The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby needs a bicycling lesson

cyclistsLast month a cyclist died in an accident on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston. Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby thinks the solution is to get bikes off the road, but his editorial, “Urban Roads Aren’t Meant for Bicycles” is just a pile of non sequiturs and whining. Because logic and recommendations are missing from his piece, I’ll have to supply them.

His first fallacy is that people who ride on Boston city streets do so because they’re out for fun:

THE ARNOLD ARBORETUM [is] a splendid venue for cyclists, with miles of meandering paths and gorgeous views of Boston. . . .  If you want to ride a bicycle in Boston, you’ve got plenty of great places to do it. Massachusetts Avenue during business hours shouldn’t be one of them. . . . Bicycles can be an enjoyable, even exhilarating, way to get around. So can horses, skis, and roller skates.

No, we’re actually trying to get to school and work, just like you.

Jacoby’s central point is that cars and bicycles don’t belong on the same roads, a fact that he backs up with spurious statistics.

Busy thoroughfares aren’t meant for cyclists. They are meant for the cars, trucks, and buses that transport the vast majority of people moving through the nation’s cities. Those vehicles weigh thousands of pounds, operate at 300-plus horsepower, and are indispensable to the economic and social well-being of virtually every American community.  . . . Adding [bicycles] to the flow of motorized traffic on roads that already tend to be too clogged, however, is irresponsible and dangerous.

According to the latest Census Bureau data, more than 122 million people commute each day by car, truck, or van. Fewer than 900,000 bike to work. Do the math: For every cyclist pedaling to or from work, there are 136 drivers.

Okay, Mr. Jacoby, let me help you with that math. Unlike the bicycles, many car commuters are in rural or suburban areas, not city streets. Many of those commuters are on major highways, where cars go 60 miles per hour and bicycles are absent. In fact, two out every 100 Boston commuters is on a bicycle, and 44% say it’s because that’s their best option for commuting, a fact that took me 90 seconds of Googling to find out. Check out the bike racks at any local company, university, or transit stop and you’ll see dozens or hundreds of parked bikes.

There are fewer bicycles than cars. Is that a reason to demonize the bicyclists? There aren’t that many people with wheelchairs, either, so why do we make it easy for them with curb cuts? Yesterday a couple of motorcycles recklessly cut me off on Storrow Drive. So let’s make motorcycles illegal!

Unless you want an outright ban on cyclists, you’ll find yourself sharing the road with them. “Bicycles don’t belong on roads” may be fun to say, but solves nothing.

Then there’s the “bikers don’t pay” argument:

[C]yclists pay no taxes, don’t have to be insured, undergo no safety inspections, and needn’t register their vehicles. They don’t have to carry an operator’s license, and aren’t required to pass a written or a road test in order to pedal in the streets.

Those gas taxes, insurance, and inspection costs are because cars and trucks beat up the roads, get involved in expensive accidents, and are unsafe if not maintained. Bikes don’t have nearly these costs. But if you’re argument is that bikers should pay, go ahead and tax them. That’s not an argument to get them off the road.

I agree something has to change. I also believe that both bikes and cars behave irresponsibly and cause accidents. Jacoby appears to want to make bikes on streets illegal, but that’s not an option.

In 40 years of commuting by bicycle, I’ve never been injured and never had a serious accident. The reason is that I’m totally paranoid and I behave in a predictable way so that I don’t surprise the cars. This is not courtesy — it’s common sense when any accident could very easily leave you dead or crippled.

What we need are some new rules.

New Rules For Cyclists

Unlike Jeff Jacoby, my new rules for cyclists that could actually improve things:

  • Police should ticket bike riders that do not obey traffic laws. (Jacoby asks “have you ever seen a cop ticket a cyclist?” Yes, I have. I’d like to see more.) Enforcement will change behavior, as it does with drivers.
  • Cyclists who ride in the city should pay $40 a year for a license sticker. Municipalities should use these funds for enforcement, bike lanes, and stolen bike recovery efforts. Cyclists with multiple tickets should lose their license.
  • Riding on streets with earbuds, or without a helmet, should be illegal. I can’t count the number of times my ears have told me that a car is coming up behind me.
  • The law should require flashing lights on all bikes at night, front and rear.
  • Cyclists should not exceed 19 miles per hour on public bike paths. The Minuteman Bikeway is not Daytona; Walkers and people with strollers have a right to it, too.
  • Position yourself carefully at turns. Make right turns close to the curb. For left turns, wait in line behind a car in the left lane, or on the right edge of a left-turn-only lane. At intersections, bikes going straight are at risk from both left and right turns. (A truck turning right killed the woman on Mass. Ave.)
  • Bikers should wear bright colors, ride predictably, check their tires and brakes at least once a week, and detour to avoid traffic circles. If you wear forest green, swerve, and don’t maintain your brakes, you’re a lot more likely to die.

New Rules For Cars

For fewer cyclists to die, rules for cars have to change as well.

  • The bike lane is not a passing lane or a parking lane. Police should enforce laws against driving and parking in bike lanes. The bike lane, like the sidewalk, is not for cars.
  • Stop looking at your smartphone. Not just while moving, but while stopped at a light or in a line of cars. We may need to cross in front of you. The startled moment when you look up and put your foot on the gas, that’s when you may hear that horrible crunching sound.
  • If you run over a cyclist, expect to be prosecuted. Let’s take a few reckless drivers to court.
  • Cyclists have a right to get where they’re going, too. You’re annoyed at the other drivers and us. That’s fine. We’re all just trying to get on with our day.

Photo: Arnold Reinhold via Wikimedia Commons


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. Agree with many of your points but I’m pro choice when it comes to helmets. They don’t make you more visible, vigilant, or in control, and they make you easier to dehumanize. They also present a barrier to entry for new cyclists, and number of cyclists on the road has been shown to increase safety.
    It’s also fallacious to talk about cyclists and motorists. Many (most?) cyclists also drive, so DO pay taxes, HAVE been trained in road use…

  2. In the ideal world cars, bikes and pedestrians would all have their separate ways to go. In today’s world bicycles are often better suited on the road than on a sideway.

    I don’t think riders should be forced to wear bright colors. It is good practice to make sure you’re seen but that can be accomplished in a number of ways. Everyone should understand that wearing black on black at night is not exactly improving their safety.

    I think enforcing rules is a very valid point. Every rider crossing a red light is hurting the entire cycling community. Car drivers judge the riders based on their behavior and the understanding for that needs to be increased.

    I’m not in favor of your 19mph speed limit. Most bikes don’t have a computer to measure speed. 19 might also be too much at times and to little at other times. I think this is a common sense issue. Racers need to understand that they can pedal hard when there is no traffic but they need to be more sensitive among slower riders and pedestrians. I’d suggest pulling some guys over and appealing to their common sense. IF there is none then we’d need a plan B.

    I don’t think $40 taxes is the way to go either. We could think of a tax on new bikes being sold but there is already sales tax. The bike riders are tax payers in many other ways. Collecting those $40 will cost more than it worth. Then there are also out of town riders and factoring them in will make things even more complicated.

    I’d rather use a portion of the revenue from the public rental bikes for bike path maintenance.

    In general, everyone riding a bike could drive a car instead. That would put much more load on the street. We could actually think about incentivizing people to ride their bikes.

    Flashing lights at night? Good idea 🙂

    Overall we should make it easier for people to ride their bikes more often. It should not come at the expense of car drivers getting totally frustrated though.

    Now, one thing that’s not part of your plan are eBikes and/or pedelecs. That will add a whole other layer of complexity to the debate.

    You should come to Interbike with me in two weeks 🙂

    1. I’m not for legislating bright colors, I just think it’s a good idea.

      I put the $40 out there because I think cyclists should have to look like they’re getting a free ride while everyone else is paying. But as you suggest, there are more ways to get that than a licensing scheme.

      1. Keep in mind:
        1. General taxes (paid by all taxpayers) pays for building and maintaining roads 2. The gas tax and other fees paid by drivers pay for highways and interstates – where bicycles are not allowed
        3. Many, perhaps most, cyclists also drive motor vehicles

  3. Thanks for taking on Jacoby and his worthless clickbait.

    FWIW, scientific support for helmets is weak. What is needed, as you say, are safer roads. Many (by no means all) cycling advocates have been pushing back against helmet-hype for years in favor of more effective measures, like protected bike lanes. Even the federal government has been forced to recognize the lack of scientific support for helmets.

    Also, because user fees do not cover more than 1/2 the cost of roads, the rest comes out of federal taxes, property taxes, and sales taxes. Because bicycles do very little damage to roads, people on bikes are paying more than their fair share, not the other way around. Numerous local bicycle-licensing schemes have fallen by the wayside in favor of more cost-effective approaches public-safety.

  4. Your commentary is excellent, but I suggest you amend your rules for cyclists. Your bullet on positioning on turns might encourage cyclists to think that they should stay on the right going into intersections. In fact, it is a much better idea to move towards the left side of the lane. That truck probably didn’t see the cyclist. The same thing happened in DC some years ago. A young woman was riding close to the right side of a right-turn lane and was mowed down by a trucker who never saw her. One key to survival on busy streets is to be very visible.

    Another piece of advice I’d add is to stay out of the door zone. I know more people who have been badly injured by opening car doors than any other city road hazard. This problem is in the same category of people feeling that they are safest if they get out of the way. Far better to slow down the cars behind you than smash into a suddenly open door.

    On the rules for cars, I’d add “signal turns and lane changes.” It is so simple, and helps cyclists, pedestrians, and other drivers to anticipate drivers’ moves, even if the drivers don’t see them. It just astonishes me how many people don’t signal. Of course, it’s hard when you have a cell phone in one hand and a big mac in the other. Another would be not to coast into the intersection before seeing if it is safe to turn. (Another reason why cyclists shouldn’t hug the curb at intersections.)

    I wouldn’t mandate helmet use for adults. There’s a little evidence that you’re at greater risk of an accident when wearing a helmet (because drivers are more cautious around unhelmeted cyclists whom they deem to be more vulnerable). And I’m pretty sure that cycling even without a helmet is healthier, on average, than sitting on your butt so I’m reluctant to support any policy that would discourage cycling. The argument for wearing a helmet while cycling would also apply to walking in cities–4,735 pedestrians died in traffic crashes in 2013 according to NHTSA compared with 743 cycling fatalities ( To be clear, I’m all for wearing helmets (although I sometimes jump on a rideshare bike without a helmet because it’s still the best way to get around the city and I don’t always have a helmet available), but I don’t think it should be mandated.

    I hate flashing white lights on front of bikes. The strobe effect is blinding, especially on unlighted roads and bike paths.

    I’m also not crazy about the seemingly arbitrary 19mph bike speed limit. On paths with little traffic, riding 25 is completely safe. When there’s lot of pedestrian traffic, 19 is too fast. Shouldn’t the rule be that cyclists should ride safely for conditions?

    And there are good reasons to encourage cycling, especially in cities, to reduce pollution and congestion and encourage a healthier lifestyle. I wouldn’t mind paying a fee, but a lot of cyclists have low incomes–especially new riders. Adding a fee could significantly discourage cycling. Unless the license bought a whole lot of good will from motorists (I’m skeptical) I think it would be a bad idea.

  5. 1) Bikes are not anywhere near motor vehicles in physical terms, and it’s silly to seek or cite legislation that misses this point. (Yes, bikes are ‘vehicles” : ones that pretty easily can be lifted and fit into the motor vehicles –hint, hint!)

    2) Thus, there are reasons for separate rules for bikes vs. motor vehicles. It would be a net plus, IMO, for stop signs to be treated as yields by bikes (and maybe red lights as stop signs) –coming up a block, e.g., to a 4-way SS devoid of traffic with good sight lines on a bike means that, given the cyclist’s unimpeded (by side pillars & glass) view, the operator/cyclist should be in perfect awareness of any need to yield RoW (right of way), and NOT need to “come to a complete stop” as is legislated for “vehicles” : that’s damn pointless. The main consequence seems to be raising some folks’ ire at cyclists who sensibly just roll on through the empty intersection.

    3) Helmets. Yeah, it seems that science isn’t nearly so strong a supporter of requiring helmets as one might thing; but, OTOH, helmets are a good place to mount a light –a rear blinky and even a front headlamp! Like you, I intend to wear a helmet. (And, alas, I have **used** helmets in their intended way, where they and not my head got cracked.)

    4) Bright colors. I’m all for it, but it’s an awkward thing to try to legislate. And let’s not think that all blinkies are made the same : I’ve recently wanted to tell (and did tell) some riders that their blinkies were pathetic efforts in the right direction, at best. (My motto on rear ones : “3 is not too many” –corollary, “1 might be too few”!) I watched a rider in black but with a Planet Bike rear blinky in daylight ride in daylight : yeah, I could see the blinky, but I still think that he’d be more conspicuous in some strong colored jersey (he having an adult-male-sized torso).
    And beyond which, the prudent cyclist should exercise caution & alertness.

    5) Didn’t get the point in your counter-rant that some of those busy roads could be made less congested if motor-vehicle operators switched to operating bicycles. It’s not an option or easy for many people, but like IS for many who currently drive.

    6) Motor vehicles driving in bike lanes. Firstly, I’m not a big fan of “bike lanes”, as they might imply that bikes must be there and not elsewhere, and they do tend to treat debris that way –absent motor-vehicle traffic, areas nearby collect debris. I have myself purposefully driven in a bike lane, expressly to try to clear out debris (and there were no bikes there then). Such lanes also tend to push bikes into the dangerous “dooring zone”. IMO, I’d prefer that righthand lanes are made wide enough and then let cyclists place themselves as conditions & prudence dictate, and with ongoing interest in helping motorists to pass (to which a simple hand signal showing that you, the cyclists, are ready to be passed, can be all that’s needed).