Cyclist in Huntington crash may have “lost balance”

As of yet no charges have been filed in the crash that took the life of 28-year-old Boston College graduate student Kelsey Rennebohm on Friday night, and Boston Police sources familiar with the incident are indicating that they may not be called for.

Kelsey Rennebohm

Eyewitnesses to the crash told the police that Rennebohm appeared to have lost her balance and fallen off her bike from the sidewalk and into the path of a Route 39 MBTA bus, according to Boston Police Department sources familiar with the investigation.

This new information puts a different spin on events for many cyclists who may have assumed that Rennebohm’s injuries were received while riding her bike in the street. At the same time, it doesn’t mean that the instincts of those who are demanding bike lanes on Huntington Avenue are wrong. In fact, the way the accident happened highlights a secondary benefit that bike lanes have for pedestrians—-that of creating a buffer space between moving traffic and people on the sidewalk. It may also, as details unfold, speak to the need to reduce speeds on the street.

Huntington Avenue is one of the most stress-inducing, scary and deadly streets for cyclists. Though overall crash numbers are fewer on it than they are on Massachusetts and Commonwealth avenues (according to the Boston Cyclists Union’s interactive crash map), fatalities happen more often, and this could possibly be related to traffic speed. In April 2010, 22-year-old student Eric Hunt was killed in a collision with an MBTA bus at Huntington and South Huntington Ave, and in April 2007, 22-year-old student Gordon Riker was killed in a collision involving a taxi and a dump truck at the intersection of Huntington and Forsythe Street.

Huntington was reconstructed in the mid-90s in such a way that changes to its cross-section and lane widths are next to impossible. Normally, it would be considered unlikely to be reconstructed any time soon, but with the number of deaths on the street continuing to increase fixing it could rise in importance for the Menino Administration. Mayor Thomas Menino was quoted by several news sources saying that the Transportation Department will be looking at ways to improve the street.

“We have to work out a situation where it’s a much safer roadway to drive and cycle on,” Menino told the Boston Globe on Sunday. “We’re going to look at that very seriously over the next several weeks.”

23 comments to Cyclist in Huntington crash may have “lost balance”

  • William Furr

    Give up a car lane on each side and turn it into a buffered bike lane.

    I won’t hold my breath for that, though.

  • Maureen

    They really can’t give up a lane…ambulances, fire trucks, etc need to be able to get by on Huntington. One lane of car traffic would ensnarl emergency vehicles behind buses and general traffic, and would likely endanger cyclists even more.

  • Charlie Denison

    For being such an important (and busy) roadway, it’s surprising that Huntington Ave still today has no bicycle accommodations of any kind. The temptation to ride on the sidewalk, particularly for students and others who are not comfortable bicycling in mixed traffic, is very high. Bicycle lanes would not only provide a buffer space for pedestrians, as mentioned above, but would also encourage more people to ride in the roadway (instead of on the sidewalk), which is statistically a much safer place for bicyclists to be in the first place. After 3 bicyclist fatalities on Huntington Ave, clearly the design of the street is not working well for bicyclist safety. I’m glad that the Mayor finally sees the need to do something about it. I only hope that he not delay any further.

  • Quentin Regestein

    The victim’s losing her balance suggests that victim factors rather than environmental factors explain the tragedy. More investigation seems needed about her health and habits. A bike lane would have been unlikely to prevent the accident, since it began with the victim losing her balance.

  • Alan Wright

    I am a highly experienced assertive city bike commuter (40+)years and I have fallen on Huntington Avenue. Navigating the messy traffic and avoiding the rail tracks make it the worst road to ride in the city. What I want to know is – was she wearing a helmet? Peter, do you know?

  • Peter Furth

    The number of bike fatalities along Huntington since it was rebuilt in the late 1990’s is actually 4. A female cyclist, a Northeastern grad student, was killed by a construction vehicle at the corner of Huntington and Forsyth St about 10 years ago. Students in the gym across the street watched in horror as she was run over.

    If the cyclist was riding on the sidewalk, that doesn’t remove the blame from the road design; people ride on the sidewalk because the street is so dangerous to ride in. Putting 30 mph traffic right next to an uber-narrow sidewalk is poor safety planning.

    The horrible safety record of this road is a direct result the City’s historic anti-bicycle policy that ended only 5 years ago. Before that, the City refused to consider bike lanes. Huntington Ave had parking lanes on both sides before its 1990’s makeover. When it was redesigned, elimination of those parking lanes created obvious space for bike lanes, but no, the City wasn’t interested. State laws requiring bike accommodation were ignored. The City wanted instead to use the space to make the street more esthetic by widening the central reservation so they could plant trees that would hide the “ugly” train tracks, and to make the the travel lanes wider. Making things worse, the City at the time had a bike coordinator (Paul Shimek) who opposed bike lanes.

    I’m glad to hear the Mayor asking his transportation dept to look into what can be done about it. Let’s hope the City marks bike lanes now where they will fit, and prioritizes sections where they won’t fit for reconstruction, giving more priority to safety than to esthetics and wide travel lanes.

  • Rebecca Albrecht

    Two lanes in each direction do not mean it is easier for an emergency vehicle to pass through, since the left lane always fills up with traffic which impedes emergency vehicles. Having one wide traffic lane means that cars could easily squeeze to the left & bicyclists can very easily squeeze to the right making it easier for an emergency vehicle to get through quickly.

  • Dave Atkins

    Maybe there is a way to create a separated bike path along the sidewalk as was done in parts of Cambridge. For now, I take back streets around that area; e.g. St. Stephen + Parker St, but the natural path that *should* be made for bikes is right along route 9 to connect Mass Ave all the way out to the J-way crossing in Brookline that hopefully will be redesigned soon. Such a path would connect Northeastern students and the Longwood medical area with downtown and the Emerald Necklace in a much safer way that might take some of the traffic off Huntington.

  • Nathan Blanchet

    What a tragedy. Condolences to Ms. Rennebohm’s family and friends. As a reply to Quentin, I think it’s important to remember that “environmental factors” often cause what might seem like “victim factors.” In this case, an unwelcome street could push cyclists onto the sidewalk, where it’s a lot more likely for anyone to lose his/her balance while navigating pedestrians and other obstacles.

  • Jason Turgeon

    That’s a terrifying street. I rode it daily for years, and remember vividly riding by a cop putting pieces of the smashed bicycle into his trunk immediately after the April 2007 fatality. I still ride frequently from downtown to Forsyth where I cut through the NU campus to get to the SW Corridor.

    I reject the assumption that 2 lanes are needed for emergency vehicles to pass. A wide buffered bike lane with only paint would work well and still allow emergency vehicles to drive in the bike lane if necessary.

    Given the high traffic on that street at rush hour, I think a more reasonable solution would be to create a better off-street or properly buffered bike line somewhere nearby. I only ride Huntington westbound. Riding into the city, I always take Hemenway to Boylston, which despite Boylston’s unpleasantness is vastly preferable to Huntington. But Hemenway and Boylston are one-way eastbound. There needs to be a westbound option. I sometimes use Shawmut, but that street has issues of its own and is too far from the Fenway area to be a real option for people who live over there. I’m not sure there’s an easy answer, but a westbound bikeway in the area would help a lot.

  • Levi

    They really can’t give up a lane…ambulances, fire trucks, etc need to be able to get by on Huntington.

    I’ve heard this argument against other bike lanes, but have not heard a reasonable explanation of how the same width of road, painted as a car lane plus a bike lane, would be less amenable to emergency vehicles than with the road paint indicating two lanes for cars. If in fact re-painting a car lane as a bike lane would facilitate the movement of emergency vehicles, I wonder if this commenter would reverse their support?

  • Jeffrey Ferris

    There was another tragic cyclist death along Huntinton on November 1, 2000. Dr. Ruth Michler died sitting on her bicycle at the corner of Forsyth St. while waiting to cross Huntington Ave. She was run over by a construction vehicle where the driver in the back could not see what was in front of him. Originally from Germany, she was a Visiting Scholar in Mathematics at Northeastern University. She was also an ultra-marathon distance runner. At the family’s request, no charges were brought against the driver or his company.

  • Patrick Lally

    I avoid Huntingon at all costs. Today I was on the 39 Bus and I realized (and I can’t be the first one to think this), why is the Green Line necessary on Huntington Ave when the 39 bus runs exactly the same route? The competing behemoths that they are slow traffic, make it impossible to navigate as a bicyclist, and make it unsafe for pedestrians. Especially the stretch from South Huntington to Brigham Circle. Get rid of the redundant Green Line, turn the tracks into a bike lane, save the T about 10 million dollars a year and VOILA! Wouldn’t it be fun to bike down the center median that the T now occupies?!

  • Pete Stidman (Union Director)

    Thank you, all of you for your thoughtful replies. @Alan Wright — Yes, evidence seems to point to her having worn her helmet. @Patrick Lally, when the 39 was created to take buses all the way to Forest Hills instead of the Trolley, the overall ridership of the line went way down. Trolleys encourage the use of public transit, which keeps cars off the road, which makes them easier to bike on (and also a ton of bike commuters switch to the T in winter months.)

    The tracks are a big problem, but eliminating transit might become a bigger one.

  • Wandering Woman on Wheels

    J.P. Patch article:

    ‘It’s Hard to Ride on Huntington, But We Do It Because We Have To’
    http://jamaicaplain.patch.com/articles/huntington-is-dangerous-essential-for-bikers?ncid=newsltuspatc00000001

    and poll:
    Bicyclists — How dangerous is Huntington Avenue compared to the rest of the city?

    It’s clearly the city’s most dangerous street for cyclists
    8 (19%)
    It’s among the city’s most dangerous streets
    28 (66%)
    It’s about the same as anywhere downtown
    4 (9%)
    I don’t find it particularly dangerous
    2 (4%)
    I’m not sure
    0 (0%)

    Total votes: 42
    This is not a scientific poll

    ~~~

    Boston Biker post and thread full of information:

    Female Cyclist Killed By MBTA Bus On Huntington Ave
    http://bostonbiker.org/2012/06/02/female-cyclist-killed-by-mbta-bus-on-huntington-ave/#comments

    ~~

  • Fenway

    Eliminating the E branch of the Green Line in favor of the 39 bus would only result in much more automotive traffic. See what happened to the A line and what the “temporarily” suspended service from Heath Street to Forest hills has done to traffic in JP in the past 30 years. The 39 taking over the entirety of the E line route would eventually wind up as semi-useless as the 57 bus has become substituting for the A line.

    As much as cyclists hate on streetcars for tracks and taking up space, the alternative of bus service and increased automotive traffic, is far less friendly to cyclists.

  • Paul Schimek

    @Peter Furth: I was not working for Boston in 1995 when Huntington Ave was designed nor in 1999 when it was built (I worked for BTD Aug 2001 to July 2003). I did advocate for removing on-street parking on Huntington Ave in order to have enough room for motorists to pass bicyclists without changing lanes (at least 14 feet of usable space). The city agreed, but the state insisted on a 2 ft left shoulder, narrowing the right lane. Intense lobbying got them to change it slightly — but not to how I would have done it. Also, much of parking was retained and features very narrow lanes that you must ride in the middle of not to get doored (shared lane markings would be welcome here).

    People think Huntington is very dangerous because they will get run down by hide speed traffic and these 4 fatalities are proof of that. Therefore a bike lane — or better yet, a separate bike sidewalk called a cycle track — are what we need right?

    Well, it doesn’t seem to me that these fatalities, tragic as they are tell that story:

    * Dr. Ruth Michler, November 2000: Bicyclist run down by construction vehicle that was not allowed to be on the road because the driver cannot see in front of him. Lesson: Provide more supervision for construction and harsher penalties for criminally negligent behavior such as the driver’s. In this case the state refused to prosecute the driver, I think, because he was not operating a motor vehicle as it is officially defined. I think they were wrong about the law, and if they were right about it, it’s a crazy Catch-22.

    * Gordon Riker, April 2007 “The bicyclist . . . was riding between two lanes of traffic on Huntington Avenue when he was clipped by a taxicab.” Lesson: don’t overtake between lanes of moving traffic. Stay behind unless traffic is stopped and can’t move.

    * Eric Hunt, April 2010, fell due to the trolley tracks (near S. Huntington, where they are in the passing travel lane, not in the protected median) and then was hit by an approaching bus (or fell into the side of the bus). Lesson: Post warning signs about the dangers of tracks (removing them in JP has dramatically improved bike safety & convenience); teach cyclists to stay far away from them.

    * Kelsey Rennebohm, June 2010: Bicyclist was apparently riding on the sidewalk when she fell into the roadway and was hit by passing bus. Lesson: Don’t ride on the sidewalk. Tell cyclists about the dangers of sidewalk riding, and make streets more bicycle-friendly.

    All of these 4 fatalities had completely different causes, only 3 of them were close to the same location, and not one of them was caused by a cyclist operating normally in the roadway getting run down by a motor vehicle driver approaching from behind (the construction vehicle was not legally a motor vehicle and was not allowed to be on the road). So let’s get our stories straight, and take the right lessons from them, before we jump to conclusions.

  • […] Furth is spreading the misinformation (as has Pete Stidman before him) that I prevented the installation of bike lanes in Boston. This is […]

  • […] The BCU is reporting she may have fallen into the street, I agree with them that bike lanes + reduced speed would go a […]

  • So how about that?

    So, Peter Furth, care to respond to Paul Schimek’s points?

    “If the cyclist was riding on the sidewalk, that doesn’t remove the blame from the road design; people ride on the sidewalk because the street is so dangerous to ride in.”

    And because they were trained in cycling as little children and never trained again in their lives so they behave like children.

    People are fearful of many things that are not very dangerous and they often gladly perform dangerous acts.

    People are also fearful of appearing stupid.

  • Pete Stidman (Union Director)

    I’ll gladly pinch hit for Peter Furth on this one. To Paul Schimek’s points—

    A. Kelsey Rennebohm was not riding on the sidewalk. The best information we have is she was standing still on her bike and lost her balance. The study that originally showed that sidewalks were the most dangerous (I believe it was from 1997) was deeply flawed because it was not sidewalks, but sidewalks & other. Therefore might have caught any number of other things. It was also self-reported by a mail survey given to largely male cyclists in an advocacy organization.

    B. Michler, Rennebohm, and Riker might have been prevented by a bike lane, and definitely would have been prevented by a cycletrack. All of that costly education Paul proposes would have had a chance, maybe. But a cycletrack would have separated all of these riders from the cars. Cycletracks the world over have pulled down crash numbers. I am in Vancouver this week and I just talked to an attorney here who specializes in bicycle cases. He said a good chunk of his business was downtown commuters for many years, but that all dried up when they installed several two-way cycletracks with protected right turns through the center of downtown. Anyone who refutes the ability of cycletracks to provide a greater amount of safety is wearing blinders. There is no argument on this from anyone reasonable in the international bike community.

    For those interested, the Union is looking very carefully at Huntington and will develop a plan of action we can all support. In time, we will fix this awful street.

  • Mark

    Designate part of overly wide sidewalks as cycle tracks. Problem solved. Sidewalk riding is most dangerous when there are many driveways and side streets and riders are going the opposite way from the nearest travel lane. Drivers look near the sidewalk for pedestrians at pedestrian speeds who might be in conflict with the turn. Drivers will likely miss a faster moving cyclist heading towards the driveway they are turning into.

    Where is the accident report for Kelsey Rennebohm? Did she lose her balance by being drunk? Not that there is any law against riding a bike while drunk…

  • FK

    Paul Schimek provides a voice of reason here. I am an avid cyclist in Boston, including many areas all over the city that I enjoy riding to that are certainly, in my opinion, much worse than any in Boston Proper (Downtown, Back Bay, South End, Longwood etc) since there are many fewer cyclists on the road and the car is still king. Yes, Huntington feels unsafe to ride on. However, not every road can just accomodate bikes, and proposing the removal of a lane from a road that was built, then widened, to accommodate motor vehicular traffic and remains a critical east-west arterial is simply not reasonable. Getting rid of parking spaces would be a much wiser option if anything was to be done to create space. A cycle track is pretty unlikely and frankly, would be a waste of money in that location, since the Southwest Corridor is very close and therefore the first cycle track to actually be built in Boston would do better somewhere else (like Beacon or Comm.). Now, secondly, every time a cyclist dies people get on the weblogs, up in arms over evil cars. I do not know what happened here, but whether the girl was on the sidewalk or in the street, moving or not, if she lost her balance and fell this has nothing to do with the street. If you fall in front of a car, you get hit, pure and simple. It sounds likely that this poor victim may have been doing nothing unsafe, but I think it’s worth mentioning, again and again, that cyclists in Boston, particularly young people, ride very unsafely, do not wear helmets (was she wearing a helmet? someone already asked – we do not yet know), wear dark clothes and have no lights. I like to bike in Boston but it’s a dense city and one needs to be very, very careful, and even then, regardless of all safety precautions, cycle tracks etc., accidents still do happen.

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