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Bostonians hate many things, as I’ve learned since moving here. But no group of people draws the complete and unfettered wrath of Massachusetts drivers like cyclists.
Drivers wonder why cyclists are so worried about their safety. After all, they assert, there are plenty of bike lanes nowadays, painted green and plainly visible to cars. If a cyclist avoids those lanes and decides to cut into a hazardous intersection, well, that’s on them.
But this reasoning belies the reality of car-bicycle relationships and how they tend to share the road.
The cyclists I see around Harvard Square are hyper-vigilant and alert. They risk their safety riding here, with little infrastructure to protect them. Despite having separate bike lanes in some places, our campus streets are far from protecting cyclists effectively. They travel about 10 to 15 miles per hour as the cars to their left and right zoom at twice that speed. Instead of grade separation, where the bike lanes are at sidewalk level, there are flimsy barriers and painted markings.
The lack of these essential features can kill. And unfortunately, it has.
In 2020, a truck killed a cyclist outside Harvard Station. Just this summer, two more cyclists in our area were struck and killed. From Porter Square to Inman Square, a depressing and predictable pattern emerges: our poor bicycle infrastructure increases the volume of reported crashes, doorings, and deaths. The worst part is that it all happens within a few square miles.
I would know about how dangerous painted bike lanes can be because I’ve ridden on them. One night, my friends and I decided to bike from Harvard Square to the new SEAS building in Allston. That required us to traverse the previously mentioned bike lanes on JFK Street. It is hard to recognize how much faster and larger cars can be until you are fully exposed three feet away from one. On campus, I have witnessed drivers hit pedestrians at crosswalks and cyclists swerve to avoid cars that cut into the unprotected bike lane.
We know how to prevent cycling injuries, and the solutions are easy and cheap. But when advocates promote these solutions at city council meetings or community events, they don’t quite know what response to expect from residents. Cycling remains polarizing here, despite our area being one of the most bike-friendly places in the United States.
Several organizations are working to change that sentiment. In Cambridge, we have Cambridge Bike Safety, an organization dedicated to improving the local cycling infrastructure. CBS’s work and advocacy led to the city passing the country’s first Cycling Safety Ordinance in 2019. The ordinance guarantees protected bike lanes on many streets over the next five years, from Massachusetts Avenue to Cambridge Street.
The organization was founded in response to the death of Amanda Phillips back in 2016. Phillips, a student at The MGH Institute of Health Professions, was cycling in Inman Square when a Jeep driver opened his door and struck her. She fell into the path of a landscaping truck. Her death, and that of another cyclist four months later, accelerated discussions around cycling infrastructure. Thanks to those discussions and CBS’s advocacy efforts, the city of Cambridge installed protected bike lanes between Inman Square and Harvard Square, including the area where Amanda Phillips died.
Six years on, these improvements are instrumental in reducing cycling injuries.
Opening a door into a bike lane is a small mistake that creates a dangerous situation for cyclists. Behaviors like these are ingrained in our driving culture. Cars pull into a bike lane to pick up food; trucks do it to drop supplies off. These aren’t always conscious actions, but they have severe consequences.
Those severe consequences extend beyond physical ones. They tend to dampen the public’s view on cycling safety, making it more difficult and stressful for people to get on the road and bike. So organizations and supportive residents enter the picture, promoting cycling infrastructure that protects public safety.
In Cambridge, a bike lane project under the Cycling Safety Ordinance typically starts with City staff. They reach out to neighbors and residents and announce that there is a project coming. The outreach has improved over time, and more residents are paying attention to street changes. I attended a few project meetings where staff listened to feedback and conducted surveys. During the process, they will iterate on the designs, present them to residents, and take additional feedback.
And it seems like residents are optimistic. While online discussion around cycling deteriorates into stereotypes and finger-pointing, real-world surveys show that people are excited to see the streets become safer.
Unfortunately, though, the opposition is a loud minority. It is understandable; people fear what a change in the status quo would mean and often resort to knee-jerk responses.
For example, many opponents of cycling infrastructure say it would only be suitable during the warmer months, not while it is snowy and cold. But many people cycle year-round, especially if they can access usable bike facilities. Protected bike networks encourage dedicated maintenance; bike lanes should be considered essential infrastructure, not an area to dump snow. These simple adjustments, practiced in other snowy regions like Scandinavia and Canada, can markedly improve cycling safety.
Bike lanes are also relatively inexpensive to build. Cambridge’s Complete Streets program spends $13.5 million a year. Those funds produce huge investments that require less maintenance than roads do. Plus, the long-term physical and social benefits of cycling drive down a range of expenses.
Finally, accessibility is a primary concern. Cities should ensure and meet the access needs of disabled people. Thankfully, the evidence shows that cycling infrastructure improves accessibility. With adaptive bicycles, many disabled people ride in Boston. Many more would, too — if given safer lanes.
Altogether, the past half-decade of progress has launched the Boston area into one of the most bike-friendly cities in the United States. We have achieved plenty of changes. The Slow Streets and Open Streets programs in Boston and the Bluebikes outside Smith Center show that when cities build good cycling infrastructure, people use it.
Safe, accessible bike lanes are beginning to criss-cross our region. Thankfully, Cambridge and Boston seem committed to expanding our cycling culture.
However, that commitment only came when advocacy groups, officials, and residents came together and decided to prioritize people over cars and challenge the status quo. As students, we can and should continue doing this. After all, these will be our streets for four years.
Clyve Lawrence ’25 is a Government concentrator in Adams House. His column “Our Transportation Crisis” appears on alternate Mondays.
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