Waiting With a Bicycle at a Light that Never Turns Green

A change in the law governing bicycles recently was in the news.  In January, the Massachusetts legislature adopted a regime of traffic-ticketing to enforce existing laws that require bicyclists to, for example, stop at red traffic lights.

The Legislature was wise to insist that bicyclists err on the side of safety and caution.  Someone on the road has to, and it probably won’t be automobile drivers, chatting on cell phones and shuffling through the songs on i-pods.

Traffic Sensor Doesn't Notice Bikes

Traffic Sensor Doesn't Notice Bikes

So here’s a question:  what is a bicyclist lawfully required to do when the light never turns green?  It’s a frequent problem.  Modern traffic lights (i.e. the ones used everywhere except the city of Boston) are triggered by sensors that detect automobiles.  Roll over the sensor in a Chevy, and the light turns green.  Roll over the sensor on a Raleigh bicycle and … the light stays red.  It never turns green.  Ever.  Roll back and forth on it.  Jump up and down.  Nothing.

The question is sort of academic; the obvious answer is that you treat the traffic signal an ornament with little relevance to a bicyclist … but still you do so at your own risk — risk of physical injury and risk of legal jeopardy.  Injury because the lights are most frequently used at the most dangerous intersections.  There is a chance that the ornament will be you.  Jeopardy because who is to say the law enforcement officer will agree with your choice.  And it takes some significant waiting and experimenting to be sure the sensor really doesn’t work; that’s not a small inconvenience with traffic lights every few blocks.

I wish I had the answer.  It’s unfortunate, but perhaps the only safe thing to do is to drive.

You call this a commuter bikeway?

The Minuteman Bikeway is an 11-mile, “year round” asphalt pathway occupying a former rail line in Cambridge, Arlington, Lexington, and Bedford.  It is supposed to provide “an easy way for bicyclists and pedestrians to travel to subway and bus lines, serving to reduce automobile traffic in the area.” How does that translate to reality?

Minuteman Bikeway, under snow

Minuteman Bikeway, under snow

In some ways, not so well.  “Year round?” This being New England, if there is no snow removal then the path is useless four months out of the year.  Arlington only started removing snow last year.  And Lexington?  That’s still beyond Lexington’s abilities.  Lexington residents would be outraged if a single automobile road went unplowed for even a day.  But for some reason different rules apply to the bikeway, which has not been plowed for years.  So much for “year round” bicycle transportation.

No riding on sideways, dangerous traffic, no lane setoffs.

No riding on sidewalks, dangerous traffic, no lane setoffs.

Not to let Arlington off too lightly, what were they thinking with the route through Arlington Center?  Or more to the point, what route through Arlington Center?  The signs prominently warn against riding on sidewalks.  Okay, no riding on sidewalks.  The traffic pattern makes it dangerous, cumbersome, and illegal to ride on the road with a bicycle to continue the trail.  To reach the western trailhead riders have to go on the sidewalk or ride against traffic.  And there are no fog lines or bike lanes to provide a buffer against traffic.  In short Arlington Center pretends that there is no bikeway.  The blue sign at the top of the picture appears to instruct that riders levitate through shrubs and buildings rather than follow any path or roadway.  What is “easy” about this setup for bicyclists?

Not even close to “year round;” in Arlington Center in particular, far from “easy.”  It’s super recreation, but is this really an example of our transit future?

Bicycle UNfriendly

Bicycles prohibited on the Green Line

Green Line at Chestnut Hill station

I recently bought a bicycle.  I decided on Sunday to ride it from Providence to Boston.  Awesome.  After a series of misadventures preparing for the ride — including a 40-minute late MBCR train to my starting destination — I was a little short of daylight, but still optimistic.

So at about 8 p.m., here’s the situation: I’m crossing Route 128 on the Westwood/Dedham border and I know I’ve got only about 15-minutes of daylight left to get where I need to go … but my destination (on the T system) still is about 45 minutes away.  Ideally, I’d go to the nearest MBTA station stop, right?  So which stop to I choose?  West Roxbury Station on the Needham line?  Forest Hills station on the Orange Line?  Chestnut Hill station on the Green Line?  Readville Station on the Franklin Line?  Find a bus?

I go for the familiar, frequent Green Line service, right?  The Needham line doesn’t run on Sunday, parts of the neighborhood around Forest Hills can be tough after dark, and who knows when a bus or a Readville train will come bounding down the tracks.  Right?  Bicycles, carriages, bulky luggage — all the same, right?  Equally welcome.

Wrong! Sunday night isn’t exactly a busy time on at Chestnut Hill station.  The parking lot is empty, and so are the inbound trains.  But don’t take the ample space on the trolleys and lack of posted guidance as indications that you and your bicycle are welcome.  We weren’t.  It doesn’t matter if it’s dark and you have no lights on your bike; if you’re stranded; if you have money burning a hole in your pocket; if the train is completely empty.  All irrelevant.  The only thing that matters is that at some point in the gauzy past some MBTA administrator convinced all of the Green Line drivers that they would be fired if they allowed anyone onto the the trolley with anything resembling a bike.  Ever.

This may be the stupidest MBTA policy yet.  I completely understand that my bicycle takes up space.  On the foolishly slow MBCR train I rode to the start of my bike ride, my bicycle and I occupied four seats (the three bikes on the train occupied six seats total).  Would I object to paying for some of those seats?  Not really; I’d pay, probably a premium, and particularly if it guaranteed me the ability to transport the bike onto the train (apparently you can be denied boarding if more than six bikes are on the train!).  Would I have done the same on the Green line?  Certainly.  I was tired enough I practically would have handed the MBTA my entire wallet.

But they didn’t want my money.  They wanted to run their empty train into Boston instead.