Forcing the right hook at Mass and Beacon

The installation of a separated bikeway on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, leading from the Harvard Bridge to Beacon Street, forces motorists to turn right from the left lane — and establishes as the norm, bicyclists’ overtaking on the right, just as in the crash which killed 38 year-old medical researcher Anita Kurmann at that location and which led to the installation.

The fundamental assumptions behind this installation are, clearly enough:

  • that the most important car-bicycle collision type on Boston streets is the rear-end collision, and so we should take every opportunity to avoid riding in line with motor traffic (not true — overtaking collisions are rare; right hooks are common, and deadly);
  • that we bicyclists can do nothing to protect themselves from being struck by motor vehicles: that is entirely up to the motorists — vulnerability equals defenselessness, and we bicyclists are brainless and unteachable, so don’t even bother trying;
  • that the same motorists we fear will run us down if we are riding where visible, directly in line with them, will have an easier time avoiding us if we are overtaking in their right rear blindspot.

It is, however legal, possible and safer to avoid the separated bikeway and the door-zone bike lane which follows it: please see this:

I’m not the only cyclist concerned about this installation. Dave Stevens said, in an e-mail:

I live about 1/2 block away from the Beacon Street/Mass Ave intersection and have biked through it hundreds of times. While I appreciate the effort, the intersection feels much less safe than before the separated bike lane was installed. In the past, non-18 wheeled vehicles turning right would get all the way to the right, allowing bicyclists the opportunity to merge into the middle lane and pass the vehicles on the left. This is not possible anymore because of the bike lane. Cars turning right also have less visibility of the bikers because of the separation and often accidentally cut off bikers. I’ve also seen many bikers cut off right turning vehicles because they have momentum coming down the slight decline of the bridge.

The day the flowers were put on the road to create the separation, I stood at the intersection and observed the traffic flow for a few cycles of the lights. At least once during each cycle of the lights an accident almost occurred between cars turning right and bikers going straight.

In this context, I like to quote the great Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman:

“Never treat anyone in the public realm like and idiot. If you treat him like an idiot, he will act like an idiot.”

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3 Responses to Forcing the right hook at Mass and Beacon

  1. Charlie Denison says:

    I couldn’t disagree with you more. While yes, it is true that bicyclists can merge into the flow of through traffic in order to go straight, most will not. For much of the day, traffic is backed up and merging into the flow is nearly impossibly anyway. Bicyclists will naturally filter up along the right. A bike lane in between a right turn only lane and the right-most through lane would probably work okay, but there isn’t enough width to do that here. So, the city opted to not have a right turn only lane, as is the case with most intersections, and continue the bike lane up to the intersection as they normally do. But because the bike lane here is wide, physical separation was needed to prevent car and trucks drivers from driving or waiting in it.

    And whether or not they are in a bike lane or in the flow of traffic, bicyclists ALWAYS can moderate their speed and wait for right turning vehicles ahead of them to turn. I do this all the time. The only way to truly eliminate conflict between right turning vehicles and bicycles is to have separate signal cycles for right turning vehicles. Otherwise, some amount of negotiation will always need to take place, whether the conflict point is before the intersection or at the intersection itself as it is here.

  2. jsallen says:

    Yes, traffic is congested here for more (though still not most) of the day, now that the right-turn lane has been eliminated and right-turning motorists in the combined through and right-turn lane are required to yield to through-traveling bicyclists.

    Agreed, bicyclists will filter up on the right — the bike lane on the bridge encourages that, and it is not a problem there as there are no intersections or driveways — but merging into the traffic flow is easier, not “nearly impossible” when traffic is backed up, because the traffic is not moving until the light changes. In my video, I merge effortlessly in front of an MBTA bus.

    In terms of convenience, there’s a tradeoff between the delay when bicyclists moderate their speed and wait for right-turning vehicles ahead of them to turn, and the delay when waiting in line. In terms of risk, again: this installation asks bicyclists to do exactly what killed Anita Kurmann. She unfortunately did not wait for the truck to turn — assuming that she was overtaking it. But if the truck was overtaking her, she may have not had the opportunity to wait. Bicyclists cannot “ALWAYS … moderate their speed” — not if they are already in the trap where the truck will run over them.

    You conflate conflict and negotiation. Merging is negotiation, not conflict. Unfortunately, the construction of door-zone bike lanes leading into coffin corners has helped to lead many bicyclists to think that riding outside them must be even more hazardous, that major risk is of being struck from behind, which is very rare in Boston traffic, and that forcing the conflict as this installation does is even safer. It is probably safer than a plain coffin corner, but it is less safe than merging into the flow.

    “The only way to truly eliminate conflict between right turning vehicles and bicycles is to have separate signal cycles for right turning vehicles. Otherwise, some amount of negotiation will always need to take place, whether the conflict point is before the intersection or at the intersection itself as it is here.”

    There are other ways to eliminate the conflict. Some are expensive, for example grade separations.

    Alternate routes also may: for example, if Boston-bound bicyclists could get to the PDW path from the upstream side of the bridge, many wouldn’t have to reach the intersection at all.

    Currently, there is no way to get down to the Paul Dudley White path along the riverfront on the upstream side of the bridge. This leads to bicyclists’ riding down to Beacon Street and then cutting across in the near-side crosswalk so they can use the ramp on the downstream side, resulting in additional delay and risk. There is an exmaple of thsi in my video. Dr. Peter Furth has pointed out that there is inaccessible parkland just upriver from the Harvard Bridge. Comprehensive improvements would both make the path accessible and provide access to this parkland. Easy access to the path and to Back Street, on the inland side of Storrow Drive, would allow bicyclists to continue their trips on streets which are less troublesome than Massachusetts Avenue. I have now (December, 2017) produced a blog post describing these potential improvements.

  3. Pingback: Mass and Beacon: looking at the larger picture. | Street Smarts

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