About every six weeks, on average, a cyclist and a motor vehicle collide on Belmont’s streets. The vast majority of those encounters -about three quarters – result in an injury (typically to the cyclist). This, according to data from the Belmont Police Department, obtained using the State’s Open Records law.
There were 86 such collisions in Town in which Belmont police were called to respond between November 2011 and early October. That’s a car and bicycle crash every six weeks, on average. In 66 of those 86 incidents injuries occured, according to BPD data. I have created a map that shows where these crashes occurred in town. You can view it here: https://zurl.co/Uj1y
Blood on the pavement
For those of us living in Town, these incidents typically attract little notice, despite their regularity. Maybe we see Police vehicles and ambulances responding. Or maybe, like me, you come upon the aftermath of an accident: a cyclist’s gear strewn on the ground and their blood on the pavement. The true toll of these crashes is substantial. It is recorded in broken bones, damaged internal organs, painful rehabilitation, lost work and income and even with lost lives.
Presented with incidents and data like this, it is natural to look for someone to blame. I saw this first hand when I posted about my experience on Facebook. Comments poured in from Belmont residents: drivers who had experience with reckless cyclists and, in equal measure, cyclists who had been struck or menaced by distracted drivers. At least one parent told of a child who had been struck by a car on Belmont’s streets and now was too afraid to ride their bike. This wasn’t the first such story I had heard. Shockingly: Belmont children being struck by cars on Belmont streets isn’t that unusual.
Don’t blame the victim (or the perpetrator)
Let’s be clear: there is often someone who is to blame for a crash – whether it is between two vehicles, a vehicle and a car, or a vehicle and a pedestrian. When I inquired about this with the Belmont PD, the response was mostly focused on observance of traffic rule. And, clearly, that’s a problem. The crash I witnessed on Common Street appears to have been the result of a cyclist who ignored a red light and entered an intersection, crashing into the driver’s side of a car. In many of the 85 incidents on this list, distracted or reckless drivers – not cyclists -were at fault.
As tempting as it is to ask, however, “who broke the rules?” is the wrong question to ask. Rather, the questions we need to ask -and answer- are: “what can we do to reduce the frequency of crashes involving cyclists and vehicles or pedestrians and vehicles?” and “how do we prevent serious crashes that cause injury to our residents?” Put simply: these incidents result from a transportation infrastructure in Belmont that is inhospitable and dangerous for anyone not driving an automobile. The appearance of painted bike lanes on our road surfaces in recent years has done little to change this. The fact is: we in Belmont are still operating with 20th century transportation infrastructure that privileges automobiles and drivers while asking pedestrians, bicycles, scooters and other non- auto traffic to make due and share the roads- at great personal risk.
Wanted: 21st Century Infrastructure
To make our Town safe for bicycles and pedestrians, we need to invest in infrastructure that allows residents on bicycles to navigate our streets safely – in the same way as Belmontonians at the turn of the last century to make space for the automobiles that were beginning to crowd their roads.
Data from the Belmont Police gives us a good idea where we can best direct our investments to get the biggest “bang” of injury prevention for our taxpayer “bucks.” The vast majority of bike and car crashes in town occur on major east-west or north-south thoroughfares in Town. Trapelo road alone accounts for 30 of the 86 car/bicycle crashes going back to 2011. Eleven were recorded on Concord Ave, six along Leonard Street in Belmont Center and seven along Brighton Street and Blanchard Roads. That’s right: more than 60% of all the crashes occurred along just four routes.
What’s the fix? First: complete the planned Belmont Community Path. It will be a huge step in the right direction and realize immediate improvements in safety for pedestrians and cyclists. (It has the added advantage of being paid for almost entirely by state and federal funds!)
When fully constructed, this roughly 2 mile route will provide a safe, car free travel to and from the Waltham line near Beaver Brook reservation East through Waverley Square and Belmont Center alongside the Fitchburg rail line and out to the Cambridge line at Brighton Street where it connects with the existing Fitchburg Cutoff Path to Alewife T Station. The presence of this safe route should reduce bicycle traffic along Trapelo Road, Concord Ave, Leonard- and Pleasant Streets where, data shows, bike/car collisions are common. While the abutters’ concerns about the impact of the completed path on their property are understandable, the data from BPD flies in the face of those who continue to try to thwart the Community Path or grouse about why and whether such a project is needed.
Neighbors Before NIMBY
The Belmont PD data also provides fresh evidence that our Town’s leadership, Town Engineer Glenn Clancy, the Town’s Transportation Advisory Committee and residents along affected routes should move quickly to reach agreement on the construction of physically separate bike lanes along routes Concord Ave and, eventually, Trapelo Road, Brighton Street, Common Street and other main North/South and East/West thoroughfares. As the data shows us: delays of months – let alone years – have a cost that is measured in damaged and broken bodies on Belmont Streets. Town officials need to rise to the occasion and act in the best interest of public health. The stakes are too high to let transparent “not in my back yard” arguments delay or deny our residents the safe routes about town they urgently need.