The Green Streets Initiative cares tremendously about the safety of cyclists on the streets of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville and surrounding cities. A significant percentage (23% in May) of our roughly 4,000 community members who have logged a commute on our website cycle to work regularly (for an indication of where our cyclists commute to and from, click on the map below of our May cyclists, or click here for a map of all May commuters).
They cycle in spite of the risks of injury which many have personally experienced or been affected by. In May, we asked all participants who logged their commute as part of our Commuter Challenge whether they, or someone close to them, had suffered a crash, collision or fall in the last five years. Astonishingly, 76% of the 247 cyclists had.
Among commuters who don’t regularly bike to work, 35% had been in a crash, collision or fall, or knew someone who had. This experience led over a third of them to stop cycling (12% of the 636 commuters who aren’t regular bike commuters).
Getting these former cyclists back on the saddle and convincing more commuters to give cycling to work a try will require more investment in cyclist safety.
Our municipalities have been making progress towards improving bike safety, especially over the last few years. The City of Cambridge started to accelerate the deployment of protected bike lanes in 2017 (see graph) and the recently passed Cycling Safety Ordinance provides for a 20 mile network of protected bike lanes. The Cambridge Bicycle Safety advocacy group has been behind these efforts, including a 2019-2020 Plan of Action to improve about 4 miles of lanes and connect key Cambridge neighborhoods.
In Somerville, protected bike lanes are starting to emerge on streets linking to Cambridge and Boston, including Webster Avenue. Over the last few years, Boston implemented protected bike lanes on sections of streets that had seen fatal and serious crashes, such as Massachusetts Avenue, Beacon Street, Commonwealth Avenue, Atlantic Avenue and Causeway street. To improve safety for cyclists and pedestrians cities have also reduced speed limits (25 mph in Boston and 20mph in Cambridge squares), painted bike lanes, added traffic lights for cyclists and improved signage for drivers. Massachusetts' House and Senate recently passed a "hands-free" bill that should take effect by 2020 to address distracted driving caused by holding mobile phones while driving.
Are these safety measures starting to make a difference for cyclists? Green Streets asked all commuters whether they felt safer cycling now compared to two years ago. "Somewhat safer" is the consensus among the majority of regular bike commuters (54%). Only 8% admitted to feeling “much safer”, however, indicating that more progress is needed. The views of other commuters who don't bike to work regularly but who have some experience cycling, is more mixed. Only 4% of these non regular-bike-commuters report feeling "much safer" and 21% "somewhat safer". Most weren't able to comment on the difference in cycling safety.
Improvements in Bike Safety not Felt as Strongly in Boston Vs. Cambridge
Differences in the opinion of cyclists are visible between Boston and Cambridge/Somerville with cyclists residing in Cambridge and Somerville more likely to express that cycling safety has improved over the last two years compared to Boston-based cyclists.
59% of Cambridge-based cyclists report feeling somewhat safer while only 42% of Boston-based cyclists say the same
Boston cyclists are more likely to report that there is not much difference in safety over the last two years compared to Cambridge (41% vs. 27%).
Among Somerville cyclists, the feedback is similar to that of Cambridge cyclists with 59% reporting feeling somewhat safer.
These responses show that Boston-area cities are moving in the right direction towards improving cycling safety, but more investments are needed, especially in Boston. The responses of Boston cyclists shows that Boston is behind Cambridge and Somerville with efforts to protect cyclists from crashes.
Boston cycling advocates believe the City is moving at a “glacial pace” towards its goal of implementing 35 miles of protected bike lanes by 2030 (as per the Go Boston 2030 plan). In April 2019, The Boston Cyclists Union organized a protest in front of Boston City Hall to express dissatisfaction with the City’s slow progress with protected bike lanes. Intersections, such as those along Commonwealth Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue, are still dangerous for cyclists and fatal crashes have occurred there.
Becca Wolfson, Executive Director of the Boston Cyclists Union, notes that Boston's approach to improving cyclist safety is too "reactionary" to increase safety measures. Improvements often come only after a fatal crash occurs and are often insufficient. She notes that painted lanes provide poor protection and that the protected bike lanes available so far provide minimal coverage: "you’re on nice bike facility for a very short period and then you’re thrown into dangerous conditions and chaos".
New Bike Infrastructure is the Best Investment for Bike Safety
What investments should Boston and surrounding cities be making to improve cyclist safety?
We asked our commuters how they would invest public funds to improve cyclist safety. The most popular response among both bike commuters and other commuters is to invest in new bike infrastructure with 78% and 63% choosing to invest funds in this area, respectively. Improvements to road maintenance is the second most popular area to address, including pot holes and removing snow/debris. Driver education and better enforcement of traffic laws were selected by fewer than a third of commuters. And only 10% of cyclists believe further decreases in the speed limit would be a worthwhile endeavor.
Many of the measures taken by Boston and surrounding cities to improve cycling safety so far - reducing the speed limit, adding protected lanes only on parts of key streets where crashes have occurred, painting bike lanes - are steps in the right direction, but don't go far enough to make cycling safe for all and to achieve Vision Zero commitments of zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries. In order to convince more commuters, including those who were once cyclists, to get on or back on the saddle, cities must accelerate progress with the implementation of networks of protected bike lanes that cover the entirety of key commuting routes.