If bikes were at war with cars, we'd all lose

A note from executive director Pete Stidman

A lot of ink has been spilt in the Boston Herald lately in an apparent attempt to generate a “war” between cyclists and motorists. The reporter is tapping into a curious resentment some drivers feel when they see cyclists doing things they’re not allowed to do themselves, and then running across the aisle to tap into the resentment many cyclists feel when they are forced to navigate cars double parked in their bike lanes.

In the froth he is irresponsibly creating by tying together fringe opinions on these disparate issues, someone could very well get hurt. And the truth of the situation is already lying mangled in the street…

A few times a year the union’s phone rings and on the other end of the line is someone calling from a local hospital, asking what they should do after one of their loved ones has been hit by a car. My heart jumps every time, because after 11 years getting to know as many people in Boston’s cycling community as I can, I have also had friends who have been injured and worse. I know how that feels. So when I turn around and see “Road Warriors” on the front page of the Herald and “Battle Rages on City Streets,” my first thought is: “How could they?”

And after a day of enjoying the sunshine and nodding to pedestrian and motorist alike as I pass by peacefully on my old ten speed, I think back to the article and think, “What Boston do they live in?” Sure, occasionally someone doesn’t see me or does something unpredictable and scary, but generally they didn’t mean to, and they usually mime “Sorry!” at me through the window

And then as I ponder what the reporter is trying to press in this mockery of enterprise journalism, fathoming his grossly malfunctioning logic, I think: “Nobody is really buying this, are they?”

I mean, one of the running themes in these articles is an implication that if cars are going to be ticketed for double parking, bicycles should then be subject to the same kind of moving violation tickets as cars are.

First of all, double parking and moving violations are clearly separate issues. Secondly, ticketing bikes the same as cars is akin to putting a bunny and a grizzly bear in the same cage for safe keeping.

Any five-year-old can tell you why this is a bad idea: The grizzly is a killer, the bunny is not. The bear would most likely turn his nose up at the steak and eat the bunny. The two animals clearly need different treatment, and in a similar way, so do bikes and cars.

While it is always a good idea for cyclists to take more care around pedestrians–give them a wide berth, ring a bell as a warning and so forth–data from Boston Emergency Medical Services show that bicycles rarely injure pedestrians. In fact, in a recent 10-month period cyclists injured only two pedestrians in the City of Boston in a grand total of eight bike vs. pedestrian crashes. (The cyclist was the one injured in the other six). Motor vehicles on the other hand were implicated in over 190 bike crashes and an estimated 600 pedestrian strikes.

Given those figures, is it so wrong for the BPD to be handing out helmets while smacking cyclists on the wrist for infractions? In the interest of “serve and protect” I think it fits in, as does ticketing cars that double park in the bike lane–which is really there to give cyclists a safe haven from them.

I applaud the Boston Police Department for their careful study of the situation on the ground and for crafting an appropriate response to it. If you do too, consider letting the mayor know at 617-635-4500 or mayor@cityofboston.gov.

And this astute police behavior is no accident. The BPD has been particularly proactive in addressing bicycle safety since the Union helped identify Capt. Jack Danilecki, former head of the bike patrol, as a potential bike liaison for the department last year with the support of Supt. Daniel Linskey. Lt. Mike Santry in Jamaica Plain’s district E-13 has also stepped forward to help the cause.

Capt. Danilecki, myself, and representatives from a handful of other agencies as well as WalkBoston have lately been discussing ways to improve bike and pedestrian crash data collection and general safety. The union’s latest goal in this discussion, incidentally, is to help find a way the department can spare a few hours each month to redact personal information from the narrative reports on each bike crash’s incident report–thus allowing other city departments, such as the Boston Transportation Department and the Boston Public Health Commission as well as the Boston Cyclists Union’s own research team, to analyze and learn from it. With this key ingredient and other data available from EMS and emergency rooms , the City of Boston could become one of the best sources of information in the country on what factors are causing bike accidents and how we might prevent them.

All of this is part of the idea the Boston Cyclists Union and Mayor Thomas Menino seem to have in common lately: not to take sides against anyone in any “war,” but to work with constituents to make it safer on our city’s streets–whether we ride in a car, wheelchair, on bike, train or bus, or walk on our own two feet.

7 comments to If bikes were at war with cars, we’d all lose

  • Alex

    This piece is really a shame, as it sets the cycling community back, in my opinion. One of the great challeneges I see as a cyclist is that bicycle scofflaws anger drivers, who take their anger out on the rest of us. The fact that Pete is going on the record as saying that cyclists who ride dangerously should not be subject to any form of punishment will only exacerbate this problem, making the roads more dangerous for those of us who place safety above speed and showmanship.

    To the BPD, from a cyclist: PLEASE ticket every dangerous cyclist you see.

  • C Pingenot

    Nicely spoken!
    Unfortunately reasonableness doesn’t sell papers, but my hope is that if the mayor and other locals pols don’t start to get on the bandwagon it will die down a bit.

  • Robert Fine

    It’s bittersweet that the Herald gives Cycling a lot of attention and allows Pete Stidman the last word in their pieces, but disapointing that these particular reporters choose to spin an inaccurate portrayal of the situation. This past Friday August 19th story there was a Front page feature in the printed edition and the Headlines reading, “BIKES VS. CARS: BATTLE RAGES ON CITY STREETS” and a large caption exclaimed, “ROAD WARRIORS!”.

    The real war being waged is on the other side of the globe and it’s the cyclists who are cleary winning that one for America by helping cut our dependence on foriegn energy supplies (that has more to do with foriegn policy than transportation policy, but hey, think Globally and act locally!).

    Maybe if the Herald wasn’t so dependent on advertising dollars from Car dealers they could afford to adhere to more professional standards in their journalism.

    The Herald also bombasted the Hubway launch last month and made Bike sharing seem like a doomed effort based on bizzare claims of it’s failure in other cities. I’d like to add to Pete Stidman’s noting the “froth he (the reporter) is iresponsibly creating” by also noticing the way these recent press stories have been crafted, there seems to be a motivation of ill intent.

    The reporter notes that “Over the past year, the city has issued more than 900 $100 bike-related tickets to car drivers, while bicyclists exhibiting bad road behavior were just issued warnings”. However, isn’t that comparing a moving violation to a parking violation? If you compare parking fines collected between cars and bikes another story is revealed. Albeit there are no penalties for illegally parking bikes, that is in large contrast to parking fines collected which in 2008 was over $63 million dollars. Considering the detrimental impact of illegally parked cars I’d have to then conclude they have a more severe impact on our transportation system, and the quality of life in Boston.

  • David G

    I am a bicyclist and I regular commute on my bicycle. Unfortunately I do not agree with all of the sentiments expressed by Mr. Stidman. The primary person responsible in 80% or more of bicycle accidents is the bicyclist. It is unfortunate that the Boston Cyclist Union does not support Same Road Same Rules as does the Mass. Bicycle Coalition. Let’s face it: in Massachusetts people walk, jog, bicycle, roller blade, and skate board the same way they drive cars – without consideration or respect for themselves or others. Sorry not to agree with you Mr. Stidman, but your metaphor about the bunny and the grizzly bear miss the mark. In the case of two many bicyclist, they think they are the killer rabbit from Monty Python and more than willing to mix it up with the Grisslies.

  • Bill

    I’m a cyclist. If a cyclist breaks rules, s/he should be ticketed. When a cyclist runs red lights, s/she put her/himself, pedestrian, and other cyclists and drivers life in danger. Once I was hit by another cyclist who crossed a busy street at a random place. He hit me head on and I flew over a car! Miraculously, I landed on my feet. The damage was only on my bike. Anyone should be following rules. Bears should follow bear rules and bunnies should follow bunny rules.

  • Pete Stidman (Union Director)

    Hey all,

    Just thought I’d give a friendly response to some of the negative comments here. I realize some cyclists share the Herald’s view that cyclists should be ticketed, but I think that we need to be careful about what they are ticketed for. And I also think that we need to add incentives to bike because it’s good for all, not put disincentives out there.

    For instance, I like and agree with the comment that “bears should follow bear rules and bunnies should follow bunny rules”.

    And in no way do I advocate breaking the rules. That is a misinterpretation of this piece. Nor am I totally against ticketing cyclists. I simply hold that the laws for cars and the laws for cyclists are different now and should remain different—because they each have a different level of vulnerability on the road. Safety is paramount, and more study needs to happen to determine how enforcement effects safety before it is enacted.

    We cannot assume to know what effect a crackdown on cyclists—-using laws that were created for a vehicle two tons heavier– would have a on cyclists safety. At this point we have very little to go on even if we want to do a retrospective before and after study, because the data is simply not being collected in a thorough enough fashion.

    And the comment that 80% of accidents are caused by cyclists is, I’m afraid, extremely likely to be inaccurate. The only study I’ve seen on the subject, conducted in the U.K., found that over 60% of all bicycle-car accidents were caused by cars——but study in this area is made difficult by the need to dig through court records, insurance records and other information that is very difficult and time consuming to access in bulk. Thus, there isn’t a lot out there to go on for any researcher, and don’t believe anyone who claims to know the answer on this subject.

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