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A dangerous & now deadly bicycle policy
A host of good intentions, but a lack of common sense
BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI

IN THE WAKE of Dana Lairdís cycling death last month, many people have pointed fingers at the motorist who opened the door of his black Honda CRV into Lairdís 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 wonít prevent future dooring incidents. In Cambridge, at least, itís also more or less redundant. Long before Lairdís 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 ó questions voiced by bicyclists and ignored by city officials for years now.

And thatís 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 Cambridgeís much-touted bicycle policies: "Responsibility for [Lairdís] 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. Itís 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 cyclistís 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 ó two road-paint stripes with the bicycle symbol marked within ó doesnít 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 ó i.e., narrow roadways lined with parked cars ó 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 itís called, only sets up cyclists for injury ó or, as demonstrated in Lairdís 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 driverís side of a parked car" accounted for 5.3 percent of all bike-car crashes in the area ó 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 didnít 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" ó or accommodations for cyclists ó "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 cityís 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 Lairdís death, he says, "The little bubble burst." For him, the issue has grown crystal clear: a bike lane isnít 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 ó the fallen bike, the jarred door, the painted lane ó 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 youíre 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 Lairdís 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 ó in front of speeding motor-vehicle traffic ó to continue down Broadway. Although the blue paint is, in theory, meant to alert motorists to bicycle traffic, the laneís actual path sets cyclists and motorists on a collision course.

Taking in the bigger picture, itís 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. Weíll encourage people to ride bikes and stop driving cars, and weíll all be friendly and happy and fit. Itís like all [city officials] can see is this utopia."

 

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Issue Date: August 1 - 8, 2002
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