An increasing number of students and school administrators are growing concerned about bike safety after the death of two Boston University students.
On Thursday morning, 23-year-old Christopher Weigl, a graduate student at Boston University, was killed when he collided with a tractor-trailer while biking to class.
Less than a month earlier, another BU student, 21-year-old undergraduate Chung-Wei Yang, died after his bike collided with a bus.
Including Weigl and Yang, there have been five victims of fatal bicycle crashes in Boston this year. In light of these recent tragedies, both campus and statewide groups have rallied in their ongoing quest to improve bike safety.
“We are very concerned about the dangers faced by members of our community who must navigate the streets on and near our campus, especially bicyclists and pedestrians,” said BU President Robert A. Brown in a university-wide email sent out hours after Weigl’s death. “As we identify ways in which education and changes in practice can reduce risks, we will take necessary and possible steps to do so.”
Education is essential to improving bike safety, according to members of various advocacy groups, especially regarding laws and proper practices on the road.
“When you first learn how to drive, you drive for a certain amount of hours and you get your permit and you have to pass a test, but that’s not the way it is for cycling,” said Kerry Aszklar, a senior who serves as treasurer of BU Bikes, an undergraduate student cycling club. “It’s such a dive-right-in kind of thing. I think there’s a split between people not knowing [the law] and people ignoring it.”
While some bicyclists believe that there should be more laws specifically tailored for their needs, the general consensus seems to be in favor of the practice of “vehicular cycling” — following the same rules on the road as motor vehicle drivers.
“There aren’t too many special rules that bicyclists need to know. If somebody knows how to drive a car around Boston, then they also know how to ride a bike, according to the law,” said David Watson, executive director of MassBike, a statewide bicycle advocacy group, and a lecturer in the City Planning and Urban Affairs program at BU.
But issues can arise when experienced bicyclists disregard the law, which influences new bicyclists to follow suit.
“For the most part, [new bicyclists] learn by looking at people who are confident on the road,” said Azsklar. “They may say, ‘Oh, this confident person is running a red light, so that means it’s OK to run a red light.’”
Getting bicyclists to use resources — such as workshops offered by advocacy organizations — is a good way to build up their confidence on the road and informing them about the rules, according to Rob Sadowsky, executive director of Bicycle Transportation Alliance, an advocacy group located in Oregon.
“You should only ride bikes where you feel comfortable. If you don’t feel comfortable, if your gut is telling you, ‘I don’t feel safe,’ it’s probably true,” he said. “You can take classes to learn how to ride confidently. It’s also good to do it in a pair or a group first.”
Both Sadowsky and Watson agree that it is important for education to start early.
“We’re pushing to increase the level of investment in education,” said Watson. “If you get bike safety education while you’re growing up in school, even if you end up not using a bicycle to get around when you grow up and make your own transportation choices, you’ve got a good understanding of what it means to be a bicyclist and how to interact safely.”
Aside from improvements in education and law enforcement, a major goal of the bicycling community is a change in cities’ bicycling infrastructures.
“The more separation that we have, the safer the roads will be for bicyclists and people operating cars,” said Sadowsky.
While many cities, including Boston, have designated bike lanes, many bicyclists are calling for more distinct barriers between them and cars.
“Essentially, a bike lane is just paint on the road and it doesn’t really do anything,” said Aszklar, who like many other bicyclists, hopes for increased building of cycle tracks — physical barriers between bicycle and car lanes that have been implemented in cities like Amsterdam and Montreal.
There are issues regarding implementation of cycle tracks, however, including funding and allocation of space, according to Watson.
“It’s a big, visible change to implement cycle tracks. It’s hard for the public to understand. A lot of people feel like they’d be losing something — either parking or a travel lane and that means chaos or inconvenience,” he said. “You really have to work with the community to explain what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, how it’s going to benefit everybody, and how to get people on board to support it instead of being afraid of it.”
Understanding between bicyclists, pedestrians and car drivers is essential, according to bike safety advocates.
“There is power in numbers. I don’t want to say that there’s a battle between bikes and cars, but I think that if bikes show that there’s more of a presence, then more bikers will get on the road and cars drivers will understand,” said Aszklar.
There is a hope in the bicycling community that understanding, in turn, will prevent tragedies like the deaths of Weigl and Yang, from happening in the future.
“The response in the cycling community has been a mix of sadness and outrage. We need to work towards improving road safety for bikers and for everybody else,” said Watson. “The key thing that I tell everybody is just slow down and look around. It doesn’t matter whether you’re biking, walking or driving. That’s good advice for everybody. Just taking a second or two to make sure that you’re safe and that you’re not endangering anyone else would make things a lot better for everyone.”
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