Boston has made an effort to make cycling safer in the city but have those efforts paid off? Has Boston truly become on of the best cities in the U.S. for cycling, as claimed by Bicycling magazine? Or is that designation premature positive publicity for a city that still has less than two percent of it’s commuter population cycling to work?

A History of Boston’s Cycling Initiatives:

  • First there was Mayor Menino’s Boston Bikes program, started in 2007, which meant to “make Boston a world-class bicycling city by creating safe and inviting conditions for all residents and visitors,” according to the 2013 Boston Cyclist Safety Report.
  • Also initiated in 2007, Boston’s Climate Action Plan outlined plans for making Boston a more bike-friendly city as well and in its 2011 iteration, set the goal “of raising the proportion of commuter trips (mode share) for bicycles to 10 percent by 2020 by expanding bike lanes, public and private bicycle storage, bikesharing facilities, and changing facilities.” As a result, Mayor Menino pledged “to decrease the cyclist crash injury rate by 50% by 2020.”
  • Then, in 2009, the Boston Complete Streets initiative was launched, vowing to “puts pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users on equal footing with motor-vehicle drivers.” Complete Streets is a collaborative effort between not just the Boston Department of Transit but also 13 other departments.
  • Vision Zero and Go Boston 2030 were initiated hand in hand in 2014. Vision Zero — an international movement that started in Sweden (of course) — is an initiative to end all traffic-related fatalities. In conjunction with Go Boston 2030, it’s goal is to accomplish this by 2030. Go Boston 2030 has many goals, some of which are not transit related. However, its cycling-specific goal is for bike commuters to quadruple by 2030.

Two data journalists at Northeastern analyzed Boston Police Department bike crash data from 2011 through October of 2016, when the data was requested. Creating a reliable crash rate for Boston was difficult. First, not all bike crashes involved the police. Therefore, the crash rates calculated in this investigation use only the Boston Police Department’s data.

In addition, the Boston Police Department changed how it recorded bike crash data in June 2015. In the data from the old system, there are 30 different crime codes relating to bike accidents. In the data from the new system, there are only two crime codes. Why is this significant? As Carlos Cannon, a transportation analyst at BPD, explained, crime codes are prioritized. For example, if an assault and battery crime were committed on a cyclist, the crime would be listed as the more serious crime—the assault and battery, not a bike accident. That’s why data from the old system includes more crime codes. However, data we received from the new system only has two crime codes, “M/V ACCIDENT – INVOLVING BICYCLE – NO INJURY” and “M/V ACCIDENT – INVOLVING BICYCLE – NO INJURY.” In other words, data relating to bike incidents could be missing from the data they received recorded through the new system. Without access to police reports for all incidents, they were unable to judge whether or not to keep certain data from the old recording system data, or whether data is missing data from the new recording system data. 

Though the journalists didn’t appreciate the pre-filtering of information without sufficient explanation, it could not be avoided at the time of publication—several queries were left outstanding. Therefore, they decided to work with the data available to them, giving the preceding caveat.

Ridership rates, which were calculated using data from the American Communities Survey, have not significantly grown in Boston. In fact, if you look at ridership rates across the country, Boston doesn’t rank in the top 15 of all cities. However, According to the data analyzed, crash rates have decreased. Because of the possibility of missing data, the journalists decided to compare Boston’s ridership rates and crash rates with neighboring city, Cambridge, the crash data for which is available in its totality through Cambridge’s open data website.

As you can see in the chart above, Boston’s ridership gains and crash rates overall compare unfavorably with Cambridge. Ridership rates in Cambridge are roughly triple that of Boston and their crash rate is roughly half. This suggests that, even discarding the possibility of missing data skewing the 2015 crash rates, Boston’s meagre ridership gains and crash rate decreases still do not make it as successful a cycling city as Cambridge. Coincidentally, Cambridge ranked eighth on Bicycle magazine’s list.

Are there any patterns in Boston’s crashes?

Yes. Crashes happen more during daylight on weekdays—in other words during high traffic time. This is unsurprising. It is also unsurprising that, as shown by the map at the top of the post, most accidents happen on Boston’s bike routes. Though it is near impossible to measure the efficacy of Boston’s biking infrastructure, through this analysis, it is clear that Boston falls short on measures of ridership and crash rate—measures that are critical in measuring a city’s bike friendliness.