community programs intended to increase ridership, particularly among children and low-income riders.

The mayor hosted the first Boston bike safety summit with city and state officials in 2010, and the city is currently applying to be acknowledged as a "bike friendly community" by the League of American Cyclists.

This year, the mayor's office will focus on paths that connect the existing network of bike lanes, including installing a stretch along Massachusetts Avenue, which, along with Commonwealth Avenue, is considered the worst problem spots for cyclists, and the site of many of the city's bike accidents.

The audience at the summit Thursday praised the city's efforts, but criticized the transportation culture in Boston, categorizing cars, buses, and cab drivers as aggressive and unwilling to share the road. Several people questioned the bike-friendliness of new fines targeting bicyclists who run red lights.

"I've heard a lot about education and enforcement and increasing fines for bicylcists," said one frustrated audience member, who got half the room to raise their hands when he asked by how many people had been injured by cars. "We're the victims. We're the ones who get the short-end of the stick. And I haven't heard any talk about drivers."

Freedman said the annual survey asked bikers about other vehicles on the road and how much they bother cyclists. "Cars came out the number one answer. In quick succession was taxis, buses, et cetera. So, ultimately, all users of the road and all vehicles are a problem," she said. "What's nice with cabs is they're regulated, so we can implement some policies to work with them, as well as the MBTA."

She also said that the city would be sending out 500,000 mailings next month educating Boston drivers about how to share the road. "Main-stream education is incredibly challenging," she said. "how do you change an entire culture of drivers?"

Steven Miller, a Livable Streets Alliance board member, said that in New York City, figures had shown that as the miles of bike lane increased, so did the number of cyclists … yet, the number of bike accidents decreased.

"There is safety in numbers," he said. "Car drivers get more used to seeing bicycles. They learn how to behave in our presence. And as bicycling feels safer and more inviting to mainstream people, more mainstream people who are less likely to run traffic lights, and less likely to take the risks that some of us have traditionally taken, are the ones on the bicycles. So, the overall culture of bicycling calms down. When bicycling is seen as a high-risk activity, the only people willing to do it, are those who are willing to be risky."

Since 2007, the city has seen a 122-percent increase in ridership, which amounts to the tenth-best commuting ridership in the country. That places Boston ahead of New York City and Chicago.

"I got a call recently from the bike planner in Dallas," Freedman said Thursday. "The guy said, 'Nicole, you've got to help me. We just took over as the worst cycling city in the country. Do you have any advice for me?' We chatted for a while, and I hung up and said, 'Thank God we're not him anymore.' "

E-mail Cara Bayles at

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