Three Ribbons and a Bow

By RICHARD FRIESExecutive Director

[caption id="attachment_24239" align="alignleft" width="300"] Zagster at the YMCA. Left to right, Aaron Donahue, Councillor Josh Zakim, Tim Ericson, Nyesha Motley, David Tavares[/caption]

As I labored up a massive climb during the Vermont Overland Grand Prix I fixed my gaze on the little pink ribbon tied to my stem.

The month of August had three ribbons for me. The one tied to my stem came at the service for Anita Kurmann, the young Swiss medical researcher killed by an errant truck driver in Boston. I learned of her death while laboring up another climb during the Cycle Massachusetts ride near Greenfield, where a Channel 5 reporter reached me.

The impact of her death has proven both profound and curious. She was the seventh bicyclist hit and killed in Massachusetts by a motor vehicle this year. But the date, the time, the location, her occupation, and her innocence garnered massive attention. The intersection where it occurred had been cited repeatedly as dangerous by all transportation groups, private and non-profit. Poor enforcement added to the issue.

The massive media attention, most of which proved well-written, did light a fire under Boston officials. I personally did five media interviews, all of which were sparked by that incident.

The intersection of two iconic Boston streets, Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street, serve as a transportation ground zero. The danger is that the intersection is overloaded bikes, pedestrians, automobiles and trucksBut the design remains mostly just for cars.

Do you think were going to have a lot of bikes there? Lets see, its at the end of one of the few Charles River bridges. Harvard, MIT and other universities are on the Cambridge side; BU, Northeastern, Suffolk, Emerson and other universities are on the Boston side, along with several famous hospitals. Confused tourists bound for museums and Fenway Park mix with trucks seeking access to the Mass Pike and other wider boulevards for deliveries. And with a major subway station two blocks away, pedestrians flood every crossing.

I learned a lot from other advocates on ways we must respond to both journalists and those folk on-the-street, at-the-barbecue, and in-the-office when they ask, why do you think there is such an uptick in fatal bike accidents?

Talk about a loaded question.

First, we have to straighten out data.

  • In 2014 Massachusetts had 16 bicycle deaths; this year we are at 7 as the summer season winds down.

  • The number of bicycle crashes might be up somewhat, but given that the number of bicyclists and hours spent bicycling are way up, the rateof crashes is coming downdramatically.

  • Of note is that we have had 149 motorists deaths this year. But where is that story?

  • When measured in the only fair way of doing so, by hours spent with each activity, bicycling is safer than well .even living. When measured per million hours of activity, bicycling in American sees a fatality rate of .26, compared with driving automobiles which harvests .47 deaths. Motorcycles blows them all away at 8.80. (But notice there is no media frenzy about the crazy increase in motorcyclist deaths, eh?)

Second, we have to straighten out language.  

  • And this womans death was NOT the result of a bicycle crash but a truck crash. Bicycle crashes rarely prove fatal unless they involve motor vehicles. We have not had a fatal bicycle crash this year; only collisions with cars prove fatal.

With each successive interview I gave and each successive report I heard, saw or read, I realized that the media had started to chant a bikes are dangerousmantra. This mantra, I feared, could undo decades of improvements made in both policy and engineering for bicyclists.    

But the month of August also brought me two other happier ribbons …and a bow.

The second of the ribbons would be the ribbon cutting at the Somerville Community Path extension, which opened from Cedar Street to Lowell Street. This is essentially stretching the Minuteman Bikeway, which in 20 years has spawned networks of spurs and trails positively impacting the health and prosperity of more than seven communities.   

This extension is one to behold. The engineering includes several play areas, fitness equipment, and a spongy running trail alongside the paved trail. The ribbon cutting drew Mayor Joseph Curtatone, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, and U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano.  

But honestly the prior ribbon cutting that week made a larger impression on me.

They cut a ribbon on the Northern Strand Trail, often known as Bike to the Sea, to open its section through Revere. From an engineering perspective, this hard-packed path is not something to behold. This path is located about four miles east of the Somerville path. But the Mystic River and the elevated I-93 serve as more than physical barriers. For the Revere opening had no hipsters present. There were no bike hippies, no tie-dye, no pony tails, no college kids, no tattoos, no piercings.

Stephen Winslow has steadily worked for two decades to auger this bike path from Everett, into Malden and later Saugus. But Revere, with its surprisingly beautiful corridor through the Rumney Marsh, had been the missing link between two ends.   

These communities hardly resonate as bike-friendly places. Study a Strava heat map and these communities are largely void of much activity. And while the Minuteman has more than a dozen bike shops near its path, the current Northern Strand communities have not a single bike shop. Bike lanes and sharrowsremain an oddity. And bike racks are not found at supermarkets.

And yet Winslow has somehow built a steadfast group of community leaders, not cyclists per se, who have augured through enormous political and cultural resistance to build this path.  

Revere has come a long way since our first Bike to the Sea Day in 1993,said Winslow. The No Bike Signs have been taken down on Revere Beach Boulevard and new sidewalks laid end to end. Bicycle lanes and sharrows have started popping up the last few years. All this means that drivers no longer shout out for bikes to get on the sidewalk. With the completion of the Northern Strand in North Revere, theres even revival of talk to look at options to bring a trail directly to Revere Beach along the Rumney Marsh as we had originally envisioned.

After the ribbon cutting we rolled about 100 meters to Anthonys Cabana, where a fenced property abutted the path. The wooden picket fence did not set this modest home apart from the others along this Revere Street, dotted with quaint sugar cube properties. Only the surf board on this fence serves notice of the spirit of its owner.  

For once inside this fence, one finds a densely packed outdoor pavilion with an in-ground pool, jacuzzi, full bar, game pavilions, sound systems, flat screen televisions.Welcome to the home of Anthony Chianca. With disarming smile, this bald, middle-age man in a Hawaiian shirt loves to entertain.

But this man - about as far from Howie Carrs stereotype of a bike hippy one could find - has worked tirelessly to improve his neighborhood and his city to build this path that runs behind his home.  

This path is close to connecting into a powerful bike-friendly corridor into Boston. And that path is crawling tantalizingly westward as the Somerville Community Path is crawling tantalizingly eastward.

Sadly it has taken Winslow 22 years to get this far. And his dream of a Bike to the Sea path can only now claim to get one to a salt marsh. But with this Revere connection, the path runs unfettered to the Lynn line. Lynn, a city that needs bike facilities far more than any other community along this pathway, sadly has a decidedly anti-bike mayor.  

But the placid and persistent Winslow has outlasted every element of opposition to date.  

The same day that I attended the ribbon cutting in Somerville I also got a bow. This came from Zagster, the Cambridge-based bike share company has been steadily working in smaller cities, corporate centers, and college campuses nationwide. With high-quality Breezer Villager bicycles, this company has developed such surprising clients as General Motors, where accountants realized they were pissing away a full time salary a day as employees waited for shuttle buses to move them to and from their 28 buildings. This car company put in bike share.  

So what to do with those bikes when they come offline, in need of some minor repair and upkeep?  

Zagster opted to present 30 of those bikes to the Boston YMCA on Huntington Avenue, the nations first Y. The bikes were presented to less privileged kids from Roxbury and Dorchester who participated in an essay contest. The essays revealed just how important something as simple as a bicycle could be in their lives, expanding a world from a few blocks to a few miles.   

One young family, with three little kids, received a bike. I could see and sense just how hard dad was working to be just that, a dad. And this sturdy and swift machine could expand his economic horizons by about five miles. Within that radius would be opportunities in education, healthcare, social services, recreation and something suburban folks take for granted: a supermarket.

The bow on that gift, coming off the tragedy in Boston and ensuing media coverage, showed me how in four different locations serving four entirely different communities that bicycles continue to present a solution to so many problems. We hold that truth to be self-evident.

I had spanned an entire socio-economic spectrum during that week of ribbons and bows. Of all the ribbons and bows I saw, however, one particular application made me recognize that our gains would not recede.

For as we gathered for a rush hour ghost bike presentation to commemorate the loss of Anita Kurmann I expected to see a cop or two sent to keep the peace. What I saw, however, caused my throat to thicken with emotion. For there, wrapping around the entire corner, stood a dozen green-clad Boston Police Department bicycle patrol officers. As we cyclists - of all stripes and styles - clustered on to the corner, we had this day-glow shield to the smoldering conveyor belt of evening traffic. One dump truck driver sounded a horn briefly … only to register the glare of these officers.  

This thin green line confirmed that we indeed belonged there. This thin green line, for which we have worked to establish for 35 years, confirmed that we indeed mattered. They understood the loss. They understood the experience of bicycling in Boston. They understood the senseless impatience and rage of these motorists all rushing to the next red light.  

And each of those hardened cops wore a tiny pink ribbon too.

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