Bicycling In and Around Bedford: Reminders, Tips, and Helpful Hints for Cyclists and Drivers

Sharrows are signals that the road needs to be shared with bicyclists. Cyclists may take the full lane, please share the road – Image (c) Peter Weichman, all rights reserved

 

Submitted by the Town of Bedford’s Transportation and Bicycle Advisory Committees

Read through this article to find out what these markings alongside the road mean – Image (c) Peter Weichman, all rights reserved

Editor’s Note: Footnote references appear at the end of this article

Bicycling opportunities have been rapidly expanding over the past decade, in Boston and in many other major cities throughout the United States. New transportation infrastructure, through such concepts as Complete Streets [1], is being designed to safely incorporate the needs of all users, including motor vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians. Yet bicycles are uniquely capable of rapidly and efficiently moving motivated people from one place to another on citywide scales, having a negligible environmental impact, while at the same time providing enormous health and exercise benefit.

Given the availability of safe and efficient routes, a cyclist can easily move 5 miles in under 25 minutes, while carrying a quite reasonable amount of baggage. It is certainly a wonderful way to explore a city – an available option that has vastly improved your authors’ vacation experiences. Ever improving technology has produced an expanding variety of superb, lightweight, and flexibly usable bicycles at reasonable cost [2].

Sadly, for those of us who have been longtime enthusiasts, the Town of Bedford has been a rather slow follower of this safe cycling expansion trend. In the 2018 “Bicycle Community” evaluations by the League of American Bicyclists [3], Bedford failed to meet even the minimal standards to qualify as “Bicycle Friendly”. Some readers may have noticed modest additions to painted bike route lines and share-the-road guidance symbols over the past couple of years. Happily, there are plans in the works for major extensions of these over the next few years. Bedford is at the head of the Minuteman Bikeway, one of the most popular bike paths in America, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year [4]. It is a bit of shame that it has taken so long for it to extend its length, and the reach of its tendrils, more deeply into the surrounding communities.

This objective of this article is to help raise cycling awareness, informed by the author’s personal experiences. With a half-century or more of cycling experience, enthusiasts such as I currently represent only a tiny fraction of the population, but sincerely hope that many new users, of all ages, will be encouraged to give new cycling opportunities a try as they become available. But until the Town of Bedford makes significant progress with respect to its 2015 Bicycle Master Plan [5], most people will continue to limit their to cycling sidewalks, bike paths, or not at all.

Safety on the Road

Safety is, of course, the primary concern. A combination of improved route design and driver and cyclist awareness is the solution.

As a driver concerned with navigating around a cyclist or group of cyclists it might help to take a mental step back to realize that every bicycle is one less car on the road, one less vehicle backed up in front of you at a traffic light, and one less competitor for parking spaces on crowded city streets. Though not a solution for the cut-through commuter traffic we all suffer from, Bedford has embraced encouraging non-vehicular transportation as a way to improve residents’ experiences moving around the town (e.g., the development included in the Great Road Zoning project).  It may sincerely be hoped that rude gestures, aggressive horn honks, snide comments, or screaming invective (your author personally experiences each of these on a regular basis while performing perfectly legal and carefully considered maneuvers) can become a thing of the past.

For the cyclist, it is also worth taking that mental step back to realize that even a conscientious driver may not know how best to share the road with a cyclist. Though bicycles are an increasingly common sight on our roads, they are still a minority and many drivers learned to drive when bicycles were barely an afterthought. Experiences with the occasional erratic cyclist, or those who flagrantly ignore the rules of the road, make it hard for drivers to know what to expect, to the detriment of everyone’s safety.

Drivers are certainly well aware of other automobiles and of pedestrians, but with increasing bicycle traffic a much larger spectrum of users with greatly varying speed and visibility is present. From a cyclist’s perspective, the most nerve-wracking is being passed at uncomfortably high speed, with minimal elbow margin, by a large vehicle, occasionally with life-altering consequences. The standard rule of the road is at least three feet of room, and reasonable speed when passing a cyclist. There is actually a strong downside to being given much more room than that – it can be nerve-wracking when a car overcompensates by moving entirely into the opposite lane to pass. Your author has quite regularly experienced the negative consequences when unexpected oncoming traffic (perhaps appearing from around a blind corner) causes that car to swerve back suddenly and too early. Experienced cyclists are always prepared to slam on the brakes under such conditions, but they really shouldn’t need to!

A road edge hazard – Image (c) Peter Weichman, all rights reserved

The problem is exacerbated by poorly designed or maintained streets that may involve road edge hazards generally not noticed by drivers. For example, most experienced cyclists are perfectly comfortable riding 18 inches from the curb. However, sunken storm drains, potholes and other tire-ruining obstacles regularly force expansion of that distance, and although cyclists look ahead and try to anticipate these problems they sometimes lead to seemingly erratic avoidance maneuvers. Such events too should become a thing of the past with improved route design. Each foot of additional delineated road-edge space marks an expanding zone of comfort for a cyclist, and properly designed streets have this in mind. Of course, nothing beats a fully separated bike lane (though parked car doors can remain a major hazard – the Dutch reach [6] is to be recommended here).

A Sharrow – Image (c) Peter Weichman, all rights reserved

Sharrows [7] may be an unfamiliar feature to many drivers and cyclists. These chevrons topping a bicycle symbol, usually placed on especially narrow roads, are intended to warn drivers that sharing the road is a must. In addition to the painted symbols, signs indicating “Bicyclists May Use Full Lane” are normally included to make both drivers and cyclists aware that the road is too narrow for a motor vehicle to pass a cyclist in the same lane. With or without these signs and symbols, drivers should be aware that bicycles have the right to use the full lane like any other vehicle; cyclists should use this right when necessary for safety – but doing so just to make a point, or to ride three abreast and carry on a conversation, only increases tension on the roads.

Awareness is made simpler with greater visibility. It is incumbent on cyclists to wear bright clothing, and be lit up as much as possible at night, and even during the day. The new LED technology has allowed for major breakthroughs here.

Bicycles Need to Follow Basic Rules Too

An advantage of cycling is that certain flexibilities may be taken advantage of. For example, cyclists can effectively and legally morph back and forth with pedestrians. However, such maneuvers must be done safely, lowering speed to be respectful of pedestrians, and reemerging into traffic in a way that does not alarm a driver – the basic objective is to act predictably not erratically. Occasionally cyclists will cut corners in more major ways, such as going the wrong way down one-way streets or treating stop lights like yield signs. Even if these actions have no immediate negative consequences, they contribute to the animosity between cars and bikes and make all cyclists less safe in the long run; as a cyclist, you have the right to use the road, but must also accept the responsibilities and rules of being a vehicle.

While cyclists should be aware of their rights on the road defensive cycling is a must. Always keep in mind the most unexpected thing that a car might do.

Bicycles Interacting with Pedestrians

On sidewalks, pedestrians certainly have complete right-of-way.  It is incumbent on cyclists to be completely respectful and keep speed down.

The rules on mixed-use paths, such as the Minuteman Bikeway, are more nuanced. The full name of the latter is the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway, and as such, it is intended as a space in which cyclists can maintain a reasonable speed, and not be blocked by pedestrians walking four abreast. At the same time, cyclists need to follow their own three-foot rule for passing pedestrians. These are shared resources and basic courtesy and rights-of-way need to be respected by all parties.

A View from Europe

Certain European countries, notably Holland and Denmark, are amazingly advanced with regard to biking. Everyone does it. There is amazing infrastructure, with large numbers of separated bike paths. Downtown Copenhagen [8] effectively has parallel grids. There are even double-decker bike stands. Cities throughout the world, including the United States, look there for inspiration [9].

Conclusion

The objective of this article is to help encourage cyclists at all levels of experience to take advantage of improving infrastructure. With increasing numbers of cyclists, drivers will naturally become more aware, and safety and comfort will improve for everyone.

Informal cycling trails are marked by icons painted along roadsides in and near Bedford – Image (c) Peter Weichman, all rights reserved

As a final note, some of you may have noticed those mysterious icons painted on the side of the road. These denote informal bike routes, marked throughout the Boston area, often by the Charles River Wheelers [10]. The routes vary from 10 to 100 miles or more, and are a wonderful way to experience our beautiful New England countryside, on roads that are biased towards the nearly empty, visiting scenic areas that you may not even know exist, and almost always designed to intersect the best coffee and ice cream stops at convenient intervals.

References

[1] https://masscompletestreets.com/

[2] The advent of electric bikes should also be mentioned. Though with far less personal health benefit, and a significantly increased challenge to pedestrian safety, these move at bike racing speeds, and have completely replaced mopeds and some motorized scooters.

[3] https://bikeleague.org/bfa/awards/

[4] https://minutemanbikeway.org/

[5] https://www.bedfordma.gov/department-of-public-works/pages/2015-pedestrian-bicycle-master-plan/

[6] https://www.dutchreach.org/

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shared_lane_marking/

[8] https://www.visitcopenhagen.com/copenhagen/sightseeing/copenhagens-bike-culture/

[9] https://www.copenhagenize.com/

[10] https://www.crw.org/

 


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