THE BALLAD OF BIKING IN BOSTON
Dispatches from my daily dance with death en route to work
By Katie Campisi
I edge off the sidewalk. I look left and then right. Then left and then right again. One more time to be sure. I merge towards the rightmost edge of the street, but there is no bike lane so I teeter between the curb and the line of cars waiting at the red light I am approaching. As I reach the intersection, the light turns green and the first car in line turns right sharply, cutting me off without even noticing. No blinker, no concern. I squeeze my brakes, swerve and dodge around the car and keep going, shaking my head, shaking it off.
I don’t ride my bike in Boston because I have a death wish. I ride my bike because it’s convenient, affordable, and healthy for me and the planet. My 25 minute, 5 mile commute between Brighton and Kendall Square takes me through several major intersections. On the way to work I hit Packard’s Corner, followed by the BU Bridge, and round it off with a tough left turn from Main Street onto Galileo Galilei Way in Kendall just before I get to work. Heading back home I hit the dangerous cross-section of Mass Ave and Beacon Street (the most dangerous intersection in the city for cyclists according to the Boston Police Department’s Collision Report for 2009–2012), then Kenmore Square, and then back past the BU Bridge and Packard’s Corner before I reach home. While most of my route has bike lanes, and a few roads even have fully protected cycle tracks, my daily ride isn’t one that I would call safe.
Approaching the intersection of Beacon Street and Mass Ave, riding over the bridge. The right turn I make onto Beacon Street funnels me into a well-marked and protected bike lane, a safety feature added in 2016 to this notoriously dangerous crossing. As I complete the turn, the illusion of safety is instantly shattered by an SUV parked inside the bikes-only lane, blocking me completely. I pull up and stare at the driver, hoping to make eye contact, to make them realize where they parked. They don’t look up from their phone.
There are certain obstacles that cyclists in Boston can expect to encounter frequently. The most common, according to crash reports, is being doored — a collision that occurs when a passenger, often the driver, in a parked car opens their door into the bike lane directly into the path of a cyclist, typically causing the cyclist to fly over the door and off of their bike. This can toss the cyclist into the middle of the road, on the ground, in front of oncoming traffic.
Another frequent danger comes from cars turning right, crossing directly through bike lanes and plowing over or cutting off any cyclists continuing straight. Unaffectionately dubbed a right hook, this is probably the most pervasive obstacle I encounter.
Amanda Phillips, 27, was killed in Inman Square last summer when she swerved to avoid being doored. Christopher Weigl, 23, was killed at the corner of St. Paul’s Street and Comm Ave in December 2012 by a truck making a right hook. Had someone in either car taken the few seconds it takes to scan for oncoming cyclists they might both still be with us.
The ride down Comm Ave is never without some event, and I keep my eyes and ears open wide while I pedal inbound towards Kenmore Square. I’m keeping pace with a car on my left, and they are inching closer and closer to my lane. They don’t have a blinker on and I don’t see the driver checking the side mirror, but I know better. I slow down, sighing as the car continues into the bike lane, completely cutting me off and absolutely unaware of what they have done. Quick check over my left shoulder, a car is coming, but I have space to keep going and move around the car blocking my lane. I inch out, passing the offending vehicle on the left and the approaching car lays on the horn in the distance. I resist the urge to flip them off and keep going, sliding back into the bike lane where I don’t feel much safer.
Uber drivers, delivery drivers, most drivers, don’t use their blinkers. They pull in and out of bike lanes, using them as their own personal parking lots, never checking for bikes. When I see a car veering to the right, I never assume they are just bad at driving straight. I always prepare for the sudden jerk of their vehicle into my path, and keep my hands on the brakes at all times.
Once a car is in the bike lane, I have to pull into the road to avoid it, causing a symphony of horns without fail. A reminder to drivers reading this: don’t be mad at the cyclist. Be mad at the driver who blocked off their lane. Legally, cyclists have the right to take a full road lane to themselves, a law overlooked by every Boston driver I’ve shared the road with.
I enjoy taking Vassar Street in Kendall Square because of the completely separated cycle track raised alongside the sidewalk. I breathe a little easier while I roll along those few blissful blocks. Today, though, I dodge a pedestrian using my lane as a sidewalk. I yell in my most sing-songy voice, “This is a bike lane!” as I pass them. They leave the bike lane. I look back down for a moment, and then I look up. Another cyclist, a younger boy, is on a bike heading directly at me. I swear at him. I swerve and nearly crash. This is not the first time I’ve almost crashed because of somebody on a bike using the lane to move in the wrong direction.
Between scanning my right side for passengers in parked cars who might throw their door open, and watching on the left for cars entering my lane without blinkers, riding my bike in this city leaves me on edge. And sometimes cars aren’t even the most dangerous thing I encounter in the bike lane. Pedestrians using the lane as a sidewalk and other cyclists biking erratically or in the wrong direction can cause accidents as easily as vehicles.
While the city works to improve cycling infrastructure and safety for those of us on two wheels, I hope to see a shift in the attitude towards bikes on the road. Presumably, the Massholes revving their engines from red light to red light are probably not trying to kill a cyclist, yet they continue to honk and gesture and whine about the presence of bikes on the roads. It’s time for a reality check and an attitude adjustment for drivers in this city.
Even though it’s raining, I take my bike to the gym in Coolidge Corner. On Harvard Ave, heading home towards the heart of Allston, I pick up speed heading downhill and catch a light just as it turns green. I cruise into the intersection alongside traffic. A gap between the bumpers of the cars in my lane leaves space for an oncoming vehicle — the driver doesn’t see me coming — to make a fast left through our lane. I twist my bike, smashing down on the brakes, and stumble onto the curb shaking. The driver doesn’t stop. The pedestrians watch, but say nothing. I walk my bike the last few blocks home, too rattled to get back on.
It can be hard as a cyclist not to flip out after every close call, but really we just all want to get from point A to be point B alive, in one piece. Keep your eyes open on the road, and think about your friends on two wheels. Look over your shoulder. Use your blinker. By remembering to take a couple of seconds to scan the road you can save somebody’s life as quickly as you could end it if you don’t.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its ongoing Vicious Cycle series. Learn more about the project and how you can contribute at binjonline.org, and share your stories about cycling in Greater Boston at facebook.com/binjnetwork