How to Bike in Boston


(Picture from here.)

I’ve been biking in Boston for the last three years via the Hubway system.

Hubway is a bike rental system. You find a corral where the bikes are located, pick one and rent it and then drop off at a corral near your destination. Since I come into Boston on the train, I only had two choices: one of those collapsible bikes or the Hubway. The train won’t allow regular bikes during my commute time.

It’s sort of a choice between the sublime and the ridiculous. The collapsible bikes are pleasant, light and as nice to ride as a regular bike. But they’re expensive and once you bring the bike in you’re committed to riding the bike out again.

Remember those clunky bikes you rode when you were eight? Coaster brakes, three speeds—and only two worked—balloon tires fit for the moon and it outweighed you by ten pounds? That’s a Hubway bike. They have hand brakes instead of coaster brakes but the rest is much the same. They’re built to be tough. Elegance and pleasantries are distant luxuries. But they cost $85/year for an unlimited number of 30 minute rides. There are a bunch of corrals near the endpoints of my commute and if it rains in the middle of the day I don’t have to get the bike home somehow.

Ridiculous wins again.

So, over the last three years I’ve seen a lot of miscreant biking.

The hierarchy of vehicles in Boston goes cars to pedestrians to bicycles. The peds might disagree with this. I have seen a man in the middle of green lit lane staring at the oncoming cars and daring them to run him down. I take that as evidence that at least in the mind of some pedestrians they are on top. Still, I have to give it to the cars. The old kinetic energy = ½ mv**2 still holds better for cars, given their mass and velocity.

In the hierarchy of bikes, it starts with the Olympic multithousand dollar bikes ridden by people wearing not much more than an oil slick, the plethora of medium cost bikes, collapsible and then Hubway.

Yup: bottom of the barrel again.

I’ve come up with some rules by which one might bike in Boston and live to tell the take.

Rule Number 1: Wear a Helmet

Really. This one should be obvious but I see about half of the bicyclists without them. I mean it won’t protect you from broken bones or wrenched ligaments but it will keep your noggin alive. Isn’t that what it’s all about? My Dad used to say as long as he had his right eye, right hand and his brain intact, he wanted to live. And the eye and hand were optional.

I did know one bicyclist who didn’t wear a helmet because he said it made him more wary of the traffic. He also said that he shouldn’t wear a helmet because it was the cars’ fault. If it wasn’t for them he wouldn’t need it.

The nice thing about helmets is it protects the stupid and smart equally. It’s a democratic safety measure. If you make a mistake—and all of us have done that—it helps you. If the other guy makes a mistake, it still helps you.

Yeah. Helmets are a pain. So are concussions.

Hell, you could make a case for pedestrians to wear a helmet. They’re the ones that get hit the most. Not drivers, though. If airbags, seat belts and crumple zones don’t save you, nothing will.

Rule Number 2: Pay Attention

The thing about riding around Boston is that nobody is looking. They don’t see you. They don’t even look up. When I’m riding and run into a situation, nine times out of ten it’s because somebody wasn’t paying attention. They were arguing with someone next to them, listening to music, yelling into a cell phone, arguing with their child. And then there were the pedestrians who weren’t looking either.

Nobody evades physics. The sharp pants and teardrop helmet are not going to save you if you’re not looking where you’re going. Or, worse, you’ve made the decision to make a curl around a pedestrian with half an inch to spare and they suddenly turn towards you. It’s not their problem. It’s yours.

And while we’re talking about physics, remember that old KE=½ mv**2? Cars have both ends of that equation. They are your predator. You should feel about them the way gazelles feel about a lions. Moral superiority has no effect on physics. You might be right turning into traffic the correct way and still get squished. We’ll put “He was right” on your tombstone.

Rule Number 3: Survival Trumps Traffic Rules

It only takes a drop of quinine to spoil a bowl of ice cream. It only takes a few idiots to mess up traffic—driver, pedestrian or bicyclist.

I have absolutely no qualms about running a red light or slipping through stopped traffic. That said, if you decide to do this you are in the wrong. You have no special dispensation because you’re a bicyclist so someone obeying traffic has the perfect right to give you the finger. But, then, if you were paying attention (See rule 2) you wouldn’t have cut them off and put yourself and them in danger.

Traffic rules are not bad things and not things to be ignored without thought. If I come up into an intersection that has a red light on four sides to let pedestrians cross the intersection, I don’t have a problem going through it. But—and this is a big but—I have no right to put people in danger when I do so. It’s incumbent on me to go through safely. (Again, see rule 2)

Survivorship doesn’t just mean the cyclist. It means everybody concerned. It means stop the bike when it’s clear you can’t get through without hitting someone. It doesn’t mean plow ahead they’ll get out of the way because slowing down will bring down your time. It means going slow over bridges and hanging behind a pedestrian until it’s safe to pass. It doesn’t mean yelling at them to get out of your way.

Rule Number 4: You Are Not That Important

Yeah, yeah. You want to make your train. You want to shave a few seconds off your time. You want to get a good workout and look good doing it.

So what?

If you’ve caused a driver to brake unnecessarily or a pedestrian to run to get out of the way or made another cyclist who had right of way stop to avoid hitting you, you messed up! It’s not their fault. It’s yours.

Get over it. Cope. Don’t give them the finger. If you’re lucky enough not to hit somebody or get hit, take it as a lesson and quit doing it. There’ll be another train. Those seconds were eaten up by the stoplight anyway. Ride a little bit further to make up the workout.

Rule Number 5: Don’t Do Anything Stupid

Emblazoned in my mind is a woman I saw going up Broadway in Cambridge on the wrong side of the street, without a helmet and carrying a puppy. I am not making any part of this up

I see people willfully doing really dumb things all the time. Riding up Charles Street the wrong way. I’m not against disobeying traffic rules (See rule 3) but Charles Street, Boston, is a hot street. You are asking for trouble. Remember KE=½ mv**2? That’s velocity squared. Which means if the car is coming towards you at 30 and you’re traveling towards it at 15, the velocity of impact is 45. If it’s the other way, the velocity of impact is 15. 225 is a lot less than 2025.


These are my rules. They all apply to me—at one time or another I’ve violated all of them. But that’s no reason to continue the violation.

When I was learning to fly, one of the lessons was about not being stupid. Every risk is statistical. So if you act irresponsibly there’s a significant chance you’ll get away with it. The tendency is, then, to downgrade the risk.

But the risk hasn’t changed. If there’s a 30% risk you’re going to get clobbered by the oncoming truck and it misses it doesn’t change the risk the next time. It’s still 30%. The only change is you have decided the risk doesn’t apply to you.

Physics hasn’t changed. Physics always wins.





How to Bike in Boston — 6 Comments

  1. It’s even worse in NYC.

    A biker broke my right elbow two winters ago, going the wrong way on a one way, charging through the red light while I was crossing in the pedestrian crossway with the light, wearing earbuds and talking on his phone. Also it was going down to twilight and you can’t see these f*ckers even if one was looking for traffic to come the wrong way through a red light.

    He never saw me and didn’t stop when he knocked me down.

  2. In San Francisco the bikers, pedestrians, and drivers all distrust each other. When I, as a pedestrian, note that half a dozen pedestrians before me have crossed at a no-light crossing and there’s a car waiting to turn into that street, and I wave the driver to go through, the driver looks at me as if I am trying to lure him in to hitting me. I’ve seen pedestrians stop, frozen, in the crosswalk, surrounded by a bunch of cyclists streaming past against the light, trying to make a point of some sort. And the arrogance of San Francisco drivers is not to be dismissed.

    Me, I’ve pointed out more than once that the laws of physics don’t care that you have the legal right of way. And that if your parents sue because you’re run over when you’re crossing against the light, even if they win a huge judgement, you’ll still be dead.

    Common sense, regardless of how you’re getting around, is your best accessory.

  3. Despite what Mad says above about the crazy distrust in San Francisco, it is a fact that drivers on the West Coast — and even bicyclists — yield to pedestrians in a way that one can only fantasize about on the East Coast. I don’t push my luck — pay attention is the most important rule of all — but people come to a screeching halt for me in Oakland all the time. In DC, I used to jaywalk (when no cars were coming) because it was the only way you’d actually get across the street — it’s not like anyone was going to give you the right-of-way at the crosswalk even if you had the walk light.

  4. I’m with Nancy Jane. I was astonished these past few weeks, at the courtesy of west coasters. People stop and give you directions on the street, without trying to pick your pocket!

    • Despite what people say, I’ve always found New York City folks very helpful in giving directions. But when it comes to giving pedestrians the right of way, the distinction between East and West coasts is stark.

  5. There’s a new move I should have mentioned. I call it the double guillotine maneuver. It tends to happen on bike paths and bike lanes.

    The single guillotine maneuver is nasty enough. Imagine three lanes of a highway. You’re in the middle lane going 60. There’s a car in front of you going about the same. The car behind you in the high lane is going 65 and coming up towards you.

    Now imagine a car coming behind you, passing on your right and coming back between you and the car directly in front of you to get to the passing lane ahead of the car in the high lane coming up on your left. The 65 mph car is creeping up on the car in front of you– like a guillotine. The passing car has to get between you and the car in front of you and into the high lane before it gets caught in the guillotine.

    The double guillotine maneuver goes like this.

    In the bike lane, the runner in front of you is, of course, going slower than you are. There’s a runner coming at you in the opposite direction. So you start to pass the runner you are overtaking and get around them before encountering the oncoming runner. All safe distances have been observed.

    Unbeknownst to you, there’s a cyclist behind you. As you pass the runner, that cyclist passes you. Now, safe distances have been compromised and BOTH of you have to get in front of the pedestrian before one of you strikes the oncoming runner.

    I thought that was pretty bad. But coming in today I encountered a TRIPLE guillotine. That’s right. I passed the runner. A cyclist passed me and a third cyclist passed him. All with a fleet of runners coming on the other side of the bike path.

    I’ve been in the position of the cyclist to the rear and the solution is to wait until the first cyclist does the pass and then do your own. Which I do.

    It makes me want to go over the bicycle fatalities reports and see if they were doing something stupid at the time.