July 12, 2016
On a sunny morning in late March, I was violently assaulted by a driver while commuting to work on a Hubway bicycle. That day, I spent 13 hours in three emergency rooms. I received 19 stitches around my right eye. A week later, I was wheeled into an operating room to fix facial fractures to my cheek and orbital rim.
Because Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge has no protected cycling lane, it was frighteningly easy for the driver to try to hit me twice with his three-ton pickup truck. It was horrifying to hear the revving of his engine as he forced me off the road, and I thought, in that split second, that I would never see my daughter again.
And it was traumatic to then be sucker-punched with no provocation.
Just because I was riding my bicycle on the street.
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In a bike lane.
It was an extreme case of road rage, but also an experience that will not be a surprise to many of my fellow cyclists. A colleague was recently hit by a distracted driver who took off without even checking to see if she was OK. Last February, local business owner Megan Ramey had her bicycle dragged a block by an aggressive driver after he almost hit her and her family as they were riding near where I was assaulted. And then there are the tragic deaths and injuries that are occurring far too often on busy city streets and quiet rural routes throughout the state.
My best guess is that my assailant was angry because I was riding along the outer edge of a bike lane to avoid the “door zone,” the name cyclists have given the space where a car door can open into you, causing injury or death, as was the case of cyclist Amanda Phillips, who was doored in Inman Square last month.
The essential truth that my experience reveals, and that we far too often overlook amid calls for road users to “just get along” is this: The most significant impacts on the safety and lives of vulnerable road users are made by how we design our roads and how we drive our cars.
When Cambridge chose to paint a bike lane instead of implementing a protected cycling lane on Massachusetts Avenue where I was riding, it made an implicit decision that facilitated what happened to me that day.
When MassDOT chose to install bike lanes instead of protected lanes on four major crossings into Boston — the Boston University Bridge, Craigie Bridge, Longfellow Bridge, and Anderson Bridge — it implicitly accepted that tragedy could occur at any moment for the thousands of bike commuters who use those routes to get to school or work.
When Boston proposes protected lanes on only a small segment of Massachusetts Avenue, despite it being one of the most dangerous roads in the city, it is implicitly accepting more injuries and deaths.
Protected bike lanes are one of the easiest steps state and local transportation agencies can take to dramatically improve safety. They are also one of the most cost-effective infrastructure investments, delivering an immediate payback. When Calgary installed cycle tracks in its city center, it saw a 95 percent average increase in weekday bike trips in three months and a 7 percent increase in women riders. When Salt Lake City replaced parking with protected bike lanes, it saw an increase in retail sales. After the construction of a protected lane on Ninth Avenue in New York City, local businesses saw a 49 percent increase in retail sales.
Every foot of roadway where cycling takes place and remains unprotected is an added foot of danger and uncertainty. Every foot of roadway where meaningful cycling protection is added is a foot of roadway that unlocks opportunities for people of all ages to ride for fun, exercise, to get to work, go to a friend’s house, or run an errand.
“Save lives not parking” was the straightforward statement written on a sign during a community meeting about Boston’s proposed improvements to Massachusetts Avenue. As a former chief spokesman and adviser at MassDOT, I understand these are difficult decisions for city and state governments to make. But when compared with what happens due to inaction, that is no excuse to maintain the status quo or adopt incremental change.
Colin Durrant is a former assistant secretary of communications and policy at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.