Boston Bikes Update and the question of enforcement

Should Boston Police spend their limited time writing tickets for cyclists, or spend more time enforcing motor vehicle laws?

This year’s Boston Bikes Update was a big hit. Nicole Freedman, the city’s bike czar, spoke to a packed house of over 400 people at the Central Library last week and talked up the city’s accomplishments making Boston a better biking city, including 142,000 Hubway bike-share trips in 2011, over 1,000 bikes donated to low-income cyclists in two years, and over 50 miles of bike lanes and sharrows in the city so far. She also hinted at what the new Boston Bike Network Master Plan will bring when released this July (very comprehensive), and Boston Bikes program director John Bilderbeck even gave a tip of the hat to the Union for fixing over 1,600 bikes in the Bike to Market program.

The bombastic moment of the night though, if there was one, came when former bike czar Paul Schimek, who has a history of running counter to progressive cycling ideology, strongly suggested heavier enforcement against cyclists. Thankfully Mayor Thomas Menino’s policy chief Michael Kineavy and BTD Commissioner Thomas Tinlin responded in an even handed way, saying that current enforcement is meant to encourage good biking behavior while increasing safety by handing out helmets along with warning tickets, all without discouraging cycling as a way to get around. Schimek was clearly not impressed with the answer.

Schimek and other “vehicular cyclists,” as they are sometimes labelled, had their heyday in Boston in the 1990s, and were against bike lanes. Their advocacy is one of the reasons we did not see bike lanes added to streets like Huntington Avenue and the Rose Kennedy Greenway even as other cities in the country were beefing up their bike infrastructure. One of their fears was that bike lanes would one day ultimately limit the movement of cyclists, as when a police officer instructs a bicyclist to stay in the bike lane. (This is not part of the law, however, and is not likely to be in the future.) In broad strokes, vehicular cyclists believe that bikes should act as cars, and have equal rights with cars. The idea of Same Roads, Same Rules and its correlate heavy police enforcement also derives from this tradition.

While it’s true that some level of enforcement is needed for all modes of travel, including reckless cyclists, jaywalking pedestrians and speeding cars, the idea that enforcement should be equal for all who use our city’s streets is misguided.

In their essence, laws of this type are infringements on the freedom of movement of individuals, and when you limit a freedom in the United States, historically at least, you need a very good reason. Over the last century, the carnage that cars cause has provided ample reason for regulation and a thick book of laws regarding their use. Motor vehicles began to proliferate around 1908, when the famous Model T started to be mass produced. The modern “safety bicycle,” however, had already been around for over 20 years at that time and though in parks they became a nuisance to some, they did not inspire the same legislative reaction.

Today, we need to look no further than USDOT’s report on motor vehicle crashes for 2010 that was released last month to see the massive impact of death and injuries caused by motor vehicles and the reason for the vast book of laws covering their use. The numbers of those killed or injured by cars are at the lowest levels they’ve been since 1949, but that unfortunately isn’t saying much, and may be due more to advancements in the medical sciences rather than road safety. In 2010, 32,885 people died in motor vehicle crashes, including 618 cyclists and 4,280 pedestrians. Even more eye opening, 2.24 million people were injured in crashes. That’s .7 percent of the U.S. population, nearly 1 in 130 people who’s lives were negatively impacted by an auto crash. And that’s just one year. The likelihood of someone being injured by a motor vehicle in their lifetime is very high. Bicycles, not so much.

To see how bikes compare we can use the example of New York City—which is far more urban than the rest of the country and therefore not a perfect comparison to the national numbers, but there is good data readily available on a wide variety of crashes and their effects and “The City” is somewhat similar to Boston’s urban environment. In the average year in NYC——according to a study that analyzed crashes there between 1996-2005——23 cyclists are killed (6% of all street transportation fatalities), 194 pedestrians are killed (49%) and 151 car passengers are killed in crashes (38%). Over 92% of the bike crashes involved collisions with motor vehicles.

The vast majority of pedestrian deaths involve motor vehicles as well. Out of 1,944 pedestrian deaths in 10 years, 11 were the result of collisions with bicyclists (that’s .5% of pedestrian deaths, .2% of all street transportation deaths in NYC), and three of those were caused by pedestrians jaywalking, rather than cyclist error. The average age of these victims was 64 years, which indicates that bicycles cause less trauma in crashes than cars.

This is not to belittle the lives lost in this way. All cyclists need to be extremely careful around pedestrians and give them the right of way, and they need to avoid motor vehicles and be predictable in traffic by following rules and being predictable.

But when we talk about expending our police force’s limited resources to increase the safety of our city’s residents and visitors—a worthy use of their valuable time—the impact of heavier enforcement on cyclists simply cannot have a statistically significant effect on transportation injuries and death. Far better to increase cyclist education in our schools, make affordable helmets available everywhere and encourage their use, and focus any heavy handed police enforcement on the proven threat to life and limb on our streets—the motor vehicle.


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  2. Jason Turgeon on March 8, 2012 at 11:34 am

    I would love to see the BCU start advocating for an Idaho stop law in Boston, so that we can cycle safely without fear of tickets designed for cars. I’d also like to see more separated bike paths that will put cyclists off streets where they would even run the risk of breaking a traffic rule. Finally, I’d like to see this group take on Brookline’s “same roads, same rules” campaign. Suggesting that a bike is the same as a car is folly.

  3. William Furr on March 8, 2012 at 11:51 am

    Thank you for the reasoned response to that ridiculous question. I didn’t much appreciate Nicole Freedman’s answer encouraging cyclists to keep their noses clean so no one else can complain. She’s preaching to the choir. The worst offenders on their bikes are totally clueless about the law, much less events like Boston Bikes.

    It’s increasingly apparent that changing people’s behavior on the roads is a matter of designing those roads to encourage the correct behavior, not futilely enforcing ever more draconian laws. Regardless of their type of transportation.

    As I once heard Peter Furth put it, the only way to actually get cars to *slow down* and *stop speeding* is speed humps, speed humps, speed humps. Signs are ignored. Laws are broken. Speed humps can be neither.

    Same goes with cycling behavior. Clear markings and separated facilities will encourage the right kind of behavior. Education, encouragement, and enforcement will only go so far. Engineering is the way to reach *everyone* who uses a particular section of street.

  4. Mark Tedrow on March 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    If the police doing the enforcement of cyclists are well educated in the rules of the road governing bicycles and there is equal enforcement for motor vehicle operators.
    I don’t see a problem with a moderate amount of increased enforcement for cyclists especially if it’s combined with an education element and an incentive to cycle safer(coupon for lights at a Boston bike shop if your caught without lights at night, perhaps even ticketing if you can get out of the ticket by attending a bike safety class/ LAB on-bike course for the incredibly stupid offense of blowing a red light or stop sign in front of a cop. I’ve been in the same position as Bikeyface in her comic today and think enforcement needs needs to happen on both sides of the lane.
    I would truly hate to see Boston targeting cyclists the way NYC has apparently been doing the last couple of years.

  5. Stephen Ringlee on March 9, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    While an Idaho Stop rule would be most welcome, cyclists have to understand that continued cyclist violations of the most basic traffic laws outrages and even endangers the motoring, cycling and walking communities. I have seen everything: riding the wrong way up the street, red light violations, pedestrian stop violations, no lights, sidewalk riding among pedestrians, dangerous riding at high speeds on mixed paths, the works. Police should be encouraged to issue citations against egregious violators as a way to begin changing cyclist behavior and encourage a more lawful and respectful integration of cars, bikes and pedestrians on city streets. If we don’t do this, we merely encourage more Boston Herald campaigns asserting bad bicyclist behavior, in some cases not without reason. And we also create road rage where it need not exist.

  6. Robert Fine on March 23, 2012 at 7:07 am

    Paul Shimeck questioned if bicyclist adherence to road rules is being taken seriously based on the issuing of traffic citations by the Boston Police. Commisioner Timlin then responded by putting the situation in perspective since he said we have a car centric culture dating back 200 years (I guess he forgot bikes were on the roads before cars) and we can’t change that in a short four year period since the start of the Boston Bike program.

    Although Timlin skirted the issue, his response is remarkable if for no other reason than using terminology like “car centric”, he is afterall the Transportation Commisioner! I think when people in City Hall start thinking in these terms, we are all on the right track.

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