A lot of people wondered why the helmet discussion touched a nerve. And let me say before we start, I ride with a helmet, and I always have. When my son went to college we bought a bike out there, but he carried his helmet in his carry-on so he had it right away. All my children have helmets and use them so much, that when we were in China riding on the city walls in Xi’an, my daughter thought it felt weird to ride without a helmet.
All that said, helmets are one aspect of safety and one that doesn’t solve all the problems of riding a bike. I wanted to point out a few ways in which you can improve your own bike safety by learning from Lime Bikes.
Lighting — Every cycle commuter knows the importance of bike lights. Good bike lights not only allow you to see the road at night, but allow you to be seen by others. A key problem in this country is that most bikes aren’t sold with lights, forcing the user to add them on, and we all know that when something is an add-on it often doesn’t get purchased. Worse, good lights are expensive. The Lime Bikes not only have lights, but they’re on automatically and they are powered by a built-in generator, meaning they never run out of charge (you power them by moving). Even better, the lights are positioned below the front basket so you can see contours in the road at night, something that can get difficult when you put a light on your front handlebars, as most of us do. Related: the yellow fenders provide a wide area of reflective material so the bikes can be seen by car headlights.
Geometry — Mountain bikes and road bikes are designed for competition, so they want you to go fast. This means the whole bike geometry is designed to move your body weight forward and put your head out in front. This is great for when you’re attacking a course and trying to hit your top speed. But it also means your natural position puts your eyes toward the ground forcing you to look just a few feet in front of you. Again, this important when you’re moving at high speed. But when you’re in a city you want to sit up and look around you. You want to be hypersensitive to the cyclists, drivers and pedestrians coming from all angles. Chances are, the bike you got your child or even yourself doesn’t sit you up very high. By putting you up higher it also moves you head back over your body, so in an accident you are less likely to be flying over the handlebars and can handle the fall that much more easily.
Speed — No, these bikes don’t go fast. That’s not a bad thing, they’re not designed for you to work out. They’re designed to get you places. The lower speed makes it easier for you to react when something happens and reduces the chances of you flying over the handlebars if the bike comes to a sudden stop thanks to, say, a curb, pothole or a car that suddenly pulls out of a driveway.
Brakes and Tires — Disc brakes are relatively new in the biking world and a lot of people have them. Many of us don’t. Discs tend to stop faster, especially when wet. The tires are also wide to provide a smoother ride, and don’t require air, so they won’t blow out on you.
Bell — Did you look at the left handlebar? It has a bell. These are so important but again, few of us add them to bikes (though, they’re required in some cities). I used to call out to pedestrians on the bike path by shouting “On your left!” as I approached from behind. The problem was that people sometimes moved to the left while others froze. My intent was for them to move right. When I switched to a bell I found that people, upon hearing the *ding* simply moved out of the way (most often to the right). It’s polite and efficient. Use it often!
Carrying capacity — Just like lights, few bikes that people buy in the States come with baskets, racks, and bags. That means when it comes to riding to get something that needs carrying, like a package from the post office, a bottle of wine for dinner or some groceries, we take the car. It’s just easier to load things in and move on. But having a carrying capacity on the bike makes it an option. Why do I classify this as safety? Because the more cars we can move off the road the safer we ALL will be. Cars cause more damage to people around us than the bikes.
Availability — I used to show people a picture of my cousin’s garage in which you can see his two cars right there and available, but his bikes are suspended on a platform above his main vehicles. This means to use his bikes he must open the garage, back the car into the driveway, lower the bikes, release the bikes, move them to the driveway, pull the car back into the garage, then, finally, get on the bike and leave. Why would he do that when he can just go to step one and move on? A lot of us keep bikes in sheds, behind the lawnmower or the snowblower, or we put them in the garage in such a way that we need to maneuver around our cars. When we’re in a rush to run our errands we move to the easiest solution. The bikes being available makes them an easy solution. However, the reduction in bike numbers makes this a bit more cumbersome.
How can Lime Bike improve?
Rearview mirrors — These are so valuable, especially in traffic. There are some that attach to helmets, so if you are planning to have your helmet with you I suggest putting one on, though they’re easily damaged in that configuration. Having them on the bike handlebar would greatly improve safety.
Waze-like directions — The Lime Bike lets you mount your phone right in front, which is great. But what would be better is if you could give it your destination (like on an Uber or Lyft) and it could give you an estimated time, distance and a suggested route. These routes could be programmed to move people off of main roads and onto more bike-friendly routes.
Electricity — I don’t mind pedaling a lot, I do it all the time. But my wife isn’t likely to ride up the Walnut St. hill out of Newtonville. An electric assist bike makes her ride much more manageable and makes it more likely for her to choose to ride instead of drive.
How can we make the city safer? This is a much bigger discussion, but I want to touch on some top-level concepts.
Get off your cell phone — We all know it’s unsafe to text while driving. But when you’re sitting at a traffic light and looking at your phone, there’s that moment when you look up and realize the light turned green and you didn’t move. Then you jump quickly to move forward without really looking. If I’m a cyclists and I’m on the road in front of you, that puts me in a dangerous situation. Don’t look at the phone.
Protected bike lanes — This is key, we need protected bike lanes in parts of the city in order to make biking a viable option. Someone like me will take on Washington Street to get to Trader Joe’s, but for most people it’s just not an option. We need to use the data that Lime Bike provides and start looking at where we can build bike lanes to fill in gaps.
Better overall infrastructure — Bike lanes are just part of it. We need better bike parking in the village centers (which the city is currently working on) as well a clearly marked locations to leave the shared bikes. This may mean a single parking space devoted to shared bikes, or a series of boxes on the sidewalk that make clear where the bikes should go. In general, people want to do the right thing, but if they don’t know what the right thing is, they’ll do what’s easy. Let’s make it easy to place the bikes without blocking walking paths. We also need traffic lights that provide pedestrians and cyclists with a green in advance of the green for cars.
Use the bikes — There is safety in numbers. When there is just one bike on a road it’s easy to drive by quickly, but when there are many it creates a different visual for the driver and slows them down. The more we use the bikes, the safer everyone will be. Also, if the bikes are well-used we’ll get more of them in the city (see: Availability).
Stop Wearing Black Jackets — In this heat it’s tough to think about winter, but New Englanders seem to love their black outerwear. If you want to be safer, as a cyclist and as a pedestrian, buy a different jacket. I like red. In Newton, where our outdoor lighting is subpar, wearing black makes it tough to see you.