Jonathan Simmons for the Globe
Peter Furth, a professor of engineering at Northeastern University, and I are waiting for the traffic light to turn green. We’re going to follow the cyclist in front of us to see if she uses the Longwood Avenue bicycle priority lane, the first of its kind in the world. But first we have to catch her, and that won’t be easy at the speed she’s riding.
Peter came up with the idea of the bicycle priority lane as a way “to promote safe, happy and low stress lane sharing” for all. The priority lane symbol is a silhouette of a bicycle and two chevrons framed by four dashed lines. What it means is “go ahead, cyclists, use the full lane.”
Peter compares this lane to priority seating on the T: “if there are no bikes then cars can proceed as usual, but if you’re biking then you’re entitled to pedal in the middle of the lane. Away from parked cars and in a position that makes it safer to ride.”
I can almost hear the cyber-honking from drivers: this will make our trip longer and haven’t we gone too far already with all of this bicycle-friendly stuff? Peter has thought about this cyber-honking, too: “It will add at most 45 seconds to your driving trip, but when there’s traffic I don’t think it will add more than five or ten seconds, if anything. Cars are impatient, it’s like there’s a beast inside a vehicle that says ‘I was made to go faster.’ But the bicycle priority lane will calm traffic and get you where you’re going just as soon, not in fits and starts but at a nice pace.”
This sounds good in theory and seems sensible and self-explanatory. But I’m not sure how it will play to others. Which is why Peter and I are spending the evening on Longwood Avenue watching how bikers actually use this lane.
I introduce myself to Katie Cerow, that first cyclist we followed. Katie is all smiles and says, “It’s great. It makes the cars understand that the bikes have the same rights they do. I feel safer, I’m riding further out from the cars parked on the side of the road, which is a dangerous place for bicycles. Also, the cars don’t beep so much at me.”
Peter is all smiles: mission accomplished. Except for one little problem: the next four bikers we observe do not bike like Katie.
Andrew rides on the side of the road. He tells Peter, “I applaud you for this invention. But more explanation may need to be given to the driving audience.”
Amy Hanscom says the lane is “Confusing and cars will beep at me if I use it. I’d like respect but I don’t think I’d get it if I’m in that lane. I feel I’d get pushed off to the side.” Gwen Buel is also confused: “it seems like you should be in between the lines but that’s where the cars are supposed to go so I don’t know.” Sal is not confused but still, he does not use the bicycle priority lane as it was intended. “I guessed what this sign meant but I don’t know if the drivers know what it means. If they don’t or if my guess is wrong then that will end up pretty bad for me.”
“I’m not sure everybody gets it,” Peter says. Still, he does not seem discouraged. In fact he’s already coming up with some new ideas. “People want to be able to use this lane but they need an explanation. They want to see something in writing that confirms what they suppose is true. Maybe a public information campaign and handing out flyers. And a sign: I was already working on one last night.”
It’s been a long evening and we decide to call it a night. But a block from my house Peter turns to me and says, “You should interview some drivers and find out what they have to say.” I’m hungry and tired and I doubt any driver will talk with me. But in the interest of science I agree to give it a try.
Which is how I found myself back on Longwood Avenue interviewing drivers about the bicycle priority lane while they waited for the traffic light to change. Three of them said “What sign on the road?” A fourth said she saw the sign but didn’t know what it meant, while a fifth driver said “I think it’s like a bike lane, but I’m not sure.”
From this cyclist’s perspective the bicycle priority lane is a great idea that needs some help if it’s to really function as intended. Easier said than done, especially because Peter’s painted road symbol is new and not yet familiar. Still, I’m hopeful that with education and explanation the priority lane can help cyclists and drivers share the road in a way that works for everyone.
Jonathan Simmons for the Globe
Jonathan Simmons is a Brookline psychologist and avid cyclist.