|Is bike lane safe????
|The Boston Phoenix, August 2-8, 2002. 7.
A dangerous & now deadly bicycle policy
A host of good intentions, but a lack of common sense
BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI
DOOR-ZONE DEATH TRAP: critics call Cambridge's aggressive installation of bike lanes next to aprallel-parked cars 'an experiment with human lives.'
IN THE WAKE of Dana Laird’s cycling death last month, many people have pointed fingers at the motorist who opened the door of his black Honda CRV into Laird’s path as she cycled down Mass Ave, in Central Square. When Laird swerved to avoid the door, she was struck and instantly killed by an MBTA bus. Just last week, bicycle advocates and legislators responded to this ill-fated "dooring" incident by staging a well-attended press conference at the State House. At the July 25 event, Representative Anne Paulsen (D-Belmont), who commutes by bike to Beacon Hill daily, unveiled proposed legislation that would make recklessly opening a car door into traffic illegal, punishable by a $500 fine. The bill, she said, would give bicyclists injured by car doors the legal clout they need to sue motorists for damages. Paulsen was followed to the podium by a Cambridge firefighter named Paulo Marinelli, who proceeded to relay his own dooring horror story. While peddling down Mass Ave, in Arlington, he, too, smashed his bike into a suddenly and carelessly opened car door. His collision left him with a ripped rotator cuff and a badly bruised head. As Marinelli, referring to the bizarre circumstances associated with the Laird fatality, observed, "I was fortunate enough not to have been in the way of a bus coming. I count my blessings every day."
The proposed legislation seems well-intentioned enough, but it won’t prevent future dooring incidents. In Cambridge, at least, it’s also more or less redundant. Long before Laird’s death, the Cambridge City Council passed an ordinance that specifically forbade motorists to "open the door of a motor vehicle on the side available to moving traffic unless and until it is reasonably safe to do so," under which the black Honda CRV owner has already been cited. Even more important, pinning the blame on the motorist misses a crucial point: Laird died while cycling in a city-designated bicycle lane. And that naturally raises questions about the safety and appropriateness of the Cambridge bike lanes ― questions voiced by bicyclists and ignored by city officials for years now.
And that’s putting it mildly. On the e-mail listserv posted on the Web site of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, a Boston-based advocacy group, many cyclists have condemned Cambridge officials for building what they call a "death trap of a bike stripe" and for "herding cyclists into dangerous" and poorly designed bike lanes. In rather stark language, one cyclist takes aim squarely at Cambridge’s much-touted bicycle policies: "Responsibility for [Laird’s] death can only be placed on the City of Cambridge for encouraging unsafe (deadly) behavior on otherwise responsible citizens." Rather than the universal symbol for bicycle lanes (a mini bike in a circle stenciled to the pavement), the cyclist continues, "Maybe a skull-and-crossbones would be more appropriate."
Cambridge, it seems, has now found itself in a quandary. City officials have spent the past decade designing and implementing a bicycle program that features not only the installation of bike lanes, but also safe-cycling education and enforcement of traffic laws. It’s a comprehensive effort, meant to promote "the greater use of bicycles as an alternative to single-occupancy vehicles within the city," according to its own literature. As such, Cambridge has become widely known for its stellar commitment to cycling. But have these eager-beaver, liberal policies inadvertently paved the way for a cyclist’s worst nightmare?
TO BE SURE, the tragic death of Laird, an avid cyclist who had competed in marathons and triathlons before the July 2 accident, has legitimized years-old complaints about the Cambridge bike lanes. Ever since 1995, when the city began designating bike lanes, cyclists have argued that the conventional design ― two road-paint stripes with the bicycle symbol marked within ― doesn’t belong on every roadway. According to John Allen, a nationally recognized bicycling expert who helped found the Cambridge Bicycle Committee, in 1991, this design works best on wide streets with little parallel parking. He and other committee members have repeatedly warned officials not to build conventional bike lanes on streets like Mass Ave ― i.e., narrow roadways lined with parked cars ― because at any moment a motorist can open his or her car door and whack a cyclist flat. Installing a bike lane in the "door zone," as it’s called, only sets up cyclists for injury ― or, as demonstrated in Laird’s case, death. "When the city constructs a bike lane that instructs people to ride in the door zone," Allen claims, "it is responsible for the dooring problem to some degree."
Dooring collisions happen more often than you might think. In 1984, for instance, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council examined bike-car accidents in and around Boston, including Cambridge. It found that cyclists who had smashed into an "open door on the driver’s side of a parked car" accounted for 5.3 percent of all bike-car crashes in the area ― a percentage that was five times higher than the national average. The greater incidence of doorings in Boston, the study concluded, has a lot to do with its narrow, congested streets replete with parallel parking. Though the study didn’t measure dooring incidents in bike lanes (which rarely existed back then) per se, recent surveys do indicate that striping a lane in the door zone can lead to trouble. One 1999 survey of bike-car accidents in Santa Barbara, California, determined that 16 percent of cyclists had hit parked cars, up from seven percent in 1974. It attributed the rise to "the availability of bicycle facilities" ― or accommodations for cyclists ― "with on-street parking."
Such statistics became all too real once Laird collided with the open door of that Honda CRV, which propelled her under the rear wheel of a passing bus. (Although the Cambridge Police Department has yet to release its final report on the July 2 accident, news accounts have suggested that Laird might have nicked the door while swerving to avoid it, as opposed to hitting it head-on.) The fatality has served as a wake-up call for many cyclists whose attitude about bicycle lanes has been complacent. Wade Smith, a Cambridge Bicycle Committee member who has commuted by bike for 20-plus years, says he has long felt ambivalent about the city’s bike lanes. He rarely uses them himself. Yet he figured that the city "had its heart in the right place" by aggressively installing the lanes. When he heard about Laird’s death, he says, "The little bubble burst." For him, the issue has grown crystal clear: a bike lane isn’t just "an experiment in traffic control," as officials have called it. Rather, Smith has realized, a lane "is an experiment with human lives." He then adds, "I feel the days of making experiments with humans lives have got to be over."
Robert Winters, who publishes the Web site known as the Cambridge Civic Journal (www.rwinters.com), experienced a similar awakening. He stumbled upon the July 2 accident while walking through Central Square that afternoon. Winters happened to have his digital camera with him, and took pictures of the scene, which he posted on the Web. For him, the sheer horror of it all ― the fallen bike, the jarred door, the painted lane ― has, in his words, "lit a fire under this issue." Bike lanes, he now knows, are more than a civic-minded nod to the casual cyclist. "If you think of the bike lane as a safe space to ride, then you’re sadly, and perhaps even one day tragically, mistaken," he says.
Even staunch bike-lane supporters have had to think twice about city policies. Bryce Nesbitt, a Bicycle Committee member who describes himself as a "strong facilities proponent," says Laird’s death has inspired him to reconsider a design he had assumed was appropriate. Stirred by the accident, he has even gone to Central Square to observe how cyclists use the Mass Ave lane. His observations trouble him. "I watch novice cyclists ride right in the center of the bike lane," he explains, rather than toward the left side of the lane, which is outside the door zone. "There is a significant chance that this design can lead the cyclist down the wrong path."
These newfound critics find themselves paying more attention to Allen and others, who maintain that Cambridge officials have embraced bike lanes with such enthusiasm that they turn a blind eye toward safety concerns. When the city redesigns a road, it aims to install bicycle facilities, according to city policy. Facility designs include the more widely known bike lanes, as well as a host of other street treatments, such as sidepaths, wide outside lanes, contraflow lanes, and bicycle boxes. To date, most facilities in Cambridge are the conventional bike lanes. Oftentimes, officials try to shoehorn a lane onto the most narrow of residential streets, such as Harvard, Norfolk, and Ellery Streets. Sometimes, the lane seems to make no sense at all. The blue-painted lane at the intersection of Hampshire and Broadway, for example, instructs cyclists to ride on the right side of a right-turn-only auto lane. But then, cyclists must veer left ― in front of speeding motor-vehicle traffic ― to continue down Broadway. Although the blue paint is, in theory, meant to alert motorists to bicycle traffic, the lane’s actual path sets cyclists and motorists on a collision course.
Taking in the bigger picture, it’s tough to dismiss the criticisms. One former Cambridge Bicycle Committee member, who left the advisory group after disagreeing with bike-lane designs and who asked to remain anonymous, sums up the sentiment best: "People get caught up in this notion that bike lanes are so good. Lanes tell everyone the government cares about cyclists. We’ll encourage people to ride bikes and stop driving cars, and we’ll all be friendly and happy and fit. It’s like all [city officials] can see is this utopia."
IN MANY WAYS, officials do trumpet the virtues of bike lanes. In the literature about the Cambridge Bicycle Program, you can read about the many advantages of lanes ― including, ironically, the claim that they provide "bicyclists with a path free of obstructions." According to the city’s Web site (www.ci.cambridge.ma.us), in fact, one of the main reasons the administration has designated lanes is to "increase safety for bicyclists." Yet nowhere in the reams of online literature does the city mention the possible hazards for cyclists who ride in a lane in the door zone. Nowhere does it convey the message that these facilities do not guarantee safety.
It’s hard to know whether city officials would defend bike lanes so boldly today. Cara Seiderman, the city’s transportation manager who oversees bike projects, responded to the Phoenix’s interview requests with an e-mailed five-paragraph statement, in which she said that she and her colleagues "are deeply saddened by the tragedy." But she also stressed that all the Cambridge bike lanes "follow the same well-established national standards that are followed throughout the country." Seiderman continued, "City staff works closely with the Cambridge Bicycle Committee to review designs for each street and to take into consideration the experience we have on existing streets, as well as experiences around the country and world."
Seiderman points to national and international studies that have shown that bike lanes can actually promote safe cycling. Two California surveys conducted in the 1990s examined comparable streets with and without bike lanes in Santa Barbara and Davis. The studies found that bicyclists who rode in a lane were 30 percent less likely to ride against traffic than those who did not. As a result, the lanes reduced bike-car crashes by 31 percent in Davis and 14 percent in Santa Barbara. In Cambridge, meanwhile, the city has performed what Seiderman calls "some counts analysis" that determined that the Mass Ave bike lanes have cut in half the number of cyclists who ride on sidewalks in Central Square ― a politically hot topic in the mid 1990s, when city councilors banned sidewalk bicycling in Central, Harvard, and Inman squares, among other areas.
To hear proponents tell it, pointing the finger at bad bike-lane design seems as easy ― and misguided ― as pointing the finger at reckless motorists. Dooring incidents happen everywhere, they note, striped lane or not. On July 10, Cambridge police received three reports about collisions involving cyclists who were hurt when they smacked into car doors. All occurred on roads that offer parallel parking, but no bike lanes. This, proponents argue, only goes to show how the dooring problem cannot be defined as a bike-lane problem.
"It’s unfortunate that the Laird tragedy might turn into a referendum on all Cambridge bike lanes," laments Ken Field, a Bicycle Committee member.
Michael Halle, the committee chair, echoes this sentiment. When asked if the city, in its zeal to boost cycling, had installed bike lanes that compromise safety, he replies, "I would say the bike lanes at the point where Dana Laird was hit conform to federal guidelines, which is what people who design roads fall back on." He then adds, "It’s impossible to say that, had a bike lane not been there, Laird would still be alive."
This is not to say that Cambridge won’t consider changing its policies, however. The one thing on which defenders and critics agree is that the Laird tragedy requires re-examination of the safety of bike lanes. At its meeting last month, on July 10, the Bicycle Committee began discussing what the accident might mean for city policies. Some members, such as Smith and Nesbitt, have called for officials to remove all bike lanes painted in the door zone, including those on Mass Ave. Others have suggested modifying the conventional design by, say, marking a single stripe and a bike stencil beyond the door zone, showing cyclists where not to ride. Still others have recommended that the city create space for bike lanes by reducing traffic lanes or eliminating on-street parking altogether.
The debate has already led to results. Because of the Laird fatality, officials have put plans to stripe a conventional bike lane on the recently re-paved Hampshire Street, in Inman Square, on hold. According to Halle, the city intends to investigate how cyclists and motorists interact by videotaping how they navigate the unmarked road. The point of the exercise is to determine whether cyclists ride outside the door zone when there are no bike-lane stripings guiding their way.
Of course, what Cambridge will do beyond Hampshire Street is anybody’s guess. Seiderman, in her statement, maintains that officials "will continue to follow new research [on facilities] and consider new or innovative solutions where appropriate," and adds that "when we do find new guidance we are willing to make appropriate modifications." But some cyclists remain skeptical. After all, the city has already invested thousands of dollars to build bike lanes on as many as 20 streets, many of them of the traditional variety. If officials were to draft a policy that would ban striping lanes in the door zone, that would mean not striping lanes at all in certain areas ― which, it seems, contradicts the oft-repeated desire to encourage cycling. As Halle observes, "We should be doing things to promote cycling safety, but also promote cycling. That is a very tricky balancing act."
If Cambridge officials need a reminder of the harm that badly designed bike lanes can cause, they need look no further than the 400 block of Mass Ave, where a makeshift memorial honoring Laird stands. There’s something about the scene ― with its scrawled notes, wilted flowers, and red spray-painted outlines marking the crash ― that shakes the soul. Here, it becomes painfully obvious that Laird was not just another statistic, but a human being. Something else becomes apparent, too. As Smith, of the Bike Committee, bluntly puts it, "The real mitigating factor in Laird’s death is that it occurred in a poorly designed bike lane. On this, there’s no doubt."