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Cover Story

The bike boom (+video)

Americans are using bicycles for transportation and recreation in record numbers as the fitness and green movements, as well as high energy costs, spur a two-wheel revolution.

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"The hills are part of the problem, and the narrow streets," says Edward Reiskin, the SFMTA's director of transportation. "We are fighting down to the inch."

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On a typical end-of-day commute, cars along Boston's Massachusetts Avenue are as tightly packed as cobblestones. This is to say nothing of the mass transit buses and cyclists vying for their piece of roadway. Even though Boston has put in a bike lane along part of the busy thoroughfare, the coexistence among various travelers can be uncomfortably close – and contentious.

As one cyclist cruises down the roadway, a Jeep wanting to turn right on Marlborough Street creeps into the bike lane and cuts off the cyclist. The cyclist abruptly hits his brakes and signals his disgust, verbally and otherwise. The driver seems oblivious to the whole episode.

While no one was hurt, the incident is reminiscent of thousands of tense encounters that go on every day on the streets of American cities. As biking spreads as a form of transportation, the main issue is whether everyone can survive amicably on the same roadways. "No question, safety is the biggest issue facing biking," says LaHood, who has held two federal summits on bike safety.

Cyclists recite a litany of complaints: about encroaching cars, about pedestrians who jaywalk in front of them, about motorists who open their doors without looking to see if someone is riding by. Riders, though, have their lapses, too. Many run red lights or fail to signal when they are turning. Others treat roadways like their own private bike preserves.

The result of all this is a grim fact: Bicycle fatalities have not been dropping as quickly as automobile deaths. Between 2003 and 2011, cycling fatalities as a percentage of all traffic deaths were up by almost 24 percent, according to data compiled by the League of American Bicyclists, a Washington advocacy group. One reason for this may simply be that so many more cyclists are now on city streets.

Yet there is some good news in the statistics as well. The actual number of fatalities, 677 in 2011, was down from a peak of 786 in 2005. Darren Flusche, policy director at the league, speculates that this could be because vehicle drivers are getting more accustomed to having cyclists on the road with them.

Cities are doing what they can to improve bike safety. In Long Beach, road crews put in a roundabout at a dangerous and heavily used nexus. As a result, the city documented a 9 m.p.h. reduction in car speed, a doubling of children walking, and a tripling in the number of cyclists who now use the intersection.

In other cities, such as New York, some roads with bike lanes have special lights that allow cyclists to go through an intersection before vehicular traffic. Portland has installed what it terms bike boxes, which are geared to prevent collisions between motorists turning right and cyclists going straight. The boxes, which are areas of pavement painted green with a bike symbol inside them, put the cyclist in front of the motorist for better visibility.

Even Boston, famous for its rabbit-warren roadways and random one-way streets, is pushing to be more rider receptive. Between 1999 and 2006, Bicycling magazine rated Boston the worst biking city three times. So in 2007 Mayor Thomas Menino started instituting changes. In addition to the bike lanes on Mass Ave., the city installed a bike-share program and is working to prevent people from opening car doors on those whizzing by on two wheels. This summer, Boston will outfit some 1,825 taxis with a sticker on the inside of the car warning passengers to be aware of riders.


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