by Michael J. Velsmid, DPT, MS
I have been thinking about this subject for years. First, let me give you my perspective. I have lived and worked in Boston since 1999. I bike and have a child old enough to follow me around the city. I also own and have ridden a motorcycle in the city for over a decade. I have been a physical therapist since 1995 and one who has worked in Boston since 1999. I have had accidents on my bike, witnessed bike accidents, and treated countless people who have been injured in bike accidents. I care about the environment and would never leave a place less clean or beautiful than when I entered it.
A couple of years ago, Mayor Menino endorsed and encouraged increased bike use in the city. We started to see bike lanes painted on the roadways and Hubway bike stations popping up all over the city. There is no doubt that more people are biking. This is great for the environment, but is it good for your health?
There are risks we should all be aware of. First, is that our city’s network of roads were once carriage trails. We paved them. The roads, wind and twist up and down hills. They are narrow. If you were to design our roadways from a clean slate, you would not have designed them as they are. This makes it very difficult to fit bike lanes between the parked cars and moving traffic.
Next, the Hubway bikes do not come with helmets and I see people riding on a daily basis without helmets. Helmets are required by law for motorcyclists, but not for cyclists. Bikes can go fast enough for an individual to sustain a life altering head injury. Because bicycles are ridden in bike lanes, they are less visible to moving traffic than even motorcycles. So, a bicyclist in a bike lane is nearly invisible to moving traffic and they have their brains exposed to high speed hard objects.
The position of the bike lane causes inherent risk to pedestrians and the biker. In order to fit the bike lane onto our roadways, it must be placed in the zone where the doors of all parked cars swing open. I have yet to see a bike lane in Boston outside of the boundaries of this zone. Furthermore, a pedestrian crossing the road between stopped traffic does not always anticipate a bicycle traveling through the bike lane.
Encouraging people to decrease their carbon footprint is a noble cause. However, encouraging an inexperienced biker to travel a bike lane in Boston is a recipe for disaster. I have heard many stories from frustrated bikers about cars drifting into and crossing over bike lanes. I believe that an experienced biker can anticipate this transgression by a distracted motorist or a driver without any situational awareness. However, a less experienced biker may presume that the space between those white bike lane stripes is a safety zone.
Now, here is where my experience as a health care provider comes into the story. There is no doubt, since the bike lanes were painted, I have observed an increase in bike accidents and injuries to bikers and pedestrians. The most common accident is the “door.” A bicyclist is cruising along the bike lane when a parked car opens its door into the bike lane. There is no escape route because the traffic is too close to the left. The bicyclist hits the open door and sometimes the driver or rear passenger exiting the car. The next most common accident is the pedestrian jay walking across a roadway. There are two car lanes going in opposite directions. The pedestrian looks left, sees no car and crosses the first lane. The second lane is a long line of stopped cars waiting for a traffic light. The pedestrian, thinking they are home free, crosses between the bumpers of the stopped cars and enters the bike lane, not knowing they are entering a bike lane, and gets blind-sided by a bicycle. There are other less common accidents, like the car making a right turn and cutting off or side-swiping a bicyclist. There are the motorized scooters speeding through the bicycle lanes getting doored or hitting pedestrians. Less common are the pedestrians in a cross walk getting hit by a bicyclist unaware that they must also adhere to the traffic laws.
I don’t mean to be negative, but I think it would be helpful to hear my perspective. Knowing what I know may help to prevent injury or even save a life. I have seen one too many people injured while biking in Boston and too many bikes painted white and tied to a pole with wilted flowers. Be super careful.
Dr. Velsmid is a Physical Therapist at Boston Sports Medicine