Harvard Bicyclists Break Away From the Rules

Harvard students are generally law-abiding, respectful citizens, but something about biking brings out the rebel in many of them.

Despite a University prohibition on riding bicycles in Harvard Yard and constant calls from the guards on duty, two roommates in Mather House say they hold timed bicycle races through the walled-in area.

Michael L. Wechsler '89 and Kris Kobach '88 say that if the guard yells at them, they get off their bikes until he or she walks away, then they remount the bikes and continue their contest.

Kobach and Wechsler are not alone. Most Harvard bicyclists agree that the ban on biking in the Yard is one of the most frequently broken Harvard prohibitions.

"I think it's an unjust law," says Kobach. "If a person rides courteously, there's really no danger. The Yard rule is discrimination against people who are late to class. It's like racing on the highway. It's a rule that was made to be broken."

And most student bike-riders admit they break other rules of the road as well.

"I consider myself a rule-breaker. I've only been hit by one car in three years," says Wechsler, who admits to riding without a helmet, going up one-way streets and riding through traffic lights.

"I don't wear a helmet because I don't plan to fall," says Eli Kazhdan '91.

Tatiana Zomopoulos '90 says she thinks the rules are made simply for safety, so she can disobey them. "I've never hit anybody or anything, so I just do it," she says.

College regulations, multiple satety precautions, and Cambridge traffic--even Boston's icy weather--may deter ordinary bikers, but Harvard's bicyclists persist, riding their bikes around Cambridge in all kinds of traffic and in all kinds of weather.

Most students and faculty members who own bikes say they use their vehicles primarily for afternoon rides along the River and weekend escapes from the city. But hard-core cyclists say the best reason to have a bicycle on campus is for transportation--not to and from the city, or vacations in the country, but to and from class.

"I'm always late everywhere, and if I wouldn't ride my bike, I'd be that much later," says Wechsler.

"It's hard to ride for enjoyment, except by the River," says Deborah J. Slotnick '90, who lives in Radcliffe Quad. "And there's not always time to just ride for fun."

Biking often gives its devotees a distinct advantage. "In Cambridge, you can actually go faster than the cars if you're biking," says Kris Kobach. "It's probably the fastest means of transportation here."

"It saves the parking problem," says Professor of Astronomy and History of Science Owen J. Gingerich.

"It's the most rational and least expensive way to get around the city," says Tisha Clark, cashier and bookkeeper at the Bicycle Exchange.

But Harvard bikers readily admit that there are problems with biking in Cambridge. Bad weather, potholes and one-way streets are just some of the hazards. But of all the dangers they face, student cyclists say Cambridge traffic is one of the worst.

"Cambridge has potholes the size of the Grand Canyon," says Kobach. And according to Bruce Weber, salesperson at the Bicycle Exchange, the city roads throughout Boston are getting worse and worse.

"But traffic is the biggest problem. Cambridge drivers are some of the most ferocious in the world," Kobach says.

"You have to be really careful," says Deborah J. Slotnick '90. "The drivers are not sympathetic at all to bicyclists."

Bicyclists also complain about the theft of bikes and bike parts. Many of them say they have to take special precautions to prevent their bikes from being stolen.

Farzad Mostashari '89 says he has bought three bicycles since his arrival at Harvard. One was ruined by the Cambridge road conditions, and his second was stolen. "The costs add up, definitely," he says.

"I had a bike stolen with a Kryptonite lock on it," he says. "I guess I just didn't lock it up right." It is not unusual for two or three bicycle thefts to be reported to the Harvard University Police in a single week.

In an effort to reduce crime, the University now asks students to register their bicycles with the police as soon as they arrive at school. That way, the police can help locate the bicycles if they are stolen.

The frequency of thefts has led many students to keep their bikes in their rooms instead of in the racks outside the dorms and houses. Some say they even bring their bicycles into the lecture halls during class.

"Aside from cars, the biggest problem is people who won't let me take my bike into class," Wechsler says.

In effort to reduce theft, the University recently installed special racks in the Yard and outside most of the houses.

But the newly designed bicycle racks are inefficient, says North House Master J. Woodland Hastings. The spokes that stick out of the ground only fit specific types of bicycles.

"They're inconvenient and not useful. The University spent a lot of money for them, and they don't even work," says Hastings, who is also professor of biology.

In addition to manmade problems, bikers must also face natural hazards. Cambridge's notoriously bad weather and poor snow clearance deters some bikers from riding. But some Harvard bicyclists say they continue to ride in any weather.

"Ice? No problem. It makes it more of a challenge," Wechsler says. "I like biking in the winter more. Sometimes it's a bit of a problem with clueless pedestrians. They expect you to drive over a pile of snow when they can just as easily step aside."

The worst problem about bicycling at Harvard is that many of the roads do not have extra space for bicycles, Hastings says. Parked cars only add to the congestion.

"There's not much planning for bicycles," says Hastings. He also says that conditions are better for cyclists in Japan and Germany, where he has lived. In both countries, special areas are marked on the sidewalks for bicyclists, he says.

Lobbying the University

Hastings says he has argued with University officials to create bicycle lanes in the Yard, and he has gone to town council meetings to urge the city to extend the Charles River bicycle path.

"If more people use bikes, it might generate some interest in new bike paths and facilities for bicycles," says Hastings.

Bicycle owners say that problems with weather, bad road conditions and thefts have led them to buy cheaper bikes, made for rugged terrain riding, rather than more expensive 10-speed racing bicycles.

Zomopoulos says she recently bought a new bicycle, but it was stolen only a month and a half after she bought it. Rather than replace it with another new bike, she decided to buy a used bike instead. "If you have an old bike, very few people will want it so you're pretty safe," says Zomopoulos, who describes her current bike as an "ugly bright green Schwinn."

Hastings says that he owns two bicycles, one 10-speed bike for summer riding, and a balloontired three-speed with special foot-brakes, that he rides during the winter and wet weather, when hand-brakes do not always suffice.

Bicycle Exchange employees say they try to provide another solution to the weather problem, by selling different styles of bicycles to Cambridge bikers. Employees say that the store has recently sold more flat-tire bikes. Because these vehicles are designed for use on all kinds of terrain, they can be used throughout the city in all kinds of weather.

The store usually suggests the City Cruiser, "the perfect city bike," to student bikers and city bikers who are not serious about the cycling sport, Weber says. The Cruiser is a three-speed bicycle, which can survive the rough, badly paved streets of Cambridge, employees say. The model also lasts forever, says Weber, because it does not break down in icy or rainy weather.

Faced by the many hassles that come with riding a bike, some students say they have given up and decided that biking on campus is not for them.

Charles Henebry '89 says he does not ride his bicycle around campus because he was involved in a bicycle accident two years ago. And he adds that he does not really miss biking.

"I don't really have time to worry about locking up the bike, or getting the bike stolen," he says. "There are potholes all over the place around here. When I did bike, it would take just as much time to lock up the bike, which kind of defeated the purpose."

Valerie S. Feldman '90 lives in the Quad, and she says most of her friends ride bikes to class, but she finds biking too much of a hassle.

"I prefer to walk, anyway," she says. "And the times that I don't [like to walk] are when it rains or it snows, but then it's too slippery to ride your bike."

Blatant Disregard for Rules

For the Cambridge police, the more students who follow Feldman's example and stop riding, the better. Cambridge policemen blame a large part of the city's traffic problems on the bikers. The bicyclists' blatant disregard for the laws of the road, they say, adds unnecessary problems to the already congested Harvard Square.

"It's a disaster," says Thomas E. Donahue, traffic patrolman and safety officer. "There are just so many bicycles. They're everywhere. They drive anywhere they want. They don't stop at lights, they don't follow the flow of traffic. A lot ride right down the middle of Mass. Ave."

However, Cambridge police say that while bikers cause problems for city traffic, Harvard students are not the main source of trouble. Problem bikers also include elementary school students and employed adults who commute to work, says Donahue, who runs a bicycle safety program at local elementary schools. "There are [lots of] people coming into Cambridge every day. You can't just pinpoint students at Harvard," he says.

Donahue says that 91 biking-related accidents occurred in 1987, and many of these, he says, were caused by disregard for the biking rules.

Perhaps that is why some Harvard bikers do try to follow biking rules.

Gingerich says that he obeys all of the biking laws. "After seeing CAT-scans of brain-damaged people, I always wear a helmet," he says. "I never ride in the Yard. I would never pull anyone off their bike. I think evil thoughts about them, though."

Henebry says that he follows most rules because he understands why they are made. "Too many bikers speeding always irritates me as a pedestrian," he says. But even he does not obey all the rules. "I never wear a helmet," says Henebry. "Part of the fun of riding is the wind blowing through your hair."

Employees at the Bicycle Exchange, a bicycle store in Harvard Square, say that they always encourage customers to follow traffic rules, "because motorists don't follow them," says Betsey J. Moore, head cashier at the store.

She says that they also urge bicycle riders to wear helmets, "because staying alive is better than being alive as a parapalegic."