To the Editor:
I offer heartfelt condolences to all those affected by the recent tragic cycling accident in Vineyard Haven. I’d like to offer a perspective on how to increase bicycle safety on Martha’s Vineyard.
I’ve been a passionate cyclist for 50 years. The safest places I’ve cycled are those outside of the US where cycling is viewed as a serious transportation option, as opposed to a recreational activity suitable primarily for children. In North America, Montreal is the pre‑eminent example, with over 300 miles of dedicated bicycle paths. One can cycle all around the city on paths that permit no pedestrians and are separated from motor traffic with pylons. Contrast this with American bicycle paths such as those on MV, where shared use combines experienced cyclists traveling at 15–20 mph with much slower folks walking their dogs, roller blading, jogging, and pushing baby carriages. I find cycling on shared use paths far more dangerous than riding the road, and twice in one day recently we were almost hit by cars emerging from private driveways that cross the bike paths to reach the roadway. Shared use paths also suffer from hazardous debris such as accumulated leaves and sand. Creating more shared use paths is not a path to increased cycling safety (and please note that cyclists, by Massachusetts law, “shall have the right to use all public ways in the commonwealth except limited access or express state highways,” so cyclists can not be forced to use bike paths.)
In the absence of bike paths expressly designed and maintained to facilitate bicycles as transportation, what can we do to increase bike safety? I offer the following:
• Teach children (and adults as necessary) how to properly ride bicycles on the road, and how to do a basic safety check on one’s bike. Encourage the use of safety equipment such as lights, reflectors, helmets, and mirrors (more important to cyclist safety than a helmet because mirrors help avoid accidents). Make it clear that along with the right to operate a bicycle on public roads comes the responsibility to understand and obey all applicable traffic laws, signs, and signals.
• Amend Massachusetts’ law governing motorists overtaking a bicycle to define “safe distance” so as to require motorists to allow a minimum of three feet between their vehicle and the bicycle, as has been legislated in many other states including N.H., Maine, and Conn. In other countries this distance is larger. Here on the Island I’ve been passed by large trucks with less than a foot to spare, which leaves no margin for error on either the driver’s part or mine.
• Build awareness of the law on the part of motorists, including the section in Chapter 89, Section 2, which states, “If it is not possible to overtake a bicycle or other vehicle at a safe distance in the same lane, the overtaking vehicle shall use all or part of an adjacent lane if it is safe to do so or wait for a safe opportunity to overtake” (italics mine). I feel I have been more seriously endangered by impatient motorists than by inattentive ones.
• Encourage law enforcement personnel to step up enforcement of such laws with both motorists and cyclists.
• Build an Island‑wide awareness of why increased and safer use of bicycles benefits all.
As a nation, we are faced with the economic and environmental consequences of our petroleum consumption while coping with the health and cost impacts of what many consider an obesity epidemic. As an Island we add to that the impacts of traffic congestion. Every commute to work or school, trip to town for shopping and errands, or dash to the beach after work that is accomplished on a bike is one less trip by car — fewer emissions, less traffic and parking congestion, fewer dollars going overseas for oil, and more calories expended to stay healthy. It’s cheaper, too.
The Vineyard is similar to other places where cycling is a key transportation strategy, such as the Netherlands, where 27% of all trips are by bike, or Denmark with 18%; it’s got a mild climate, much of it is flat, and much of what most people need is close to where they live, well within cycling distance for a healthy person. In the past six weeks I’ve driven about 100 miles in my car, and 3‑4 times that on bicycles. Make it safer to do so, and many more will discover how fun and rewarding it is, which benefits us all. Please join me in making this happen.