revised biking laws

Your recent post about bike paths around Alewife reminded me of something I’ve had wandering in my head for a bit of time now…

Bicyclists currently have to abide by the same rules that cars do, but I don’t think this makes sense. Firstly, cyclists don’t represent quite as high a danger as cars/trucks, since they don’t weigh as much and they can’t go as fast (although they’re certainly still dangerous). Secondly, cyclists don’t have 2000 pounds of steel protecting them, and they’re harder to see, which means they’re more at danger. An accident that would be a fender-bender for two cars could be quite serious if it’s between a car and a bike.

At large intersections (like the intersection of routes 20 and 16 in Waltham), it seems safer for cyclists to cross with pedestrians. And at smaller intersections, when navigating slightly more dangerous maneuvers (like a left turn), it seems safer to get a head start on the green light so that cars don’t try to gun past the biker.  In general, it seems to me that cars and cyclists would both benefit if bikers were able to get out of the way in intersections.

Has there been any thought about modifying biking laws in MA?  For instance, letting bikers cross at the same time as pedestrians (but on the bike, and driving on the road rather than the crosswalk)?  Or possibly even turning red lights into stop signs for bikers — they have to come to a complete stop, but can then cross if the path is clear?

17 replies on “revised biking laws”

  1. Thanks for speaking out, Yuval.

    You raise an interesting set of issues. I have had exactly the same thought about a “stop and roll” rule for cyclists at red lights. I am under the impression that there is at least one state that has considered a policy like this.

    Following our passage last year of the Bicycle Safety Act, I proposed this “stop and roll” concept as a next step with bicycle advocates. I got a mixed reception. MassBike, in particular, seemed to have reservations, so I did not press it.

    Perhaps we can get David Watson of MassBike to post a further response here — I’ll reach out to him.

  2. I see no reason for any change to the existing laws and wish they were inforced. I have been a bike rider for about 45 of my 50 years and still bike a number of times a week. I have no problems stopping at stop signs and red lights and see no reason why others can’t as well.

    I see many times bikers flying through stop signs and red lights causing many issues with cars and really with pedestrians. A bike driving at 10 – 15 MPH is going to do much harm to someone walking legally in a crosswalk.

    On crosswalks and walk signals I get off my bike and walk across the street. Not real hard to do if people have the wont and courtesy to do so but most cyclists are very selfish and do not.

    Keep the law as is and advocate education and enforcement.

    I could go on and on with this topic but see no need here. Check out the archives of the Arlington email list for many spirited discussions on this topic. If you don’t subscribe it is quite easy to do so; After signing up you can check out the archives section.


  3. I agree with parts of both earlier postings. I think that it may be safer in many instances for bikers to precede cars into intersections when the light changes (as pedestrians do at many/most lights in Cambridge). Thus, it might make sense to change the law to provide for this.

    By the same token, I agree with Jim about bikers’ need to obey traffic laws. I am increasing distressed by the practice of MANY bikers of simply making up their own rules as they go: Adult bicyclists using the sidewalk, riding on the wrong side of the road and in the wrong direction on one-way streets, etc. Not only is this dangerous for the particular cyclist that is doing such things, it also, in my opinion, makes cycling less safe for the rest of us. If bicyclist do not engage in predictable, lawful behavior, it’s harder to accommodate them in a consistent and respectful way. I actually would like to see Boston’s pedestrians reined in a bit as well with stricter jaywalking ordinances/fines. [On a somewhat related note, the Globe a few days ago had an article that noted that Massachusetts had the lowest rate of seat belt use in the country. For a state that doesn’t tend all that strongly toward libertarianism in other respects, there seems to be a general disrespect for safety-related rules when it comes to vehicles and the use of public ways.]

    I was nearly hit the other day when a car unpredictably swung right to attempt a U-turn on Broadway in Cambridge. He may have been in the wrong, but I could have been safer if I’d not considered it OK to pass him on the right. Being right doesn’t help when you’re dead or seriously injured.

    I’d really like to see a major public service campaign directed at getting people to follow traffic laws no matter what form of transportation (car/bike/foot) they choose to use.


  4. For the record, Idaho has a “stop and roll” law on the books, which applies to stop signs (bikers can treat them as yield signs) and red lights (bikers can treat them as stop signs). See section 49-720 at

    I first heard about this law a couple years ago, so I imagine it’s been on the books for a while. And I do think it’s a good idea, since a lot of bikers behave as though said law were on the books regardless.


  5. Because it is safer to get out into an intersection ahead of a line of stopped cars, as well as an enormous benefit to maintain momentum if there are no cars coming across an intersection, many cyclists already treat stop signs (and red lights) as “yield signs.”

    But doing this not only violates current law (and leads to a bike culture attitude that the law is stupid and should be disregarded), it also makes it impossible for car drivers to predict cyclist behavior (as well as infuriates them).

    The solution is to change the law. Bikes are NOT cars. While always protecting our right to use the public roads, we need to begin demanding that cyclists (like pedestrians) should get priority — which means creating special rules that favor our safety, access, and efficiency. At some point, we want to create cities in which it is faster to bike than to drive a car!

  6. I have been a bicycle rider in the Boston area, and environs, since 1977. I estimate that in commuting to work and school, both in NYC where I grew up and started a family, and here: 50% bike – 40% public transportation – 10% car.

    Boston-Cambridge power brokers pitch this area as world class: the universities, the hospitals, the ball teams, the history, the culture. They are all formidable, but the car is king here and highways get paved before the pot holes where cyclists ride. And an even more serious problem is the lack of safe lanes on most major avenues and streets where cyclists ride.

    I could cite a dozen bad spots in just my daily 11-mile round trip (North Cambridge to Downtown Crossing). Mass Ave is just one example: coming into Cambridge many cyclists choose the walkway on the Mass Ave bridge rather than brave the proximity to 35-mile an hour traffic, including buses, on a narrow shoulder. There’s a newly marked bike lane along MIT, and if you’re careful and attentive, you can avoid getting doored or knocked into by a pedestrian stepping out between cars, pretty much through Central Square. It’s a crap shoot to Harvard Square, however. No lanes, a narrowing roadway, cars and buses barreling along. And, of course, despite a few attempts at painting bike lanes in a few spots, Harvard Square is a nightmare. Between Harvard Square and Porter, the road is badly chewed up in several places and the deep holes and ruts can too easily send a rider careening. The bike lane north from Porter Square ends in a couple of blocks and becomes a nasty “share the road” experience. Until, way too close to parked cars, a bike “line” appears and continues almost to Route 16. Although I turn off at Rindge Ave to head home, I often ride to Arlington. Mass Ave, wide as it is, has no bike lane from Route 16 to Arlington Center; cyclists ride. Hundreds of riders a day pedal on this route. Many hundreds more would do so if Mass Ave were bike friendly.

    I’m sure that many riders in other parts of the metropolitan area have a similar experience.

    I’m all for being courteous on our sidewalks, streets, and highways. I think the intent of most traffic laws is to keep people safe. Support for the value of being mindful drivers, riders, and pedestrians, and a careful cost-benefit analysis of such rules as “stop and roll,” can provide clarity to this issue. However, putting in place the infrastructure to support cycling as a highly desired means of urban transportation is a far more pressing issue for me, and most directly and significantly impacts the overall safety of cyclists.

    While billions of bank bailout dollars remain unspent; billions more in Recovery & Reinvestment (ARRA) funds are sitting idle. Our city councilors, state legislators, and Congressmen should all be clamoring to redirect funds away from financial institutions who are looking to hedge their bets in commodities such as oil and construction projects that continue reliance on unsustainable, environmentally harmful technologies. Instead, spending to improve mass transportation & to keep it affordable (the practice in most industrialized nations) and getting serious about bikes as a preferred means of urban commuting (like most world-class cities), is a great step toward real economic recovery and a sustainable future.

    And, I would like to see cyclists help this cause by riding mindfully and courteously whatever the laws prescribe, and being engaged in the public discourse to improve our communities and cities.

  7. Many interesting suggestions, but my concern is that a simple painted line on a busy, often winding street does not provide any safety for bicyclists. No wonder people often bike on the sidewalks. To avoid traffic conflicts and getting doored, how about redesigning bike lanes to place them between the sidewalk and the parked cars where there is parking? Sloping curbs could designate the area, or widen sidewalks where feasible and add a bike lane out of traffic. The Netherlands has perfect bike lane designs and MIT on Vassar street has designed super bike lanes that get bikes off the street and yet leave plenty of room for pedestrians. Just some thoughts!

  8. This is a great thread and I have read through it carefully to this point. The Bicycle Safety Act creates an occasion for an education campaign and I am under the impression that Massbike is moving to seize that occasion. I’m looking forward to a continued conversation about the next step in bicycle safety regulation after we digest the BSA. Perhaps we could head for new filing at the start of the coming session.

    Re infrastructure, yes! Actually, our area will see significant ARRA funds going to bike paths, notably along the Mystic, and the path from Belmont to Alewife should be going to bid soon. But I’d like to see us do much more and will continue to advocate for this.

    Thanks to all for weighing in. Keep it coming.


  9. Staying alive on a bicycle while sharing the road with busy, competitive motorists who regard you as an annoyance is high art, but the basic idea is to stay separated in either space or time. Knowing how to deal with any given intersection is not a simple thing, and they are all different.

    One thing I would particularly like to mention is the unfortunate installation of so called “calmers” (much widened lane dividers) which force bike and car traffic into the same lane. A number of these things have popped up in recent years (Concord Avenue in Cambridge, and several around Belmont). Evidently, the decision making has not been cycle-conscious.

    1. Well taken, Stefan. This is mostly a local issue (as opposed to a state policy issue), but I’ll comment. I feel that most of these calming devices offer big benefits for pedestrians and are manageable for cyclists (I commute by bike daily). But I have almost gotten badly hurt myself by a bumpout in the dark, so I am sensitive to the need for care in design and signage.

      1. About these calmer things: I have no problem with a modest refuge in the middle, but
        the one’s I see are unnecessarily wide, forcing SUV traffic and bicycles into the same
        lane. It’s not my idea of manageable. Having recently been t-boned by a Volvo in Belmont,
        I can give you a real sales talk about separation.

  10. This is a really interesting discussion that reflects several points of view prevalent among cyclists. I’ll respond to a few specific points I’ve pulled out of previous posts, but first some general comments. I recently submitted the following letter to the Globe after it published a report that generated a great many comments about cyclists and the law:

    In his August 7, 2009, report “Boston’s unruly riders”, David Filipov quoted me as saying “focusing on the cyclists’ violations misses the point.” While I think that much of the behavior engaged in by cyclists is motivated by safety concerns, both real and perceived, my point was the inequity of focusing on the behavior of one group of road users – cyclists, which is estimated to represent only 0.5-1.5 percent of all trips in Boston, while acknowledging only in passing the often dangerous and illegal behavior of the predominant user group – motorists. Observe any busy intersection in Boston, and you will invariably see that every group of road users – motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians alike – routinely violates rules, each group in its own way. Many pedestrians jaywalk; many motorists speed or fail to signal; and, yes, many cyclists go through red lights. Outmoded roadways, signals, and signage create uncertainty about the safest course of action, and may lead people to conclude that following the rules is actually less safe. But our society is based on rules, a social contract in which we all benefit from the predictability that comes from the fact that most people follow the rules most of the time. That idea extends to the road – the more predictably we each act, the safer we are because we have a good idea of what each other will do. To keep everyone on the road safer, the “me-first” attitude so prevalent on the streets of Boston has to change. By all means, let us build better roads, roads that lead people into safer behavior by design. But each of us can help make everyone safer right now, today, by more often following the rules of the road whether driving, bicycling, or walking.

    Now, on to addressing some of the specific points from prior posts:

    1. Cyclists crossing with pedestrians: Some cyclists take advantage of “Walk” signals by using the crosswalk to cross an intersection while the light is still red for the travel lane. It is clearly legal for a cyclist to dismount and walk his or her bike in a crosswalk (the cyclist is a pedestrian in this case). However, many cyclists simply do a little “jog” to the right to get in (or near) the crosswalk. MA law expressly excludes bicycles from the “right of way” afforded to pedestrians (and all other human powered conveyances) in a crosswalk, so a mounted bicyclist is definitely legally different from a pedestrian. MassBike’s position has been that bicyclists should dismount to use crosswalks. I agree that bicyclists riding in the road should not veer into crosswalks in order to circumvent red lights – this makes the bicyclist unpredictable. It is less clear to me that dismounting makes sense on crosswalks that are extensions of bike paths or sidewalks where bicycling is permitted, and this is something we are looking at more closely.

    2. Cyclist getting a head-start on green lights: This should not be necessary for a properly positioned cyclist who is either in line with the cars, or has moved up to the front of the line by legally passing the cars on the right. The risk to cyclists at intersections is primarily from turning vehicles, and proper positioning and/or careful attention to the cars can alleviate much of this risk. Of course, some intersections are just so poorly designed and so dangerous for cyclists that cyclist should do whatever is necessary to safely traverse them.

    3. Red lights should be treated as stop signs for bicyclists: This is how many cyclists treat red lights today (if they bother to stop at all). I hear reasons such as “it’s safer to get across the intersection ahead of the cars” and “it wastes my energy to stop and start”. I am not aware of any real evidence that it is safer to get through the intersection ahead of the stopped cars. In fact, I would argue that it can be *less* safe because instead of interacting with the cars from a standstill, the same cars are passing you 100 feet down the road going 30 miles per hour. The point about wasting energy – come on, we’re the ones who are in good shape, we’ve got energy to spare. The Idaho law has been mentioned as well. I’ve done some research to compare Idaho and MA, and there simply is no comparison. Idaho is a largely rural state with a population density of 15.6 people per square mile and its largest city has about 203,000 people. MA is far more urban, with a population density of 809.8 people per square mile and its largest city (Boston) has over 609,000 people. The fact that stop-and-roll may be working well in Idaho does not tell us anything about how it might work in MA, particularly in urban areas. We already see stop-and-roll in action here (albeit illegally) and it seems pretty chaotic. And stop-and-roll violates a central principle of traffic safety – predictability is safety. With stop-and-roll, it is at the cyclists’ discretion whether to proceed across an intersection, meaning that a motorist would never know for sure what a cyclist is going to do. Maybe they’ll stop, maybe they’ll go, totally unpredictable. How is that safer?

    4. Bike lanes between parked cars and sidewalk: The idea of separated or protected bike lanes is worth looking at. European cities have used them extensively and NYC is experimenting with them. They are not necessarily a good solution in every situation though. When cars are turning right across a separated bike lane, it may be even more difficult for motorists to see cyclists. It complicates left-turns for cyclists. It may require separate signals at intersections to avoid turning conflicts with cars. In other words, it requires careful design and engineering to do these things right.

    5. Widen sidewalks and put bike lanes on them: I’m less excited about these than I am about separated lanes. One of the reasons experienced bicyclists stay off the sidewalk is that we don’t want to interact with unpredictable pedestrians, skaters, baby strollers, fire hydrants, parking meters, mailboxes, etc. You can design on-sidewalk bike lanes to address some of these things, but you can’t stop pedestrians from meandering across the sidewalk. And you still potentially have all the same issues as with separated bike lanes described above.

    6. Bicycles are not cars and should have different rules: No question, there are fundamental differences between bikes and cars. But that does not necessarily mean that different rules will make everyone safer. Right now, we have one set of rules, yet many people – bicyclists, motorists, and pedestrians – seem unwilling to follow them. For example, there is only one way to stop at a red light – you actually stop and wait for the light to turn green. But there are many ways in which bicyclists go through red lights – blowing right through, stop-and-roll, veering into crosswalks, creeping out into the intersection, etc. As I’ve already said, predictable behavior is the key to traffic safety, and only the first option (stopping and waiting at the light) is consistently predictable. Until everyone has given it a serious try to operate under the existing rules, I don’t think anyone can say that they don’t work.

    1. David, thanks so much for weighing in. You bring both a wealth of experience and a lot of learning from the experiences of others to the table. Sounds like the bottom line is that the case for changing the rules is not a simple one. As a legislator, I’ll keep listening and look forward to continued input and I’ll certainly respond if a clear consensus emerges on how to further improve safety. Thanks again for your leadership in getting the first bike bill passed.

    2. Has there ever been a modification or rule that allows a bike to walk the bike while still on it through a crosswalk? It seems if one is going slow enough to have feet down and step through, this could be a way to be in a crosswalk or sidewalk and not be ‘biking’ in the way it concerns pedestrian safety?

  11. Your post makes it sound like bikes are no danger at all. Most of them are terrible at night due to total lack of visibility. How often have I found myself surprised by a biker as I’m driving closer to him (we’re both going in the same direction) and seeing him there on my right at the last minute. His back is black like night, he has a tiny red light on his helmet or hardly anything at all that would signal that he is there. I’m tired of hearing that it’s always the car’s fault. Bikers should be made to wear uniform safety lights approved by the State. Nothing puny or invisible. Pedestrians too might I add.

    1. That seems orthogonal to me; just because there are some real problems with bikers, doesn’t mean my post is wrong.

      And for what it’s worth, I like bikers use the “stop then go” when I’m driving, too — not just when I bike. In fact, I drive much more often than I bike, so I’m coming at this more from a driver’s perspective than a biker’s. I’m thankful whenever a biker ahead of me does the “stop then go” at a tough intersection (while I’m waiting for a red that “should” apply to them), because it makes it that much easier for me to navigate the intersection without having to worry about them.

      It’s sad that the issues even have to be phrased in terms of such “us vs them” perspectives, instead of just “let’s make everything safer and easier for everyone.”

      It’s very easy to see things from one’s own perspective, but much more useful to see things from someone else’s perspective. For instance, when you suggest that pedestrians should be required to wear uniform safety lights — are you writing that just from the perspective of someone who drives, or are you also putting yourself in the shoes of someone who needs to put on garish lights just to hop over to the sub shop down the street?

Comments are closed.