Boston Globe’s Latest Masterwork, A Triumph Of Meaningless Grandstanding

Written by Boston Biker on Aug 07

I read David Filipov’s newest article at the Globe with some amount of disgust this morning. For those who have yet to glance upon this masterwork of investigative journalism let me serve up some tasty snippets.

Boston has launched a high-profile campaign to become a friendlier city for cyclists. Now the question is whether bicyclists will become friendlier to Boston. On any hour of any day, Boston bicyclists routinely run red lights, ride the wrong way on one-way streets, zip along sidewalks, and cut off pedestrians crossing streets legally – even though bike riders are supposed to obey the same traffic laws as motorists. Sometimes, a bicyclist will do all of these things in one two-wheeled swoop. The city seems unable to stop it.

(emphasis mine)

Ahh yes, Boston cyclists scourge of the streets. I don’t actually disagree with the authors claims of wrong doing by cyclists. In fact I am just as annoyed and pissed off when I see cyclists running red lights (news flash, running red lights doesn’t make you faster…being faster makes you faster), mostly because I then have to pass their stupid asses as I take off after waiting at the red light, but also because I see them regularly muck up traffic, almost get run over, or fail to yield to pedestrians. In short the same numskulls who run red lights on their bikes, are the same people I worry about when in cars. So why might you ask was I so disgusted with this article?

In short the article is guilty of two things. One, it insinuated that only cyclists are breaking the law, and two, it tries very hard to neglect that different user groups produce different consequences when they break the law.

So to the first point, ‘only cyclists are bad’, lets take a look at some of the crack statistics work that the author did.

At that particular intersection, 12 out of 28 cyclists were observed ignoring the red light over the course of 45 minutes. Some cruised right through; others paused and then went forward. A dozen more rode along the narrow sidewalk, weaving their ways among joggers, people walking to work, and students toting instruments toward the Berklee College of Music. Four more cyclists rode the wrong way on Newbury Street, dodging oncoming vehicles.

On Wednesday, over the course of 40 minutes, 20 cyclists ran the light at Charles and Beacon streets; only one did not. Monday morning, over the course of 35 minutes at Copley Square, 12 cyclists sailed through red lights (five waited for green). Monday, during a half-hour at lunch time, 10 out of 23 cyclists ran the red light on Tremont Street at the beginning of Beacon Street, where tourists commingled with hurried business people. Ten more rode the wrong way on Tremont. Dozens more took the sidewalk, scattering walkers.

Nice, random sampling times, no methodology, no sampling of other user groups, tiny samples, in short these numbers mean nothing. They also fail to capture the entire picture. How many pedestrians walked out against the signal, how many cars failed to yield, how many cars failed to use turn signals, how many were speeding? I feel that a detailed multi-user group study of any intersection would show that every user group in Boston has a problem, and that problem is that they simply don’t give a fuck about anyone else.

If you are a pedestrian and you want to be “over there” and the little walk man isn’t showing what do you do? You look both ways (sometimes), if no one is coming (or often even if they are, cause ‘hey fuck it’ they will stop) and you step out into the street. You don’t care if you force the cyclist to move into heavy traffic to avoid you, you also don’t care if a bunch of cars have to suddenly stop to let you cross when you have absolutely no business being in the road at that time.

If you are a cyclist and you want to go through a red light, well ‘hey fuck it’, off you go. You have no regard for the fact that you might get run over, that you might hold up traffic, that you might strike a pedestrian that is crossing the street, that you might hit another cyclist that is following the law, that you might then cause a headache for the cyclists behind you who then have to deal with you when the light does turn green.

If you are a motorist and you feel like getting from point A to point B as fast as possible and you don’t feel like signaling, checking your mirrors, obeying the speed limit, looking before you open your door, yielding to pedestrians, giving cyclists room on the road, well ‘hey fuck it’ it’s your car and you will do what you want.

In short no user group is any more or less lawful than any other. They each break different laws in different frequency, but they are ALL breaking the law with great regularity and mostly because of the “hey fuck it” attitude that so many have in this city.

That brings me to point two. The consequences for different user groups breaking the law are not the same. When a car decides to run a red light, it carries a much greater risk than when a bike does. Similarly the danger to pedestrians who cross against the light are predominantly to themselves, with cyclists a close second, most motorists will not be physically harmed if they strike a pedestrian. All of these actions are illegal, and stupid, but the risk vs reward for each is different. If you are going to write an entire article about how unruly cyclists are, well then you should have lots of facts about how this behavior is dangerous to the public. Statistics showing the hundreds of deaths caused each year by cyclists running red lights, and the carnage caused by sidewalk riding. Don’t get me wrong, I think running red lights and riding on the side walk are stupid and shouldn’t be done, but in all honestly they don’t pose a major threat to public safety. However literally thousands of people are killed each year by or in cars. When a 4000 pound box of metal and glass gets going fast and doesn’t signal it’s turns, people die.

Publishing an entire article about one user group without putting it in context is disingenuous, and dishonest. There is already a strong pubic opinion that you “have to be crazy to ride a bike in Boston” or “bike riders are assholes.” Which is a horrible thing, biking in Boston can be a fun and relaxing activity. Bikers are not crazy, and biking doesn’t have to be a war of US v Them. The car lifestyle has brought us a lot of things, but the most obvious is obesity, congestion, pollution, sprawl , global warming, wars for oil, and as of late an economic crisis. People could do a fair amount of good by simply leaving the car in the driveway and taking the bike out for a spin.

This article was a simple attempt to get some ad revenue for the Globe, shallow sensational journalism lacking context or good research. But the fact still remains: Cyclists break the law, a lot. What can we do about that? The article itself, and the user comments are long on “this is the problem” and lacking completely the “this is the solution.” The solution seems to be two fold.

Education: You need to know what the laws are. This goes for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. You should have a deep understanding of what exactly you are supposed to be doing out there (check out MassBike’s website for a good run down of cycling laws if you are rusty, they just passed some new laws so it might be time for a refresher).

Attitude: Boston must put aside it’s “hey fuck it” (or even worse “hey fuck you”) attitude. What really keeps us all safe and happy out there is not the law, but the social trust. That little white line, or that little red/green/yellow light, isn’t what keeps you from getting run over by that truck. The trust you put into that truck driver to treat that light like it means something, or stay on one side of that white line is what keeps you safe. When you break the law what you are really doing is breaking the social trust that someone else put in you. You are saying to them “everything is chaotic you can’t count on anything” and that makes them mad, afraid and unsafe. If you are a cyclist you count on cars coming to a stop at red lights, otherwise you would never cross an intersection (imagine if cars ran reds with the frequency that bikes do). The entire system is based from the ground up on trust of strangers. Every time a cyclist runs a red light they are eroding that trust.

If each use group continues to erode the trust (by doing all the things mentioned above and more) then eventually the streets will be nothing more than a war zone, and whoever is fastest and toughest will get around, and everyone else will be road kill. Not a happy scenario, but also far from a likely one if some simple things are changed. But hey, at least we can count on the Boston Globe to provide us with poorly thought out, and poorly researched articles so that we can scape goat one group while ignoring the bigger problem. Thanks Boston Globe.

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Posted in advocacy, news, video | 14 Comments »

14 Responses to “Boston Globe’s Latest Masterwork, A Triumph Of Meaningless Grandstanding”

  1. By What I Think on Aug 7, 2009 | Reply

    Exactamundo! Send your letter to the Globe! Or would that be a conflict of interest, due to your day job? (I expect they will send an “unofficial” response too?)

  2. By todd on Aug 7, 2009 | Reply

    Totally. And it gives the bike-hating public every excuse for being extra vicious in future for providing vindication for their action.

    I’m especially appalled at Nicole Freedman’s participation in this and her defense of it in the chat at noon today. Disgusting.

    Imagine what violations they might have found if they’d surveyed the intersection for thirty SIX minutes! Or on a Saturday! Or before a Red Sox game! There might be THOUSANDS of (bike and only bike) violations!

    Lies, damn lies, and statistics. Which is this?

  3. By Liam on Aug 7, 2009 | Reply

    I’ve been reading Boston Biker for a while and after reading this piece it’s official: Boston Biker is the best commentator on biking I’ve ever read. Thank you for saying the things I think about these very issues (albeit with more profanities).

  4. By cranky4life on Aug 8, 2009 | Reply

    Excellent comments! Pointing out what’s wrong is easy. Proposing solutions like you did is exactly what makes your article excellent. The solutions are right on the spot.
    I struggle a bit sometimes with the rules of the road. For example I do ride the bike across the Fiddler bridge (pink bridge). I do so very slowly and I always give right of way at the “bends”. In my mind I’m doing what the “spirit” of the posted sign says. However, I do agree I’m breaking the law. Another part I push the “law” is by getting a bit of a head start at a stop light. Starting to move when the othe side’s green light turns to yellow (only if i have good visibility). This last one I will try to stop doing.

  5. By Ron Newman on Aug 8, 2009 | Reply

    The best response to the article is to lobby to change the law. Bicyclists should be able to stop and proceed at red lights if there is no opposing traffic or pedestrians, as is the law in Idaho. Bicyclists should be able to ride against one-way traffic on small residential streets, as is the law in Amsterdam.

  6. By m2mayer on Aug 8, 2009 | Reply

    Great comments. The article certainly does no favors for cyclists, as far as public sentiment goes. Someone should respond with a detailed and thorough study of all user groups like you suggest.

  7. By Steve Zakszewski on Aug 8, 2009 | Reply

    I wanted to like your article and you make many excellent points, but it fails on several fronts, the most glaring a point you made yourself:

    “This article was a simple attempt to get some ad revenue for the Globe, shallow sensational journalism lacking context or good research. But the fact still remains: Cyclists break the law, a lot.”

    So on the one hand you’re accusing the Globe of shoddy journalism and poor research and essentially making up a story to generate filthy lucre while on the other hand admitting their point is absolutely correct.

    So which is it?

    And your article suffers from sensationalism as well, accusing the car culture of causing everything except herpes, which is probably only because drive-ins are pretty much gone.

    As someone who both bikes and drives, I do agree that there’s a social contract that should be at work out there and 90% of the problems with traffic- and by that I mean cars/trucks/buses, bicyclists, scooters, and pedestrians- are caused by self-centered idiocy and the complete and utter lack of a willingness to play nicely with others.

    It’s maddening. People take stupid risks for the smallest of gains- drivers cutting other drivers off so they can be one car length closer at the red light up ahead, lazy-ass pedestrians not willing to walk 100′ to the next intersection and instead jay-walk midblock in front of cars while off in the never-never land of their ipod or cellphone, and bicyclists thinking “hey, I’m a bike” and bombing through red lines 30 seconds after the light’s been red.

    As someone who’s taken defensive driving courses for my work, I can tell you that you’re trained to survey and anticipate problems and chart an evasive course before it happens.

    The problem with bicyclists is that far too often, they move much too fast and make sudden maneuvers and leave very little reaction time and that with far too many bicyclists, there’s a pervasive attitude evident in their riding that they don’t know or don’t care about certain laws of physics that apply to cars. I’m maneuvering a 3,000 pound vehicle that cannot stop on a dime or swerve suddenly. Moreover, by attempting to do so, I then run the risk of getting hit by other drivers.

    To give an example, 2 weeks ago I was driving down Boylston and a bike messenger came off Dartmouth and headed the wrong way up Boylston in my lane heading right for me. I had to swing to my right and almost got clipped by the cab that was in that lane, and compounding insult to injury, the biker gave me the finger when he was the one in the wrong.

    It’s stuff like that- which happens far too often- that gives bicyclists their reputation and make people hate them. And this is precisely what the Globe article showed. This isn’t just occasional bad behaviour by a few bad apples, but a widespread pattern.

    And again, you don’t dispute this, but instead trot out the argument “everyone else does it”. Which is true, but it doesn’t excuse the behavior. But I do give you credit for trying to come up with a solution.

    I also have to say that I agree with Ron about the red light thing and even want to take it further. So long as a bike slows down and looks and can proceed safely, they should be able to go through red lights. However, if they go through a red light and almost cause an accident, they should be cited.

    Then again, this would require police to actually enforce traffic laws. They don’t do it for cars and if 1/10th the effort of going after parking meter scofflaws was exerted by the Boston Police department in going after moving violations, jaywalkers, and recalcitrant bikers, the situation in downtown Boston might be a little less chaotic and unsafe. And I want a pony and $10,000,000 too, but that’s not going to happen either.

  8. By explodedhub on Aug 10, 2009 | Reply

    Youre right, of course. pointless article. Salaried or freelance writer needs to come up with a topic to cover superficially every week. in this case, no consideration given to the consequences of a traffic violation on bike vs. doing so on car.

    the bike czar is right, people who ride on sidewalks are afraid of car traffic. more bike lanes would help that situation.

    Also I agree with Ron Newman, cyclists should be able to run red lights if it is safe to do so at the time (no oncoming traffic, running the red does not disturb flow of traffic, etc..) I run through stops and reds everyday, but not recklessly or in a disturbing manner. it’s common sense and thankfully area cops still have some as well. i’ve never had a problem.

    All in all, you’re spot-on. It’s a useless article, but then again 90 percent of Globe (and other mainstream news) articles are exactly that: useless ephemera, of no value to society, instantly forgettable, a vehicle for department store advertisements, and that’s that.

    you may be overestimaing the impact of it all. I dont expect this article to have any long lasting effects anywhere.

    I gotta think that the stupidest line in the article is this: “On Wednesday, over the course of 40 minutes, 20 cyclists ran the light at Charles and Beacon streets” That intersection is part of my commute. Charles is a one way street, and so is Beacon. The running of that red light which they are referring to is a right-hand turn (there is a no turn on right sign, posted i believe.) its not even dangerous to take that right, when there are no pedestrians crossing Beacon and in the absence of oncoming vehicular traffic. there is a very good reason that 20 oout of 21 took that right on red! in my estimation it is even safer to do so — again this is part of my daily commute — because I can get out in front of traffic coming from charles and cross the 4 lanes on beacon to take that left onto Arlington, instead of trying to make that 4-lane cross on a green, amongst cars gunning for Storrow drive. the author is not being fair here.

  9. By Steve on Aug 10, 2009 | Reply

    BB, are you in favor of amending the law to support “stop as yield” as they do in OR and ID? You’ve rebutted a couple of articles that claim cyclists to be scofflaws, but you never seem to bring this option up. I think this would be a nice addition to MA traffic laws, but I can see how some might think it’s a bit of a slippery slope.

    PS. your search box at the top seems to be broken.

  10. By Aaron Pikcilingis on Aug 11, 2009 | Reply

    I think your most important point is about trust in strangers. People using all modes of transit forget that our safety is predicated on the assumption that most of us, most of the time, won’t do something crazy.

    And I agree, people are taking tremendous risks for meaningless gains.

    I am regularly in the same situation as described: I wait at a red, another cyclist runs it and I end up stuck behind them half a block later. Do we need to start saying something to these people? What can we say that will be effective?

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