Massachusetts Peddler Pushes Bicycle-based Transportation

MassBike helping to rewrite the rules and promote bicycle useage in the state.

Published: 25-Mar-2005

ARD - Einstein once said he thought of the theory of relativity while riding his bicycle. Whether the next great idea will strike while peddling a bicycle remains to be seen. But there is a group in Massachusetts making sure anyone, genius or otherwise, can ride and ruminate in safety. The head of that group happens to be a Maynard resident.

     In January, resident Robin Schulman was elected to her second term as president of the Board of Directors to the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, also known as MassBike. Founded in 1977, the statewide advocacy group helped create the Minuteman Bike Path, helped pass 1996 legislation calling for road construction to made adequate provisions for bike and pedestrian traffic and pushed for the change in MBTA policy which led to bikes being allowed on subways and commuter rails.
     Last year, the group convinced the MBTA to expand the hours bikes are allowed on the subway and was behind an override of a governor's veto that ultimately will require information about bicycles and bike safety to be printed in the Registry of Motor Vehicles' Driver's Manual.
     Now, a member of MassBike is involved in the rewriting of MassHighway's road design manual.
     For Schulman, the group's most important mission is making biking safer in Massachusetts. While the group represents all bicyclists, its focus right is on road issues, such as the conditions faced by commuters, racers and couriers, Schulman said.
     "The number one thing I would like to see changed is for people to obey the laws and understand what they are," Schulman said.
     While Schulman notes probably no more than 10 percent of residents know the laws pertaining to bicycle travel on roads, she notes most of it is "common sense."
     A bike has as much legal right to the road as a car, she said. While bicyclists are encouraged to ride as far to the right as possible, they have the right to the entire lane when necessary. That could be due to debris on the side of the road or even traveling in a "door zone," the area in which car doors are opened, she said. Often, she said, that often still leaves nine feet plus for a motor vehicle.
     When a motor vehicle is overtaking a bike on a road, the driver must slow down and pass at safe distance. If the vehicle is going to cross the center line, there must be 400 yards of visibility ahead
     "I think people get angry. They don't want to be slowed down. But I don't think these people realize we are a vehicle under the law and have the same rights to the roadway as long as we follow the law," Schulman said.
     The mission, by its nature, is diverse, Schulman said. The issues are complex, such as training police officers in laws pertaining to bicycles, configuring traffic lights to be triggered by bikes - now, most bicyclists have to wait for car - or creating bike lanes.
     "It's not something that is going to gain popularity without in-depth discussion," Schulman said. "I think that is our biggest challenge."
     In one case, she said a motorist crossed the center lane to pass a bike, causing an accident. The responding police officer arrested the bicyclist.
     Another dangerous move by drivers is when they pass a bike and take right hand turns in the path of the bicyclists.
     "We have the same legal right to the road as drivers," she said.
     An avid bicyclist since childhood, Schulman herself makes the eight mile trip to work everyday on her bike. In fact, she goes just about everywhere on her bike after selling her car two years ago, she said. That followed a 10 year period where she used the car only in the winter.
     "I was not using it very much at all," she said. "The last five years I used one tank of gas per year. I used it in the winter but slowly phased that out. Then I asked myself 'why do I still have this car?'"
     The benefits, she noted, are plentiful.
     In addition to exercise and her personal feelings toward non-polluting modes of travel, she notes often urban bike commuters reach work quicker than they would in a car because bicycles have an easier time passing on the right and can take alternate routes easier. In most cases, if the trip is longer, it is not by much.
     For her specifically, she noted the trip to work in Maynard takes only between five to 10 minutes longer than it did in a car."
     "I've always made a conscious decision to live within biking distance to work," she said.
     In addition, she listed an enjoyment factor.
     "It's very healthy and I take in all the beautiful sights," she said. "I really need to be connected to the outdoors every day. I see animals, ice floating down a river. If I want to stop and look at something like that I can. I'm not confined in this big cage that's going to block the road. I feel the temperature. I can smell the spring."
     While Schulman boasts more than 150,000 miles and only two accidents, she acknowledges the opinion held by many that biking in the road is unsafe. It is something MassBike and bicyclists as a whole must change, she said.
     The group is already working on achieving that through public awareness and education campaigns, she said. This includes presentations in communities and at businesses and editorials to newspapers.
     "Most bicyclists do not feel it is dangerous, other people do," she said. "That's why we need members. We need their support. We have a very long way to go to get rid of the myth that biking is dangerous.
     Schulman said bicyclists have the same responsibility to learn the laws and apply proper road etiquette.
     "Roads are not like bike paths to enjoy recreationally, we have to share them," she said. "We both follow the same laws."
     Bicyclists need to obey traffic laws, she said, including stopping at red lights and not traveling the wrong way down one-way streets.
     "It's rude" to ride three abreast, Schulman. Two is OK, as long as traffic is not blocked and bicyclists return to single file when cars are trying to pass.
     "Same roads, same rules," she said. "If motor vehicle drivers and bicyclists follow the laws, more people would feel safe riding."
     As part of a strategic plan, MassBike is growing, Schulman said. The group is starting to reach further west to boost its membership. With 1,300 members, the group now has two full-time employees for the first time in its history. There are chapters in Worcester and in the Pioneer Valley, Schulman said.
     "We're really focusing across state rather, than just Boston area," she said.
     One initiative this year, the Bicyclists Bill of Rights, mirrors legislation the group sponsored last year. Among other things, it includes: passages clarifying bicyclists have the same rights as drivers, giving bicyclists the right to ride side by side where appropriate, requires motorists to look before opening doors, requires training by police officers, makes the ticketing procedure the same as for motorists, requires bike helmets to age 16 and requires that motorists make a proper right-hand turn when there is a bicyclist ahead of them.
     According to MassBike bylaws, a member can only serve on the Board of Directors for two consecutive terms. For Schulman, that means after 2006 she has to step away from the board of directors. Her hope the, she said, is to get more involved locally.
     Schulman said she also formed the Maynard Bicycle Advisory Committee about eight years ago, but the group fell dormant when she got involved with MassBike.
     "With my MassBike term up, I'd like to focus on that," Schulman said. "I will work toward more local goals."
     "Better bike parking is the number one thing in Maynard," she said. "What it has now is totally inadequate."
     In addition, the local group would encourage more bicycle travel in town, run safety programs for children and push for "share the road" signs and education. It would also monitor road work to ensure the law regarding bike access is followed.
     Given its two major roadways, Maynard is also "the perfect town" for a Safe Routes to School program, Schulman said. That program would educate on the proper choice of routes and push for crossing guards and better sidewalks.
     "Though an adult can navigate the roads safely, they are still dangerous for kids," she said.
     While in favor of the concept of bike lanes, she noted if not done properly they are of little value and possible dangerous.
     "The best bike lane is a properly shared roadway," Schulman said.

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