Future of Safe Bicycling

John Allen


What is  the future of safe bicycling going to look like? I don’t have a crystal ball, but some trends are becoming clearer, and they are not all happy.

A major trend is the increasing popularity of e-bikes. To keep up with the crowd, some aging CRW members have taken up riding e-bikes. A friend in Florida tells me that she is getting just as much exercise on her pedal-controlled e-bike as she used to, only she rides farther. In hot weather, she gets her exercise with a stronger cooling breeze blowing at her.

I am most concerned about urban and suburban bicycle use for transportation. Bicyclists have generally in the past gained speed as they also gained skill. My Florida friend rode for many years before retrofitting her longtail cargo bike with a motor, but not everyone comes to an e-bike that way. Also e-bikes tend to be heavy and less maneuverable than pedal-only bicycles. On e-bikes with throttle control, starting and stopping require special skills to coordinate pedaling, braking, motor power, and balance. Low skill and higher speed on an e-bike are not a good combination.

Bike lanes on Boston-area streets lined with parked cars are almost all in the door zone. An opening car door will fling a bicyclist out into the roadway. Bicyclists have died this way, going under an overtaking truck or bus. Six other crash types besides dooring – the merge-out, walk-out, drive-out, sideswipe, left cross and merge-in, result from riding too close to the parking lane.

Campaigns for safety are mostly directed toward motorists, to take more care when opening their doors. Bicyclists who don’t know better assume that rear-end collisions must be the worst danger, though they are very rare on urban streets. It’s hard to convince bicyclists that there is little risk from motor vehicles which they can’t see, lacking eyes in the back of their heads. Bicyclists are led to assume that the door zone must be the safest place on the street, or governments in their wisdom wouldn’t install them. But crash statistics have confirmed the dangers of the door zone, and the trend is to place the bike lane between parked cars and the curb, hiding bicyclists and motorist out of sight of each other. The profile of crash types changes: no more rare rear enders, but more problems with crossing and turning, walk-outs and drive-outs.

The Massachusetts Department of Recreation and Conservation views its mandate as for park access, and is working to reduce the number of lanes on its parkways, though they are used for transportation. Hammond Pond Parkway in Newton is to be reduced from a four-lane speedway – unattractive fo bicycling – to two lanes – probably still adequate for the motor traffic, but with shoulders too narrow to be comfortable for bicyclists. There is to be a shared-use path alongside. On its way to the Chestnut Hill Mall, a major trip endpoint, the parkway goes down a steep slope where bicyclists can easily reach 30 miles per hour without pedaling, A path there can’t be kept clear of ice in winter. It might better be repurposed as a luge run.

All in all, we are getting more bicycling infrastructure  that might be suitable for people who ride at 8 miles per hour in good weather, while e-bikes capable of going 28 miles per hour become more and more popular.

One promising development that can relieve some of the problem is automated collision avoidance in motor vehicles. When this technology has matured, it will almost entirely eliminate rear-end collisions. That can increase compatibility with slower vehicles. But still there is no substitute for roadway width so faster vehicles can pass slower ones. Intentionally reducing usable roadway width so it no longer allows this, whether by dividing it up or simply narrowing the roadway – is going to pose some real problems with today’s faster bicyclists, and these problems will unfortunately increase as the use of e-bikes increases. If a narrow roadway prevents the give and take of road space, bicyclists, including e-bicyclists, are likely to be increasingly forced to use separated infrastructure which will be inadequate to handle their numbers or speed safely. That is one of my main worries about bicycling as I look to the future. 




John S. Allen is CRW Safety Coordinator, a certified CyclingSavvy Instructor and League Cycling Instructor and author of Bicycling Street Smarts.