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Boston’s unruly riders

Rule-breakers challenge city’s bike-friendliness

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By David Filipov
Globe Staff / August 7, 2009

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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.

This week, reporters watching from intersections in the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, South Boston, and downtown saw dozens of cyclists violate traffic laws. Regardless of the time of day, regardless of the congestion, each location displayed a free-for-all of cycling carelessness. Crowded sidewalks became de facto bike paths. “Do not enter’’ signs did not apply. Red lights were treated as suggestions.

Even Boston bicyclists’ strongest advocate expressed surprise at the frequency of violations.

“We have aggressive road conditions,’’ observed Nicole Freedman, the city’s director of bicycle programs, who pointed and exclaimed Wednesday at rush hour as scofflaw cyclists rode roughshod over the rules at Massachusetts Avenue and Newbury Street. “The bikers are bad, the pedestrians are bad, and so are the drivers.’’

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.

No one got a ticket. Bicyclists, unlike motorists, rarely do, according to police.

That explains the impunity many cyclists apparently feel as they pedal along sidewalks and cruise through stop signs. “Bikers who run red lights do not feel that they will be caught,’’ Freedman said. After she said this, she pointed at a cyclist who zigzagged from sidewalk to roadside before running a red light.

In a refrain that is familiar to anyone who has talked to Boston motorists, errant cyclists say that because everyone else is so aggressive, they have no choice but to break the rules.

“I try to get off the road as much as I can,’’ said Josh Tolkof, who was biking the wrong way on Newbury Street. “The cars don’t watch out for you; you gotta watch out for them.’’

So what about going the wrong way?

“That half a block is what I usually do, that’s about all,’’ Tolkof said, shrugging.

Drivers routinely ignore and cut off cyclists, open doors in their paths, and otherwise disregard bicycles, causing some cyclists to ignore the rules of the road.

“They end up giving no quarter because they get no quarter,’’ said Jeff Bradford, a frequent cyclist who was walking along Huntington Avenue in a yellow helmet and a matching weatherproof jacket. “I think the general lack of respect and enforcement aggravates the situation.’’

Bradford has faced that disrespect head on - literally. He recalled biking across the Massachusetts Avenue bridge when a cyclist going the wrong way collided with him, knocking him to the ground and injuring his shoulder.

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.

And then there was the guy who went the wrong way on Tremont, crossed Beacon, did a u-turn, ran a red light, cut off pedestrians crossing legally, then rode away on the sidewalk.

None of the bicycling violations observed this week resulted in accidents. None of the cyclists were ticketed.

Rosa Carson, program coordinator at the advocacy group WalkBoston, said the planning of Boston’s streets, which gives preeminence to motor vehicles, can put cyclists and pedestrians in trouble - and in conflict.

“Just as cyclists are relatively invisible to motorists, pedestrians are often invisible to cyclists, and it can certainly be a problem,’’ she wrote in an e-mail. “I certainly do not want to be run down by any vehicle - motorized or not! - when I’m crossing the street. The only time I don’t mind seeing bikes on sidewalks is when the cyclist is a little kid.’’

Making the city better for cyclists, Freedman said, will create more awareness between drivers and cyclists for each other - and pedestrians. Boston is planning miles of bike lanes, and considering a citywide bike-sharing program that would allow anyone with a credit card to rent a bike the way Zipcar members can rent a car.

At the moment, she said, the cyclists who ride in Boston are “the most competent and aggressive.’’

“As cycling becomes more mainstream, you have people who are much more law-abiding, much safer and you see the general behavior gets much better,’’ she said.

David Watson, executive director of the statewide advocacy group the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, said focusing on the cyclists’ violations misses the point.

“A lot of the behavior you see is people who believe what they’re doing is safer for them,’’ he said. “Everybody’s trying to get wherever they’re going in one piece, whether you’re driving or riding a bike.’’

Watson’s group is planning to conduct a survey of bicyclists and motorists to see what people know about the rules, and why they drive or ride the way they do.

“Everybody is making a lot of assumptions about why people do what they do,’’ Watson said. “But no one really knows.

A man who rode on the sidewalk along Massachusetts Avenue Wednesday morning knew why he was doing it. He felt safer, sure. But he also felt a sense of impunity.

“There are no bike lanes here,’’ said the man, who called himself a recent Boston University graduate. “If I’m driving on the street I’m kind of squished.’’

“I always run red lights, too,’’ he said. “The cops don’t care.’’

He did not give his name.

David Filipov can be reached at filipov@globe.com.