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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Can’t We All Just Get Along?: The Bicycle and Vehicle Edition

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The author, Hannah Risser-Sperry, on her “bumble bee” bike

I have had doors thrown open into my bicycle, been hit by a cab who kept on driving, and been called every offensive name in the book. I’m not alone in these experiences, as any city cyclist would likely attest. Whether you are a downtown courier or a middle-aged commuter, these experiences are commonplace and unlikely to disappear anytime soon. The simple fact is that cars and bikes are not thrilled about coexisting.

Nor should they be, necessarily. While bikes on city streets are in no way new, the past few years have brought increased ridership. The number of Boston cyclists has more than doubled since 2007, according to the Mayor’s Office. More wheels on the road, however, bring more hazards.

Obviously, a major issue is the simple sharing of the streets. Cyclists are allowed to occupy a full lane of traffic, much to the annoyance of their four-wheeled friends. Cars frequently double-park in bike lanes, forcing cyclists from their once designated safe space back into traffic. Oftentimes drivers will honk, which does little but scare a rider half to death.

Beyond simply sharing the road, there is the constant threat of being doored. “Dooring” refers to a parked car’s door being opened into a cyclist’s path, often leading to serious injuries for the rider as well as damage to both the bicycle and vehicle.

One cyclist I spoke with at length (we’ll call him Benjamin) has been riding in Boston and Cambridge for five years. His very first day after buying a bike, he was doored on Boylston St. in the Fenway. While no significant damage was done, he still feels pain in his shoulder from time to time.

Beyond dooring, Benjamin says he has bad interactions almost daily. Taxi cabs are a big issue: this fall, Benjamin was doored by a cab’s passenger exiting the car. The cab had stopped in the lane with no blinker to let Ben know what it was doing, so he pulled around it on the right, only to have the door thrown open just as he passed it.

Benjamin flew over the handlebars and his front wheel was totaled, so when the cab driver offered him $10 for his $200 rim, he called a police officer to the scene. To his credit, the officer was kind, polite, and understanding. However, he found Ben at fault because he didn’t understand that cyclists have different rights than vehicles and pedestrians.

Most of the rights are the same, but there are a few different ones. First, cyclists are allowed to pass on the right of slowed or stopped vehicle traffic, just as they’re allowed to pass us on the left. Second, dooring is illegal. You cannot open a door into the lane of traffic of vehicles, pedestrians or cyclists, so this officer was ill-informed or just ignorant.

There is a long section on cyclists’ rights available at mass.gov that some officers seem not to know. It’s difficult to be the person harmed in an accident and then be blamed for it, all because there hasn’t been enough education for the men and women tasked with protection.

Benjamin knows that his fellow riders can also tarnish the image of cyclists in general. He sees cyclists “blast through” red lights and knows this looks bad for all of them. He claims to “treat stop lights as stop signs,” meaning he will stop, look both ways, and continue on if it is safe to do so.

These are pretty common actions, but they infuriate drivers. I can’t say that I blame them, as they are, most definitely, illegal. The issue is that bicycles should obey red lights, just as police officers should know the laws they are meant to enforce.

However, Ben also says he is happy to pay any fines a police officer will give him. He knows it’s illegal, but feels his actions keep him safe: “I feel a lot safer going through a red light like that then I do starting at a green light with all the other traffic behind me; the impatient drivers trying to really quickly get by.”

Benjamin’s suggestions for better cooperation? For cyclists, he suggests “following the rules a little better, they need to stay in their lanes, they need to signal when possible.” He continued, “[Cars also need to] signal; it’s illegal not to! Leaving a little bit of space on the right side in case a cyclist is there, always checking the mirror and over the right shoulder when making a right hand turn.”

He even has an idea for a driving test: “You have to bike in the city for a week.” I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but empathy from drivers as well as cyclists being more obedient certainly couldn’t hurt.