Bike safety hearing yields landmark crash study

By John Ferrante and Pete Stidman

Christopher Weigl, 23, Boston's fifth bike crash victim of 2012. Ridership has increased 31 percent this year over 2011, according to interim Boston Bikes coordinator Kris Carter, while ambulance runs for bike crashes have gone up by 5 percent.

In the wake of Thursday’s tragedy on Commonwealth Avenue, a previously scheduled bike safety hearing called by City Councillor Ayanna Pressley produced a significant victory for the Boston Cyclists Union’s long-term bike crash data improvement campaign this week.

Interim bike coordinator Kris Carter told the council the Menino Administration is now committed to carrying out the first thorough analysis of Boston Police narrative reports for bike crashes ever completed in the city. The analysis will cover 2009-2011 and will give transportation planners and others the first piece of the bike crash puzzle in Boston–the cause of crashes.

The commitment to study crashes was a ray of hope on an otherwise sad and emotional day. While Union volunteers rode to work with City Councillor Felix Arroyo from Jamaica Plain to highlight bicycle safety, 23-year-old Boston University photojournalism student Christopher Weigl was killed by a turning tractor-trailer truck in front of Landry’s Bicycle Shop on Commonwealth Ave. at St. Paul Street. The crash’s location along a major bike commuting route was seen by hundreds of passing cyclists and quickly attracted citywide media attention. Some crash site witnesses changed their plans and left work to testify at the bike safety hearing at city hall.

The hearing began with a moment of silence for Weigl, and then turned toward a very serious discussion of how to put an end to the violence cyclists experience on Boston’s streets.

“We want Boston to be the safest bicycling city in the country,” said the hearing’s lead sponsor, Councillor at-large Ayanna Pressley, who said that as someone who uses public transit exclusively and doesn’t own a car. “I view bike lanes as an equal part of our transportation infrastructure.”

“We are actually talking about a matter of life and death,” said Councillor Arroyo, who co-sponsored the bill. He recounted his morning ride with the Bike Union. “You actually have to fight the cars to get on to the dedicated cyclists lane.”

Councillor Arroyo cited a ridership increase in Seville, Spain from 6,000 cyclists to 60,000 as directly attributable to the creation of ultra-safe cycletracks throughout the city. “If you build it, they will come,” he said. His trip to Seville’s 2011 Velo City conference was funded by SRAM and Bikes Belong after a recommendation from the Bike Union.

Testimony of Barbara Ferrer from the Public Health Commission was telling. She acknowledged that while her department had access to some data — police incident reports and Boston Emergency Medical Services (EMS) data — those resources are not typically used for injury prevention research. But thanks to constant pressure from the bike union since the 2010 death of 22-year-old Eric Hunt at Huntington and South Huntington in 2010, this is about to change.

Testimony from the acting Boston Bikes coordinator in the Mayor’s Office, Kris Carter, included an announcement that a study of three years of police narrative reports from bike crashes would be completed in the short term. Boston police narrative reports contain the information about cause of bike crashes, and have never been looked at in a comprehensive way before.

Although this is a big win for the Bike Union and all cyclists in the city, it is only a first step towards creating a more comprehensive data set on bicycle crashes.

Bike Union executive director Pete Stidman testified on behalf of the Union and explained that tying in emergency room data would provide information on severity of injury. By linking the two data sources using EMS data, one would be able to see what types of crashes are causing the most severe injuries, and target those crashes in particular with a wide variety of education, enforcement, and infrastructure improvements. The data would also help give insight into whether or not cyclists are to be blamed for the crashes, as is often the slant in certain media outlets.

“What you hear a lot is, ‘What are we doing about these scofflaw cyclists?’ I’m not saying that cyclists don’t cause acci­dents; they do,” said Stidman, citing one study that found bicyclists at fault in one-quarter of bike accidents. “But that is not the key problem.”

Stidman also requested that personal information in the data be redacted so that Boston’s rich educational and research community could access it and come up with innovative ways to analyze it. A broad spectrum of research specialists, from places such as the Harvard School of Public Health, MIT, Harvard Graduate School of Design, and the Boston Area Research Initiative have been in touch with the Union and expressed their interest in getting ahold of the data.

Union board vice president Phi Tran testified about the Vietnamese community's use of cycling as a way to get around, and their loss of 63-year-old cyclist Doan Bui to a drunk driver on Morrissey Blvd. earlier this year.

Testimony from Stidman, Anne Lusk (Harvard School of Public Health), Steven Miller (LivableStreets Alliance), Jessica Robertson, and Sarah Freeman (Emerald Necklace Conservancy) also focused on infrastructure, and in particular, the creation of more separate facilities such as cycletracks and bike paths.

“Biking has been growing rapidly, but most people in Boston are still too scared to bike,” said Robertson, Transportation Coordinator for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. “The city must install more cycle tracks and bike lanes with physical separation from traffic.”

Carter cited plans for cycletracks on Malcolm X Boulevard, Summer Street, and Melnea Cass Boulevard. The Union is pushing for cycletracks on Charles Street, the streets around the Public Garden, Seaver Street in Roxbury, and Beacon Street in Somerville.

4 comments to Bike safety hearing yields landmark crash study

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  • Paula Simpson

    I am concerned about bicyclists not knowing That Semi Trailer trucks and Buses need 2 lanes to make a turn. Being a former Bus driver in Boston, I have personally seen not just bicyclists but also cars not waiting for these large vehicles to make a turn. Also, recently 2 accidents involved Buses and 1 involving a semi-trailer have disturbed me because some people driving or riding bicycles DO NOT this and should be made aware. I believe that if informed about large vehicles making turns, the previous mentioned accidents may not have occured. Please get the word out.

  • I applaud the city of Boston for being proactive in trying to improve cyclist’s safety. I don’t think however, you need to take a trip on the tax payers to Seville to understand bicycle accidents. A recent study by researchers at the University of British Columbia found that protected bikeways reduce accidents by cars up to 90 percent. http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2012.300762

    To understand fault you can simply study other cities records of bike accidents. Nationwide accidents involving cyclists are about 50% of the time the car drivers fault.Here in Sacramento about 43% of our accidents for the last 10 years were the fault of the bicyclist.

    In collisions speed kills, you will find a direct correlation between the posted speed limit of a street and the number of fatal or serious injury accidents. I recommend that in order to make sense of crash data you match your data points to a measurement of BLOS in order to better understand each of your problem locations. I know Boston for biking, your narrow streets and ultra compact city center make infrastructure improvement difficult. Good luck making your streets more safer and more accessible to everyone.

  • Pete Stidman (Union Director)

    Thanks for the nice comments Mark. Just a clarification——Felix Arroyo’s trip to Seville was not on the taxpayer’s dime. It was paid for by SRAM and Bikes Belong as part of an effort to get Latino-American elected officials to the 2011 Velo-City Conference in Seville to learn about all the latest in bike planning. -Ed.

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