On Thursday I went to a “StreetTalk” at the Livable Streets Alliance in Cambridge. Barbara Knecht, the Director of Design at the Institute for Human Centered Design spoke about who and what streets should really be designed for (short answer: people). Barbara spoke about the need for everyone – not just drivers and bikers – to maneuver around the city, and the need for streets and sidewalks that can accommodate all the different devices that people use for travel, from wheelchairs and strollers to Segways and roller blades. One point that really resonated was about the vast amount baby boomers who will no longer be capable of driving safely in the future and will need other practical modes of transportation. The talk was hopeful, touching on all the small changes that are helpful and the speed with which attitudes can turn around. She spoke about the bicycle-friendly changes that were made in New York in a relatively short amount of time, and the relatively low cost associated with a lot of bicycle infrastructure. All of this was encouraging, as was the energy and optimism in the packed room filled with rosy-cheeked cyclists. I felt guilty that I had arrived by bus, and was inspired to bike to work on Friday for the first time in months.
Somewhat apprehensive about whether I had chosen the right clothes, I set off Friday morning with my new neck warmer almost covering my face, but quickly warmed up and had a great ride in, arriving at work awake, alert, and full of camaraderie after one of those instant-solidarity run-ins with a co-worker at the bike rack. When I left work I was feeling somewhat less exuberant. The day had been stressful and I was glad to be getting some exercise on my way home. As I rode down Mass Ave, approaching the bridge, I was thinking how happy I was that I had biked and how beautiful the city was. Suddenly, as I went through a green light at an intersection, the oncoming car made a fast left turn, clearly oblivious to the fact that I was there. I screamed, brakes screeched, the car stopped inches from my bike, and I felt incredibly vulnerable. The woman at the wheel of the car gave me an exasperated look, as though, really, what did I expect? I pointed at the green light, also exasperated, and rode off. Shaky and tearful, suddenly every car looked ominous and seemed to be driving incredibly fast. I thought of Barbara Knecht’s comments about the need to slow down city traffic, and with longing of the European cities that have been lowering city speed limits.
Driving in traffic has never bothered me, and I’ve never understood those people who cite “Boston drivers” as a reason not to bike. Honestly, I’ve always found biking in traffic a little thrilling. Aside from its practicality, I think that’s why urban biking hooked me in a way that cycling down rural roads never would have. This incident was the closest I had ever come to an accident, though, and it definitely shook me up. I’ll admit, I even got a ride home. Nobody was hurt, my bike hadn’t even been damaged, but I suddenly felt a lot less optimistic.