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Goal for bikers: Safety in numbers

Posted by Marcia Dick  May 21, 2010 10:04 AM

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Danielle Dreilinger

A rider sends a silent message before the ride begins at Seven Hills Park, Somerville.

In the middle of Bay State Bike Week, about 40 cyclists gathered in Seven Hills Park wearing helmets and jackets against the light rain. Saying not a word, they rode slowly down Mass. Ave. bearing signs saying "Remember Fallen Cyclists."

The May 19 Ride of Silence honored cyclists such as Andrew Von Guerard, who died after a collision with an SUV in Newton this week, and Eric Hunt, killed by an MBTA bus in Boston last month. Hunt's father was on the ride.

Coming up Mass. Ave., a man on a Redbones delivery bike rang his bell in support, cheery but restrained. Usually when he sees a group of bikes on the street "I'm waving and whooping," the deliveryman, Sebastian Banker, 36, said the next day.

And perhaps a little cheering is in order. Despite those recent high-profile deaths nearby, cycling in Somerville is running pretty smoothly these days.

"Somerville's very lucky," said David Watson, executive director of MassBike, which ran the silent ride.

David Osler, a Cambridge Health Alliance pediatrician, has been riding between Cambridge and Somerville for decades and thinks the situation is much improved. "Biking is easier" now, he said. "There are a lot of people on bikes."
Ron Newman, a longtime member of the city's mayor-appointed Bicycle Committee and the leader of Sunday's annual Somerville History bike ride, praised the many new and pending improvements to the cycling landscape.

The Green Line extension includes lengthening the Community Path to Lowell Street and city officials negotiated the donation of a strip of semi-abandoned land to extend the path to Central St., Newman said.

The city has painted bike lanes on Beacon Street and will add them soon to Somerville Ave. and East Broadway. "Sharrows"— awareness-raising stencils of cyclists paired with arrows — are as plentiful on the pavement as squashed snails.

Bike lanes encourage new riders, Newman said, though some veteran cyclists consider them less safe. Said Banker, "The bike lane is where the car doors open."

Really, when it comes to encouraging cycling, gas prices and personal eco-friendly resolutions help, but numbers seem to trump all. This reporter yielded two years ago to a combination of peer pressure and a sense that with more bikes on the road, cars finally were paying attention.

The influx of new riders may be creating its own problems: the Somerville Board of Aldermen has turned its attention to protecting pedestrians. Officials met May 20 to plan a new education initiative to get bikes off the sidewalks in business districts, ordered by the aldermen April 22.

The project will include storefront signs in English, Portuguese, Spanish, and Kreyol, said mayoral spokesman Michael Meehan. "On top of that we're going to come up with an entire bike safety program to reach beyond kids."

However, Watson thought that meant the city had work to do beyond finger-wagging. "If bicyclists are riding on the sidewalk it's because they don't feel safe riding on the street," he said. "Cyclists when given reasonable options don't want to ride on the sidewalk."

Banker agreed: it's slower than riding on the road.

Watson didn't consider sidewalk-riding a significant problem at the moment but said it could grow as cycling increases in popularity if cities don't respond.

What can the city do? Forget "share the road" signs, Watson said: People tune them out, and a number of drivers think it means that cyclists should get out of the way, when it's intended to mean the opposite.

Sharrows are necessary in Somerville, where many streets are too narrow for car lane + bike lane + parking. However, studies so far show they're not as effective as bike lanes, Watson said. And not everyone knows what they mean either. ("Bikes are welcome here, watch out for bikes.")

Newman thought the city needed to post markers to show good routes across the city. His own favorites require officials to designate some roads as two-way for cyclists but not for cars. Advocates continue to seek funding to extend the Community Path to Lechmere.

At moments, even these in-touch experts seemed to forget the experience of the newbie. This aging hipster well remembers her first blood-chilling attempt to ride from Central Square to central Somerville, wobbling over the train tracks and shaking as cars whizzed by. Her second attempt to ride in the city entailed weaving around pedestrians on the Community Path. In both cases, years passed before she tried again.

Newman, who has developed east/west routes through Somerville for people who fear hills, suggested as a matter of course that cyclists get from East Cambridge to East Somerville via McGrath Highway. Can you do that? is it legal? won't you get killed?

Yes, yes and no, he said. "It's really no different from riding on Broadway." Upon protest, Newman said, "This is kind of an example where you have to have routes marked."

Even the close-formation, balance-demanding Ride of Silence was a bit of a challenge to cyclists with no experience riding in a group.

All the voices in this conversation are well-informed and concerned. You never hear from the much-maligned cyclist who toodles on through the red light, or rides the wrong way on a Somerville Ave. sidewalk. Maybe it's because they don't pay attention to bike articles or events. Maybe they're just trying to get where they have to go.

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