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Bike-lane death trap

The death of cyclist Dana Laird on Mass Ave in Cambridge last week confirmed what many of the cityís bikers already knew: that the street can be a dangerous place to ride a bike. Laird was hit by a bus when she swerved into oncoming traffic to avoid an open car door. The Phoenix caught up with John Allen, a Waltham author of two books on safe cycling and a nationally recognized expert on the subject, to talk about the accident. As a co-founder of the Cambridge Bicycling Committee, Allen is actively involved in making the cityís streets safer for cyclists. The Phoenix last talked with Allen about the poor design of Cambridgeís Concord Avenue bike path (see " Uneasy Riders, " News and Features, May 31).

Q: What was your first reaction to the accident?

A: Horror, disgust, anger.

Q: Has there been much uproar in the cycling community about it?

A: Go look at the Mass Bike e-mail list ó have you had a look at that? Itís a good barometer of what the people in the cycling community think.

Q: What is the overall tone of the list?

A: I would say that with most of the messages the tone ranges from " Thereís a problem with these bike lanes " to " Get rid of bike lanes. " There are a few people who ó well, one of them, Michael Halla, who is the chair of the Cambridge Bicycle Committee, who is saying, " Donít point any fingers yet, letís wait until these things settle down. " Offhand, I canít think of anyone on the Mass Bike e-mail list who has outright defended the bike lanes on Mass Ave.

I was a member of the Cambridge Bicycle Committee from its start until 1996. I was there when the first bike lanes started to be installed, and I was one of the people, I am very proud, though not happy to say, who pointed out their deficiencies. I was concerned that something just like this was going to happen, and it did. And a very wonderful woman is dead.

She evidently did not know what she should have known about how to ride a bicycle or she would not have been where she was. Like probably 90 to 95 percent of bicyclists, just from what happened, itís quite clear that she didnít understand what the real risks are and how to avoid them.

Another reason that this happened is that the bike lane was in the door zone ... that means that if anyone swings a car door open in front of you, if youíre going faster than about five miles [per hour] or so, you cannot avoid doing either of two things: one is crashing into the door, the other is swerving into traffic.... You can only avoid those on a bicycle if youíre traveling very slowly. The thing is, a lot of bicyclists are so afraid of being hit from behind that they misconstrue the risk. And then we have the City of Cambridge reinforcing that whole false impression by putting a bike lane right there where it isnít safe to ride faster than five miles an hour.

Q: What do you think is the cityís responsibility now in the wake of the accident?

A: The cityís responsibility goes way back before the accident. When I was a member of the Cambridge Bicycle Committee, I warned members about putting bike lanes in the door zone. There were other members who issued similar warnings.... The central rationale that the city seems to have for what it does with bicycle facilities is that they will encourage people to ride bicycles. If you have a bike lane it makes bicyclists feel legitimate. That is all well and good if the bike lane really works. This one doesnít.... You only have to ride up and down it or drive up and down it to see that the bike lane is full of parked cars.

I think the city does have responsibility for this particular crash and for other dooring incidents in bike lanes because it created bike lanes that encourage cyclists to ride too close to the parked cars.... I think there are useful alternatives to what the city has done. One of them is a serious education campaign for bicycling. However, that would be very difficult in the presence of bike lanes that instruct bicyclists to do something that a well-designed education program would instruct them not to do. The city could do that, the colleges and universities could do that, though they have no investment in what the city has done with those bike lanes.... They could have their own programs, and I would very much urge them to do it. They donít want to lose any more Dana Lairds.

Issue Date: July 11 - 18, 2002
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