Friday, July 19, 2024

A sticker posted at the scene of a June 7 traffic death in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. (Photo: Greta Gaffin)

Nearly 10 years ago, after cyclists Bernard Lavins and Amanda Phillips died within three months of each other, I wrote about the vulnerability of cyclists as road users and hoped to see lowered speed limits, fewer trucks in areas where cyclists and pedestrians were common and a shift from car-centric urban planning to equitable, safer-for-all streets. Much has changed. Cambridge’s Cycling Safety Ordinance went through, then-governor Charlie Baker enacted a “safe passing” law, Bluebike stations have blossomed around Greater Boston and e-bikes have made two wheels a more accessible alternative form of commuting for more people. Yet in that time, three more cyclists have been killed by trucks on Cambridge streets, including a 55-year-old woman June 7 at Mount Auburn and DeWolfe streets in Harvard Square; and lawsuits for a time sought to halt and reverse the CSO by returning the slim slivers of safe haven to trucks and other carbon-emitting vehicles – all as unchecked temperatures continue to rise globally. We are allegedly making progress, but trending backward and people are dying.

As a cyclist who’s been riding the streets of Cambridge and Boston some 4,000 miles a year for nearly 40 years, the need to bike defensively hasn’t changed much: There’s still a lack of deference to the safety of vulnerable street users by motor vehicles who don’t look for them, zipping past before making a hard right or blasting their horn because they don’t think they belong on the road.

Nearly all cyclists are multimodal – they also walk and drive – but most will tell you that when on a bike, they have to have their senses engaged more keenly. “Head on a swivel,” as many say. To put it another way, as a pedestrian you don’t regularly assume a car is going to come up on the sidewalk; in a car, if you have a green, you don’t yield for fear that another car will blast through a red and hit you, since you have the right of way. And in both scenarios you have a designated safe place on a sidewalk or a 2-ton encasement should any of that happen, unlikely as it is. On a bike, one ding and you’re out in the road and at the mercy of a six-seat SUV going twice your speed, with nothing to protect you.

This is documented easily by crash data from the state Department of Transportation and Cambridge police open portals. Over a 10-year period, six cyclists have died on our streets and 11 pedestrians; as a percent of population (approximately 105,000 and 9,000), bike riders are six times more likely to die via a motor vehicle strike than a pedestrian. More telling is that at least five of the six fatal crashes involved a truck.

Friday’s tragedy occurred shortly after the CSO took a blow in a recent City Council vote, with deadlines potentially extended in places unless the city laws are adjusted to find more car parking. But a bike-lane backlash has been going on for years – “They run red lights”; “They don’t wear helmets”; “Their bikes don’t have lights” – in addition to resentment over the loss of parking, with spaces for people with disabilities being the emotional ante often laid down. Reckless behavior is never acceptable, and cyclists can be their own best ambassadors by showing courtesy and respect to other road users; that said, motor vehicles pose the far bigger public risk and are the sole agent of road deaths. Meanwhile, in the recent makeover of Porter Square, when separated bike lanes were installed, the number of accessible parking spaces available more than doubled as part of the project.

An important aspect about that June 7 crash is that it happened where there were separated bike lanes. Whether the box truck made an illegal right (rights are allowed only on a green arrow) or the cyclist proceeded through a red light or some other factor was at play has yet to be determined. It may be some time before we know the results of an investigation, but one thing that should be considered in the interim is street design. This section of Mount Auburn is an opening-up point, which adds to its complexity. For traffic heading east on Mount Auburn, there are five traffic lights and three signs. That’s a lot to take in; if you sit at the intersection and observe for a few signal cycles, you will see confusion from users. And, of course, there are those who push through illegally. We try out traffic pattern designs to hopefully improve road safety, but must balance the needs of businesses and those who need to get around. It’s a challenge, and one with impacts.

The long and short is, traffic flows need to be simple and intuitive. Are cyclists from other states familiar with Boston bike signals, are the signals and signs at Mount Auburn and DeWolfe in the best location for each type of road user? These are nagging questions that should have been answered by post-installation use and review by those who came up with them, as well as those who enforce traffic. We’re a world-class city with revered universities that draw people from all corners of the globe; there are going to be new-to-Boston people in the streets every day. Our rotaries are infamous for their WTF factor to those newly entering Massachusetts; intersections in Harvard Square don’t need to be.

The victim, who hailed from Florida, was on a Bluebike, eliciting on social media boards sentiments that those who ride the rentals “don’t know what they’re doing.” Bluebikes are designed to be a simple walk-up-and-use transportation; it’s the violence of the streets that’s the real factor here, and we should acknowledge that. If we applied this same logic of “needing to know how to navigate the streets of Boston before getting on a bike” and extend it to cars, would anyone deplaning from Italy, the U.K. or Japan be able to rent a car at Logan?

The intersection will change. The city will act. The sad reality is that it took a life to do it. We’re one of three area cities with Boston and Somerville that have adopted Vision Zero goals – to eliminate traffic fatalities through engineering – but we’ve struggled to meet checkpoints. Potentially extending CSO deadlines only addles those efforts.

There is a sprig of hope, however, as on Monday the council gets a policy order asking the city to undertake a review of intersections where crashes have resulted in a serious injury. It’s a decade late, but something that could have real results. And getting measurable results is the only way to evaluate downstream efforts: ink is cheap, blood is not. Furthermore, as we become a denser city, we need to rethink how we use our streetscapes and who uses them. It’s not just about safety. It’s also about equity.