For the (seemingly few) months of the year when Somerville isn’t covered in snow, biking is an appealing way to get around. You can replace your sweaty walk to the T with a quick ride and, over time, save money by biking to work instead of taking public transportation. You can get some exercise on the community path.
But for new riders, biking here can be daunting. Despite the green bike boxes and the designated bike lanes, navigating the congestion of Powderhouse Circle or the nightmarish intersection that is Davis Square might seem too dangerous.
The Somerville Bicycle Committee wants new riders to feel comfortable in the city, which is why it weaves safety into each aspect of its mission, which chair Ken Carlson nicknames the “Five Es”: evaluation, engineering, enforcement, education and encouragement.
The members of the committee focusing on evaluation determine potential problem situations and areas in the city so that the engineering subgroup can brainstorm how best to design roads to promote safety for cyclists. Enforcement and education go hand in hand to ensure that bikers and drivers both know how to be safe—and to ensure both are practicing those safe behaviors. The encouragement subgroup focuses on making people feel as though biking is safe in the city.
Somerville is one of the leading cities in the country in terms of biking. Eight percent of residents bike everyday, a percentage that the Bicycle Committee one day hopes to hike up to 15. This large population helps make the city’s streets more bike-friendly, Carlson says.
“The more people who are biking, the safer biking becomes,” Carlson notes. “That’s the most evident in cities like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, where you have 30 or 40 percent of the population biking, and motorists know to look for bikes.”
One example of this pull is the redesign of Beacon Street. The street sees about 450 bicyclists per hour during rush hour, making it the busiest two-wheeled thoroughfare in the Greater Boston area. Several years ago, the Somerville Bicycle Committee proposed creating a protected bike lane on the busy street, and now, Beacon is on its way to boasting the only federally funded protected bike lane in the state.
The bike lane will be higher than the road, but still separated from the sidewalk. The Bicycle Committee expects that the protected lane will increase the number of bicycles on the street by 30 or 40 percent.
The committee ran an analysis of the street, finding that on the upper half, the city would be able to remove a parking lane. Analysis of the lower half showed that the current parking was being used, and so the lane will only run for half of Beacon Street.
But structural changes like Beacon’s protected bike lane are only part of the equation.
“On the engineering side, you want to make these roads safe, but then once you have these facilities you still need to do education,” Carlson says.
In terms of safety education, Carlson hopes that every cyclist remembers to be alert at all times and recommends against wearing headphones while riding.
Carlson notes that drivers should be on the lookout for more vulnerable travelers like cyclists and pedestrians at all times, checking that no one is approaching before opening their car doors and giving cyclists plenty of space.
Many people misjudge the main dangers of biking, he says. People instinctively try to get as far away from moving cars as possible, keeping close to parked cars when there’s a bike lane or snaking alongside the lane of moving cars when there isn’t a designated bike lane.
But one of the major threats to bicyclists isn’t being hit from behind—it’s being hit by the door of a parked car. A biker was killed in Cambridge earlier this summer after a collision with an open door.
In order to avoid this hazard, Carlson says bicyclists should ride toward the left side of a bike lane so that they can better avoid a parked car door. Similarly, when there is no bike lane bikers should know that they are allowed by law to ride in the car lane.
Riding in the car lane will also help bikers avoid the main cause of serious bicycle accidents, known as a “right hook.” A right hook happens when a car turns right, hitting the bicyclist on their right who is traveling straight.
Carlson also recommends that bikers put mirrors on their bikes so that they can see any vehicles behind them. If bikers ever feel unsafe, they can always get off their bikes and walk on the sidewalk and in crosswalks. “With every cyclist, there’s a built-in pedestrian,” he says.
“Biking is a fairly safe activity—we don’t want to frighten people,” Carlson adds. “If you learn how to bike safely in an urban environment, biking is incredibly enjoyable. It’s a wonderful way to get to work or school, it relieves stress, you’re out in the environment, you’re not polluting the environment. Biking is fun.”
And it’s becoming more fun; Carlson anticipates that Somerville will continue to get safer for bicyclists if and when the Community Path is extended and Union Square is redesigned.
“If you really want to make biking safer in Somerville, we need more bike lanes,” he says. “A huge part of that is there needs to be big discussion about parking. I think the demographics in Somerville are changing, and the need for parking is decreasing. With that, there needs to be a rethinking of our city streets.”