On unruly cyclists, part I

Important prefatory note: Bike riders who put pedestrians at risk of injury or who even make pedestrians anxious about their safety are bad. There is no excuse for adult bike riders on a sidewalk.

The recent Globe article on “unruly [bike] riders” touches on so many important topics, it’s hard to know where to begin. So, a good place is the start — the article’s first sentence:

Boston has launched a high-profile campaign to become a friendlier city for cyclists. Now the question is whether bicyclists will become friendlier to Boston.

What we have here is a reformulation of the perennial response to requests or plans for bicycle accommodations: if bikers want better conditions, they need to behave themselves.

There are arguments to be made — some of which are made in the article — that the lack of accommodations is a cause of the unruliness and that more and better bicycle accommodations will actually reduce the unruliness. But, first, let’s examine the premise. Why do bicyclists have to earn accommodations?

Imagine a world where the Globe had a front-page story about the recent bridge repair bond bill that started:

The Commonwealth has committed to a massive and costly effort to fix bridges better across the state. Now, the question is whether drivers will fix their bad habits.

Imagine if, every time some public agency contemplated traffic-related improvements, there was a story about drivers’:

  • Epidemic speeding
  • Regular failure to stop for pedestrians at crosswalks
  • Unacceptably low use of turn signals
  • Habitual blocking the box at busy intersections during peak hours

Or, even a mention of the fact that there are hundreds of traffic-related fatalities and tens of thousands of serious injuries in Massachusetts every year.

And, how about a front-page story about how motorists routinely park and drive in bike lanes, open car doors without regard to cyclists (now a traffic infraction), cut across bicyclists, &c.?

Bicyclists represent an insignificant threat to public safety relative to motorists, yet the Globe chooses to catalog biker misdeeds on its front page. You could pick any of a dozen area intersections where motorists regularly break the law in numbers much higher than those the reporters noted for bikes. The proportions wouldn’t be as high, but the threat posed by a multi-thousand pound car is much higher than that posed by a couple of hundred pounds of biker and bike.

So, why is it that bicyclists get singled out for this special linkage between accommodations and behaviors? I remain convinced, as I wrote last year, that it is the novelty of bike riding that stirs anxiety and prompts media coverage. And, more importantly, we’ve all become inured to “the never-ending, soul-grinding driver misbehavior that pollutes our roads“.

I’m not holding my breathe for a Globe account of intersections in the area where drivers are the problem, complete with counts of all the unticketed infractions.

Cross-posted at Newton Streets & Sidewalks.

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45 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. There is plenty of blame to go around

    but I wouldn't want to make any strong argument about whether auto drivers are worse than cyclists. The fact is that some people will be inconsiderate of others around them regardless of whether they are on a bike, behind the wheel of a car, or walking on a sidewalk, and there is unfortunately no shortage of such people.

    • The fact is that all people will be inconsiderate some of the time

      and that's the point.  Given that all people behave badly some of the time (out of error, ignorance, or selfishness), and given that those who behave badly while driving a 3,000 lb automobile 20-80 mph are far more dangerous to society than those who drive a 15 lb bicycle 5-18 mph.  Yet, the article is about bicyclists again.

      P.S. There is no excuse for adult bike riders on a sidewalk. MGL prohibits bicycle riding on sidewalks in commercial areas.  MGL also prohibits riding like a jerk on any sidewalk.  To suggest that a cyclist should never ride on a sidewalk is both at odds with what is permitted in the law and at odds with good sense.  If there are few or no people on the sidewalk, it's not at all unreasonable for a cyclist to ride (at slower speeds) on a sidewalk in consideration of his own safety or even convenience, particularly in the case of divided roads or one way streets.  More bike lanes would help to alleviate cyclists on sidewalks, that's for sure.

      • I never rode my bike in the street

        when I was growing up.  As someone who rode a bike in high school for excersize, I was occasionally harassed by police if I wasn't on a sidewalk, regardless of pedestrians.  However, I was never arrested for it.

      • Maybe I overstate the case ...

        There is no excuse for adult bike riders riding on the sidewalk when there are pedestrians around.

        And, "sidewalk" doesn't include mixed-use paths like those along the Charles.

        The larger point is that bicyclists should always yield to pedestrians, and that includes not just getting out of the way, but also not creating anxiety.

        By the way, a lovely summation of my main point.

      • I agree re the sidewalk

        I see no problems with cycling on a non-crowded sidewalk at slow speeds. I also don't think that all that many cyclists do ride dangerously on the sidewalks.

        One set of laws that cyclists break consistently and at a much higher rate than motorists are those related to stopping. Cyclists rarely stop for stop signs, frequently run red lights, and I think that I can count on one hand the number of times I have witnessed a cyclist stopping for a pedestrian on a cross walk. They can do this with impunity because they know the chances of getting ticketed are almost nil.

        • Stopping sucks

          Momentum should be conserved as much as possible, whether for cars or bikes.  Making bikes stop for traffic signals and signs, rather than for traffic, makes it much harder to bike somewhere.  Starting up from a stop takes a lot of physical effort and wastes time.

          What is really going on here is that drivers are jealous of bikes that beat them by slipping through lights while they have to wait.  They pass us, only to get stuck again and watch us pass them again.  It's like a game, and bikes win, and drivers fume.

          • God argument for a car not stopping at red light/stop signs...

            ...it is a waste of energy.  Sorry, bike riding is about physical effort...if ya ain't going to use physical energy, ya shouldn't be riding a bike.

            • Yup, that's my argument in a car too

              In Detroit they just roll through red lights, it's Paradise.

              And the idea with most transport vehicles is to get where you are going as fast as possible, with as little sweat as possible, without too much danger.

            • The difference is that...

              ...generally now society is trying to encourage more bike riding and discourage the use of cars. For some, bike riding is about physical effort, for others it's nothing more than a transportation option.

              Germaine to the topic at hand:

              Road Rights: A Stop Sign Solution from Bicycling magazine.

              Idaho's stop-as-yield statute lets you ride safely and efficiently-without breaking the law.

              For 26 years, cyclists in Idaho have rolled through stop signs-legally. According to that state's law, when a cyclist approaches an intersection controlled by a stop sign, the cyclist must slow to "a reasonable speed," but is not obligated to stop unless doing so is "required for safety." After yielding to any vehicle that has the right of way, the cyclist may proceed. There's more: Cyclists are required to stop at red lights, but once stopped may then proceed without waiting for the light to change, after first yielding to vehicles that have the right of way. In effect, this law allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, and red lights as stop signs.

              To many cyclists in other states, the Idaho law sounds like a dream come true. It legalizes what many riders already do in practice: roll safely through intersections, treating stops as yields and lights as stops. Furthermore, Idaho's quarter-century of experience shows that the law works: There has been no uptick in cycling accidents in Idaho. So if "stop as yield" is safe, why not make it legal in other states? After all, shouldn't traffic rules serve some purpose beyond simply ordering compliance with the law?

            • Waste of Energy...

              That's what's so great about hybrid cars, that they can capture the forward motion as battery power when they put on the brakes.  Bikers just lose the energy if they stop, as do non-hybrid cars.

              Anyway, did you hear about the new bike path on Columbus Ave in the South End?  Lines are supposed to be painted in September.  Horray. http://www.mysouthend.com/inde...

          • The single dumbest post I've ever seen

            and DCSurfer, I really hope you had your tongue in cheek when you posted this.  I work in Needham, and have seen cyclists out on their training rides (or suicide thrills) blow through red lights in the middle of commuter traffic without so much as even looking or touching the brakes.  Sorry if your time splits might be impacted by stopping for traffic lights like the law actually calls for (and never mind the idiots listening to their MP3 players getting into a great slalom groove to the beat swerving into traffic), but probably a better outcome than being t-boned in an intersection.  Heck, even one of those glorified scooter Smartcars would kill you, never mind a regular automobile.  I'm all for responsible bicyclists, but I've seen too much stupid behavior by cyclists.

        • Higher rate? Probably. Higher number? Nah, that'd be auto drivers

          When was the last time you stopped... stopped in an automobile at a stop sign if nobody was coming the other way?  When was the last time you stopped... stopped at a legal right-on-red light during the red phase when nobody was coming the other way?  When was the last time you stopped... stopped at a yellow light when you could safely do so instead of jamming the gas to just barely (or not) make it through?  What do you think these answers are for most motorists?

          Few cyclists run through lights without checking for safety -- after all, they're the ones who'll be squished if they're wrong.  This isn't really different from auto drivers, except for the squished bit.  Many cyclists check for safety and then keep rolling, for a combination of reasons including impatience and laziness, but also efficiency, stress and safety.  Safety?  You bet.  I find the most stressful (and, I suspect, dangerous) place and time to be is at a traffic light when it turns green.  I've got one or two columns of autos right behind me, the third car honking the horn the instant he sees green.  All bicyclists are most wobbly at slow speeds, like starting from a dead stop.  Drivers want to pass, but can't because it's too tight -- after all, there are now cars coming the other direction platooned as well.  By running the light (after looking), the result is that cars pass me mid-block, when they're thinned out and cars coming the other way are thinned out... making it easier to pass, and less stressful for me and the driver.

          Drivers violate laws all the time, nearly always to no harm, stress, or inconvenience to anyone else.  Same goes for pedestrians, same goes for bicycles.  Because we all do this (for benefit without harm most of the time), we all sometimes make mistakes and break a rule in a way that causes stress or conflict for others.  Turns out that we're all people.

          • I always stop

            As in full stop. I also look at least twice both ways. I didn't use to do those things, until I was unpleasantly surprised a couple of times. Now I make efforts to not be surprised, and to not surprise others. That car is a lot of metal and inertia - getting casual with it is not a good idea. Are you sure nobody's coming? Do you always see that motorcycle or pedestrian the first time you glance to the side?

          • Stop signs and red lights

            all the frickin' time Stomv. Sorry, but I see too much idiotic behavior every day by bicyclists going over to Wells Avenue to have much sympathy for your argument.

            "When was the last time you stopped... stopped in an automobile at a stop sign if nobody was coming the other way?"

            Every time, all the time.  Hope you teach your kids better.  Maybe the problem with MA bicyclists is they carry over MA driving attitudes?

            • It's not about Mike from Norwell

              it's about aggregate behavior.  In aggregate, cyclists in Boston-metro don't stop for red lights and wait for them to turn green.  I agree.

              I also claim that, in aggregate, motorists violate laws all the time.  Like bicyclists, most of the time those motorists aren't putting anyone in danger.  If you slow your car down to 10 mph and roll through a stop sign once you see nobody is coming, nobody is in danger.  It's, frankly, no big deal.  Doing 65 mph in a 55 mph on a clear day with few autos on the road?  No big deal.  That's why motorists do it all the time.

              The fact that motorists break the rules all the time doesn't mean that we shouldn't build safe roads because they haven't earned it or don't deserve it or some nonsense.  All drivers break the rules of the road some times, out of ignorance, error, or choice.  Are you denying this claim?

              Maybe the problem with MA bicyclists is they carry over MA driving attitudes?

              Isn't this my point exactly?  That the behavior is quite similar -- yet the overall suggestion is that auto drivers (surrounded by thousands of pounds of armor) should get safe and useful roads, whereas bicyclists who are behaving very similar should not.  Seems crazy to me, that's all.

  2. I hate bikers

    There are two things that are true of Boston area traffic:

    1. The biggest problem is pedestrians.

    2. Bikers are the second biggest problem. They are essentially pedestrians on wheels, and they honor no road, no traffic light, and no sidewalk.

    Oh, the drivers are no prize. I've seen some freaky things done in a car (like a nearly 90-degree turn from the middle lane to avoid entering a tunnel on 93), but in general, because they are bound by the road and other cars, drivers are less likely to cause a problem.

    Should people bike more often, for exercise and the environment? Sure -- but maybe not in this crowded little New England town. Carpooling would be more effective, sustainable, and cheaper. Or you can join us on the commuter train.

  3. Bike Messengers are a hazard

    Almost anyone walking in Boston has had a run in with a bike messenger. They follow no rules and disrespect everyone.

    As for the danger to someone walking in Boston you are more likely to be injured by a bike on the sidewalk (try geting hit by a bike and a 150lbs rider at 518 miles an hour and gage your potential for injury) vs crossing the street in a crosswalk with the light.

    For my money bike riders need to earn respect.

    • Bike messengers are cabbies on two wheels

      I find that the two groups behave remarkably similar.  Why?  Same economic incentive.

      As for bikes on the sidewalk, it's impossible to do 18 mph on a sidewalk.  The danger of getting hit by a bicyclist doing 18 mph on a sidewalk is zero.  18 mph is long downhill peddling your ass off on smooth pavement speed in a city.

      May I make a suggestion?  Maybe you could treat each individual with respect until that individual's actions warrant otherwise.

  4. Cyclists are supposed to follow motor traffic laws right?

    I don't ride a bike myself, but I'm pretty sure this is what I was taught growing up.  I've been in DC for a few months and have yet to see a cyclist stop for a stop sign or stay stopped for a red light unless actually prevented from continuing by cross traffic.  I was also taught that you are supposed to dismount and walk your bike across a street, but never see anyone do that either.

  5. Bicyclists are hard to share the road with.

    Bikers on a relatively narrow and curvy state highway can cause huge traffic issues.  Even if they are riding on the edge of the road as appropriate, it's still too far into the lane that when traffic is coming in the other direction, you have to crawl behind them until the other traffic passes in order to safely pass the biker.  In the meantime, the biker is having the la, la, la, la, mentality. (You see me, I don't see you, so therefore, even though I know you're there traveling 15 miles an hour behind me on a road with a 45 mile an hour speed limit, it's up to you to make sure you don't hit me, so I'm not going to do anything to help the flow of traffic here.)

    It doesn't make sense, and is quite dangerous for the biker. While I am careful and will slow down until I can safely pass, what about the happy go lucky new teen driver, the drunk driver, the 80 year old who should not have their license, or Mr. Roadragious who would rather knock you off the street than slow down to accommodate you.  I'm surprised the biker/auto accident statistics aren't in the news more often.

    • You are probably underestimating

      how much room you have to pass the bike.  There are some drivers who think they have to swing out into the other lane to pass a bike, when usually you don't have to swing at all, as long as you aren't driving on the shoulder in a wide truck.  It's annoying to have a car hanging behind you instead of passing.  If the bike is not out in the middle of the lane, but is over on the side, then they are expecting you to pass them.  Unless you have a giant car, go for it.  Teens can do it, you can too.

    • Bicycles *are* traffic

      first of all, it's not appropriate to ride "on the edge of the road" per se.  It's appropriate to ride as far to the right as is safe.  That means leaving room to evade pot holes, sand, gravel, glass, etc.  I'm not writing to pick on you, just to remind all motorists that bicyclists aren't obligated to compress themselves to be as narrow as possible -- instead, as narrow as safe, which you in the auto aren't really qualified to judge for a particular bicyclist.

      That written, the bicyclist riding as far to the right as is safe is traffic and, in fact, it is up to you to not hit the bicyclist, and the bicyclist is doing as much as possible to not impede traffic by riding on the right.  Want to fix the problem?  Lobby to build better bicycle infrastructure -- bike paths, bike lanes, etc.

      The fact is, bicyclists almost never get hit from behind when riding in a straight line.  It just doesn't happen very often.  T-bones?  Yip.  Right hooks?  All the time.  Doors?  You betcha.  You may perceive it as a dangerous situation, but statistically speaking, it just plain isn't.

      Neither comment is meant to "go after you" -- I appreciate that you're careful, and that you (like nearly all drivers) are not a cyclist so you don't know the details.  I just wanted to use your post as an excuse to share some insight and facts.

  6. True story

    Moments ago I crossed a Boston street, where two lines of traffic (no light in sight) had stopped to let a few pedestrians cross, and I nearly got hit by a clueless biker.

    • Were you jaywalking?

      • Insert witty denial here

        Yes. I was.

        But I was one of a dozen or so, and like I said, two lines of traffic had stopped. The biker made a conscious decision to weave through people, or was clueless.

        • Way to contribute to $quot;the biggest problem with Boston area traffic$quot;

          which, contrary to your claim, is automobiles.  They cost the most, they pollute the most, they injure and kill others the most, they contribute the most to our foreign trade deficit, they contribute the most to climate change, they're the noisiest, they most exacerbate the difference between the haves and have-nots, they make the biggest claim on public land in urban areas, and they're responsible for one of the few situations where many people simply aren't allowed to use the public land because they don't have the many-thousand-dollar price of admission.

          The biggest problem with Boston area traffic is the number one contributor to Boston area traffic -- automobiles.  To suggest otherwise is pure lunacy.

          • Brilliant deduction

            I think "pure lunacy" may constitute a prohibited attack, stomv, but let's consider your assertion.

            The biggest problem with traffic is cars.


            The discussion is about bikers. Bikers are a problem in this town. Pedestrians are too. Obviously, they are collectively less harmful than the cars, but if we're going to have an honest discussion, we need to consider that cars are not the only problem. If that were the case, there wouldn't be much to discuss.

            • No, and no.

              The "pure lunacy" most certainly falls within the rules of the road -- it is a comment on an assertion, not on a person.  I didn't claim you were loony -- rather, that your assertion is.

              The discussion is indeed about bicyclists, and yet you interject that pedestrians are the biggest problem.  Somehow, that's within the scope of this discussion, but my pointing out that the biggest contribution to traffic is, in fact, autos isn't?

              I didn't claim that cars are the only problem.  I pointed out that, contrary to your claims, that autos are the largest contributor to traffic problems.  After all, there's tremendous traffic problems all over the country, including urban places where bicyclists and pedestrians are nowhere to be found.  I reassert: automobiles are the largest contributor to traffic congestion; if you're interested in reducing congestion don't focus on pedestrian behavior; focus on making it easier for people to decide to leave their autos at home.

              • On another day

                I might be inclined to split that hair.

                To suggest otherwise is pure lunacy.

                I think most grammarians would see me as making the suggestion, not my comment.

                But anyway -- I'll concede your general point.

                To return to the central question of the diary:

                Why do bicyclists have to earn accommodations?

                Because they do. This is, again, a cramped New England town overstuffed with something like a million people. It has two major highways running through it, both of which dump cars right on to city streets. Those streets are clogged with pedestrians -- roughly two million people work in Boston -- and in that environment, bikers are their own worst enemy.

                By the way, as it turns out -- I wasn't jaywalking yesterday. There is a crosswalk at that spot. But since I was too distracted (head full of work thoughts) to remember later, I guess I was de facto jaywalking. But the biker who ran through the crosswalk was operating a vehicle. Recklessly.

                • Why?

                  Because they do.  Seriously?  That's the best you've got?  Because they do?  Because I say so?  Really?

                  What must they -- a group of people ranging from college kids riding beaters to spandex-clad $5000 bike weekend warriors to couriers earning a living to the knee-banging black urban youth -- do to earn infrastructure which helps them ride safely?  How will they be informed?  How will it be measured?

                  To suggest that safe roads are by right for autos and must be earned by cyclists is ridiculous.  I will bet you that we could stand at a Boston intersection and I could observe 10 automobile infractions per minute.  Per minute.   Speeding, failure to stop at yellow light, failure to stop before right-on-red, stopping on a crosswalk, failure to yield to pedestrians, honking horn without a danger, failure to signal a turn, etc.  Does this imply that motorists shouldn't have safe roads because they aren't earning them?  Of course not.  The same logic applies to bicycle infrastructure.

                  • The roads were built for cars

                    Period amen.

                    Twist your knickers all you want, my friend, but that is the fact.

                    Bikers want us to spend money we don't have? The burden of proof is on them. It may not be fair, but that's the way it is.

                    Your argument seems to come down to: cars are bad and bikes are good, so we should all recognize this and act accordingly. OK, you're right, cars are bad and bikes are good. But maybe -- maybe -- Boston isn't the place to fight this fight.

                    • The roads were built for cars?

                      Not originally. They were expanded and repaved for cars, but they were originally built for cows and horses. I bet there were people around during that rebuilding who complained about spending money to accommodate autos.

                    • That's what I was going to say!

                      The roads were built for cows, horses, horse-drawn wagons, etc. Most of these Boston roads existed long before the car.

                    • better keep all that riff-raff off the highways then

                      Anyone can tell you that highways were built for the quick moment of legions across the empire.  

                      If I see one more cow on the via appia...

                    • No,

                      that's the inverse of your logic -- cars are good and bicycles are bad.

                      My logic: cars are good, bikes are good, pedestrians are good: lets build infrastructure that helps all groups move safely.

                      P.S. You're half wrong about roads.  It's true that modern roads were built (and signed and striped) exclusively for cars -- and that was a design mistake civil engineers of the Robert Moses era made, when maximizing throughput at the expense of safety, livability, and other modes of transport was the philosophy of the day.  That philosophy has rightfully changed.  Roads in Boston weren't initially built for cars though.  In fact, paved roads were initially built... for bikes!

                    • Nice link

                      And with a stereopticon picture, too. I guess that completely annihilates the assertion that roads were built for cars. The Interstate system was, like the Via Appia, built for military purposes. That may be why you can't herd cows on it.

                    • OK, a few points

                      1. Well played. You won that point -- a link and everything.

                      2. I never said cars (or drivers) were good.

                      3. That said, we seem to agree that now the cars have taken over the roads.

                      But your comment about changing philosophy hits my change nerve. I don't want to imply that we can never change. It will be tough, though, and I still think Boston is just about the worst "lab" for the new infrastructure -- because it is so crowded and overbuilt.

                    • One thing to consider...

                      ... is that our infrastructure looks the way it does because we've chosen to make it that way.  In the case of transportation, we've effectively subsidized cars by concentrating on infrastructure development suited toward them vs. any alternatives.  My understanding is that there is historical evidence that car manufactures helped push this process along by killing light rail in many places.

                      I do believe that it can be shown that given an alternate will, a city can become more cyclist friendly.  Montreal is a very old place as well, but they've done well with their bike lanes and new bike sharing program.  Granted, this may also require a better 'road' educated cyclist community, but the impact of infrastructure decisions shouldn't be minimized.  The question is; are the infrastructure decisions we've made so far an expression of our cultural will or the result of policy manipulation or both?  And, to the extent they are an expression of our cultural will, is our cultural will changeable?  

                    • Built for cars?

                      If Boston's roads were built for cars, somebody did a pretty poor job of it. Traffic in Boston is a nightmare because the roads are badly designed, and there are more cars than we have space for. Bad behavior by users of the roads, while certainly a factor, is secondary to that.

                      From where I stand, a bicycle (or public transit/walking) seems like the only sane way to get around Boston. I won't drive in the city at all if I can help it.

  7. an inconvenient truth

    If the bicycle were invented now, it would certainly be banned.

  8. Who could have guessed?

    Apparently, Boston cyclists are as courteous, safety-minded, and law abiding as Boston drivers and pedestrians.

    Notify the media.

  9. It's comforting to know that there are a myriad of very important issues in USA and this nonsense evokes 42 comments. Is it a wonder we are going down the crapper?

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