After Boston’s Mayor Blames Crash Victims, Pop-Up Comics Push for Better Bike Lanes

Comic characters in Boston's bike lanes remind drivers (and the mayor) that more can be done to improve safety. Photo: Jonathan Fertig
Comic characters in Boston's bike lanes remind drivers (and the mayor) that more can be done to improve safety. Photo: Jonathan Fertig

Boston’s latest do-it-yourself bike lane intervention might seem a bit sketchy — because it uses comics to prod City Hall for needed safety improvements.

Last night, volunteers installed eight large black-and-white comic cutouts, printed on waterproof boards and mounted on metal poles, in buckets filled with concrete and flowers. They dropped the comics into the buffers of protected bike lanes along a few blocks of Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street.

In one, Irish-American step dancer Michael Flatley tells drivers to “keep this area clear for swinging doors and my swinging legs!” Another features a woman on a bicycle telling drivers to “look for bikes before opening your door.” A third features a “parking coach” with a whistle around his neck, yelling, “Line it up, people!”

“Introducing some whimsy to the street is just one strategy. It’s about expressing my displeasure with how we treat the streets now,” said Jonathan Fertig, an architect who came up with the project.

“I wanted something that was quirky and random and came from a place of absurdity, rather than a place of anger,” said Bekka Wright, who collaborated with Fertig and drew the characters in the style of her web comic, Bikeyface.

Actor Matt Damon has some advice for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Photo: Jonathan Fertig
Actor Matt Damon has some advice for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Photo: Jonathan Fertig

One of the comics features Boston Mayor Marty Walsh telling drivers, “C’mon guys. You can pahk better!” Actor Matt Damon, standing next to Walsh, suggests the mayor install bollards to keep the bike lanes clear.

The city has installed flexible plastic bollards along the bike lanes, which did not initially have the barriers. But Fertig and Wright say the flex-posts went missing on Massachusetts Avenue over the winter, and the bike lane filled up with snow and parked cars.

Wright wants to see the city pick up its pace and install more high-quality protected bike lanes. “It’s gonna take hundreds of years for Boston to actually have a bike network,” she said. “I know things take time, but they need to go a little faster.”

Fertig began working on the project in his spare time last fall. After a radio interview last week in which Walsh blamed the victims of car crashes for getting injured, he felt compelled to go live with the intervention.

“Pedestrians need to put their head up when they’re walking down the street, take your headphones off… you’ve got to understand, cars are going to hit you,” Walsh told WGBH, two weeks after a cyclist was killed by a hit-and-run driver. “People need to be more cognizant of the fact that a car is a car. Even bicyclists, when you’re riding; a car can’t stop on a dime.”

Street safety advocates protested Walsh’s remarks at City Hall over the weekend.

Boston’s advocacy groups for walking and biking welcomed the intervention.

“We think the timing of this is great, and the tone is one that we wish was promulgated more widely on our streets,” said Boston Cyclists Union Executive Director Becca Wolfson. “Rather than fuel animosity, we hope that both drivers and the city — especially Mayor Walsh — can see that while the issue of safety on our streets is a serious one, we can approach it with some lightness, compassion and come together to work towards the same goal.”

“We do typically see these [street interventions] when the public is pushing back against officials when they’re dismayed at the slow rate of change,” said Andrew McFarland, community engagement manager for the LivableStreets Alliance. “Let’s ask more of our city officials. Let’s not wait around for another crash to take another life.”

Fertig is no stranger to bike lane interventions. Nearly two years ago, he began installing flowers and traffic cones to keep drivers out of the Massachusetts Avenue bike lane. This time around, he doesn’t expect the comics to stay on the street very long.

“As these interventions have gained a little bit more notoriety, the city has more recently removed them a little more quickly,” Fertig said. “I’m really a thorn in their side.”

Does he have ideas in mind for his next intervention?

“I really love seeing this growing movement of people using toilet plungers. That’s a really fun one,” Fertig said, referring to plunger-protected bike lanes in WichitaProvidence and Omaha. “I’ve considered placing a bulk order for some plungers at some point.”

Updated 2:10 p.m. ET: “We appreciate the intent of the cartoon cutouts to inform and educate people about bike safety on Massachusetts Avenue in an artistic, eye-catching manner,” said the Boston Transportation Department, which added that the city will be removing the comics. “We agree that it is beneficial to circulate these important messages and we are working each day to further enhance our streets so that they are safe and welcoming for all users. On Massachusetts Avenue, in particular, additional flex posts will soon be placed along the existing bike lane.”

  • Greg B.

    And if you include all forms of lawbreaking which for cyclists means failure to yield, failure to signal, failure to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, failure to obey red lights, failure to obey stop signs, riding at night without lights, riding without a helmet, traveling the wrong way down a one way street, riding on sidewalks and failure to dismount and walk their bike through a crosswalk instead of riding through it while weaving in and out of pedestrians, you’ll see cyclists breaking the law massively.

  • TG2017

    Riding a bicycle without a helmet over the age of 17 is not a law-breaking activity in the City of Boston.

  • saucetin

    It’s a cliché, and so ‘not offensive’ that it’s currently in an billboard ad campaign for, I think, Toyota.

  • saucetin

    Easy w/ the ‘you folks’ Old Greg.

  • Greg B.

    Maybe not. But riding a bike without one is a failure to take responsibility for ones own safety. Care to address the other items in the list?

  • TG2017

    Not really. You make accusations but only provide anecdata. I’m not interested in arguing with someone who doesn’t back up their claims with solid research.

  • JudenChino

    You should win an award for missing the point. No shit cyclists break the law and peds jay walk. Congrats on the defeating that Straw Man.

  • Greg B.

    So you can acknowledge that fact but if the mayor does, he’s “clueless”. Got it.

  • Greg B.

    You don’t think that riding a bike through city traffic without a helmet doesn’t constitute a failure to take responsibility for ones own safety and you want me to provide data showing what, that helmets protect cyclists heads? Okay, I think we’re done here. Safe travels.

  • TG2017

    You’ve changed topics. The topic at hand was the rate of law breaking by various street users, for which you failed to cite any data. Unless you can prove your assertions, we are indeed done.

  • Joe R.

    https://www.cnet.com/news/brain-surgeon-theres-no-point-wearing-cycle-helmets/

    Not wearing a helmet isn’t failure to take responsibility for your safety. Helmets are worthless in the motor vehicle-bike crashes which are the primary way cyclists die.

    Also, last I checked cyclists or pedestrians disobeying laws at worst can harm themselves. Motorists can harm others. That’s why the relative rates of law-breaking don’t matter. A good analogy might be a rowboat disobeying all the rules is far less dangerous than a supertanker disobeying even one minor rule.

  • dat

    Cool story bro.

  • AMH

    A stationary vehicle can kill a cyclist if someone opens a door.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    I listened to the interview. Mayor Walsh at least three times led with or added, “I know some of you are not going to like what I have to say…” He honestly believes people should take responsibility for their actions.

    So my question is, at what point is a pedestrian or cyclist responsible for their actions?

    I was raised with the ethic that we are responsible for our own actions. I have a very strong internal locus of control. Even though I do not like it, I know when I cross a street, I may have to stare down a right turning motorist. If I am in an unmarked crosswalk, just because the motorist in the first lane yields does not mean the motorists in the other lanes will. Conversely, as a motorist, I come to a complete stop prior to making a right turn on red. I yield at an intersection when the car next to me slows down.

    So is it the motorist’s fault if a pedestrian is busy sending a text message and steps into an intersection in front of left-turning cars? Or is it the motorist’s fault if he hits a wrong-way cyclist riding without lights at night. Don’t laugh, as an experienced motorist, I avoided the pedestrian. (I assumed when I started the turn that the clown with his head focused on his phone wasn’t going to look up before entering the intersection. At about three steps in he realized he should not have been there, shrugged his shoulders and returned to the corner.) The cyclist, well if I was ten seconds later leaving the intersection, I probably would have hit him. The cyclist was lucky.

    I do not feel it is blaming the victim if they are doing something that I know better not to do. Riding a bicycle against traffic (even on a sidewalk), I would not do. Riding a bicycle at night without lights, I would not do. Wrong-way cyclists and night cyclists without lights that get hit, it is the cyclists fault.

    Mayor Walsh said he would to see all road users better educated. My opinion, better education leads to greater common sense. Is it truly victim blaming when the victim should simply know better?

    So I ask again, at what point is a pedestrian or cyclist responsible for their actions?

  • dat

    A helmet won’t save you when you’re run over by a car or truck.

  • RedMercury

    Last I checked cyclists or pedestrians disobeying laws at worst can harm themselves.

    What bothers me about statements like that is the aftermath. It always sounds good–“Hey, I’m the rugged individual and if I want to risk my life and break traffic laws, what’s the big deal!?” Then the next statement is, “Everybody needs to watch out for me because I’m so vulnerable.”

    So, basically, you want to be able to do whatever you want and it’s up to everyone else to make sure you’re safe doing it. “I want to take the lane where I don’t have to worry about being doored.” Okay, take the lane. It’s safer for you. “But if cars are stopped in the lane, well, I’ll ride in the space between the stopped cars in the lane and the parked cars.” You realize that you’re increasing your chances of getting doored while riding there? “Yeah, but I’m only endangering myself!” And if you get doored? “Hey! You need to watch out for me!”

    You can’t have it both ways. You can’t be both reckless and safe.

  • RedMercury

    Okay, let’s start with the obvious one.

    So you’re riding along. There’s a pedestrian in the crosswalk. Ding-ding, ring your bell, and plow on through.

    Uh, last I knew, pedestrian in the crosswalk means stop.

    Next, there’s a bike lane. Why are you riding on the opposite side of the road in the door zone? I assume if you someone opened a door in front of you, you’d be whining about it.

  • Joe R.

    Disobeying the law =/ being reckless. Nor does it mean you shouldn’t look out for your own safety while you’re disobeying the law. If I jaywalk or pass a red light on my bike, I hardly expect anyone to watch out for me. I’m on my own here if anything happens. In fact, I’m on my own even if I’m obeying the law. Do you seriously think if an incident happens to me the police will even care about my side? No, they’ll assume I’m breaking the law because that’s what they do when pedestrians or cyclists get hurt.

    I personally loathe cyclists who break the law AND don’t even bother watching while they’re doing it. That’s not what I do and certainly not what I espouse.

  • Greg B.

    Probably not if you’re “run over” but a helmet may save you if you run a red light, broadside a car, and fall to the ground.

  • Greg B.

    1. “Not wearing a helmet isn’t failure to take responsibility for your safety”.
    What a ridiculous thing to say. Do you feel the same about seatbelts?

    2. “Last I checked cyclists or pedestrians disobeying laws at worst can harm themselves.”

    Then you need to check again. Pedestrians are mowed down by cyclists all the time. Cyclists can also collide with each other. And, less common but still a danger – a cyclist running a light can indeed cause a motor vehicle accident.

  • Joe R.

    Do you wear a helmet while you’re driving? If you don’t then you don’t have a leg to stand on here because you’re statistically more likely to get a head injury driving than cycling. If you feel a cyclist with a lesser chance of head injury needs to “take responsibility for their safety” by wearing a helmet, then you certainly need to wear one too if you want to also take responsibility for your safety.

    A cyclist running a red light can only cause an incident if a motorist decides to react to them. Strictly speaking, if the motorist gets hurt it’s because they collided with another motor vehicle. The cyclist didn’t directly harm them.

  • Pocky

    EXCEPT THIS IS NOT WHAT IS HAPPENING.

    You see, it wasn’t Rick Archer’s fault that he was killed by a hit and run driver shortly before Walsh let this excrement come out of his mouth. By and large, the people who are dying would NOT have died simply if they were paying “more attention.” RICK ARCHER DIED BECAUSE SOME SICK BASTARD RAN OVER HIM WITH HIS CAR, DRAGGED HIM 100 FEET, AND THEN DROVE AWAY WITH A SMASHED WINDSHIELD. IT WAS VEHICULAR HOMICIDE. To use this as an opportunity to claim that pedestrians and cyclists “share responsibility” for road deaths is classic, textbook victim blaming.

  • JudenChino

    Lol. That pedestrian was in the middle of the bike lane when I had the green. I didn’t “plow on through.” He acknowledged me and moved out of my way. My hands were on my brakes in any case. He knew he was in the bike lane. No distracted driving when on a bike. And did you notice the near left hook I got?

    Also, did you notice where the bike lane was blocked and that half the cars were in it? Yah, I’d prefer to be in the bike lane but since I was turning right I figured I’d stay there. What’s it to you? My point was to illustrate how the bikes aren’t the ones causing the massive congestion.

    I was keeping a close eye on the doors but that wouldn’t change if I were in the official “bike lane” or not, as the bike lane itself is already in the “door zone.” They don’t provide much protection but yet we still get massive NIMBY resistance.

  • Alicia

    Hyperbole and straw man arguments, how intelligent of you.

  • Alicia

    We do. You should start.

  • Miles Bader

    Soooo… if somebody just goes around and welds all the parked car doors shut, no prob! Bonus if you can figure out a way to prevent entry via the windows.

    The government could even do it, “Department of Parking Safety” or some such…

  • Joe R.

    I think there’s a disconnect between people who live in NYC versus those who live elsewhere. To me what you were doing is just the normal kind of aggressive riding you need to do in NYC, both to stay safe and to get anywhere faster than walking pace. To someone not used to this kind of controlled chaos, it might look less than safe. The same chaos is why I prefer to ride at 2AM instead of during the day. I can deal with it operationally just as well as you can, but that type of riding isn’t remotely enjoyable to me.

    That said, the street you rode on is a classic case of bad infrastructure begets bad behavior. Cars blocking bike lanes, pedestrians standing in bike lanes waiting to cross, cyclists needing to regularly switch sides due to blockages, etc. A protected bike lane, pedestrian refuses between the bike lane and car lane, retiming signals for bike speeds (or better yet removing them altogether) are three things just off the top of my head which would give a lot more order to that street.

  • Greg B.

    Nice twisted logic. Unless your bike has seatbelts and 8 airbags, you should probably just stop right there.

  • Greg B.

    A motorist opening his door into a bike lane can only cause an incident if a cyclist decides to react to them. Strictly speaking, if the cyclist gets hurt it’s because they collided with another motor vehicle after swerving to avoid the door. The motorist didn’t directly harm them.

  • Joe R.

    Seatbelts and air bags are moot. The statistics say you have a higher risk of head injury driving than cycling even with seatbelts and airbags. Therefore, if you consider cycling to be an activity with a high enough risk of head injury to merit wearing a helmet, you also have to wear one while doing an even higher risk activity like driving in order to be logically consistent.

    The fact is the vast majority of people on the planet cycle without helmets and there’s no rash of major head injuries. Cycling in fact doesn’t pose enough of a risk of head injury to merit a helmet.

  • Joe R.

    No, the cyclist can get hurt whether they react to them or not. If the cyclist swerves to avoid the door, they may get hit by a motor vehicle. If they don’t, they may get injured by the door.

    This is quite different from your scenario. Suppose a cyclist runs a red light right in front of a motor. The motorist has three options:

    1) Stop if they are able. Not always possible but both parties come out without injury.

    2) Swerve to avoid the cyclist. The cyclist avoids injury but the motorist may get hurt if they hit other motor vehicles.

    3) Plow into the cyclist without changing speed or direction. The cyclist gets hurt or dies, the motorist comes out uninjured.

    #2 is the only scenario where a motorist can possibly get hurt, but as I said this isn’t caused by colliding with the cyclist. It’s caused by deciding to swerve around the cyclist. The motorist has a choice. If swerving will cause a collision, they don’t swerve. Hitting the cyclist is the lesser of two evils here. A cyclist faced with a door may have no choice. Either option (hitting the door or swerving to avoid it) may hurt them.

    By the way, I’d like to know who all these cyclists are who run red lights right in front of motor traffic. Very occasionally (as in once every few years) I might see an example of such stupidity, but most of the time I see cyclists passing red lights by slowing first, looking to see if it’s clear, and then only going if it is clear.

  • Greg B.

    How about the motorist behind the motorist who had to stop abruptly and unexpectedly halfway through an intersection on a green light?

  • Greg B.

    Amazing.

  • Greg B.
  • Joe R.

    That would clearly be the fault of the motorist in back. If you hit the vehicle ahead of you it means you’re following too closely.

  • Joe R.

    I hope you know in crashes with motor vehicles the primary cause of death is blunt force trauma to major organs. There may or may not be head injury in addition to that, but it’s moot because you’re already dead from the injury to major organs.

    Oh, and “facts” like the percentage of dead cyclists wearing or not wearing helmets are moot without knowing what percentage of the cycling population wears helmets. Even then you can’t draw any meaningful conclusions, although helmet manufacturers have tried to massage data to make it seem helmets are more effective than they really are.

    I’ve read more about bike helmets than most people on this site. At best, they’re neutral to slightly negative in terms of preventing injuries or deaths:

    http://bicyclesafe.com/helmets.html

    In the 1990s when helmet use in the U.S. went up, head injuries among cyclists skyrocketed by a whopping 51%. If helmets were so amazingly effective, we’d expect head injuries to go down, not up.

  • JudenChino

    Maybe not. But riding a bike without [a helmet] is a failure to take responsibility for ones own safety.

    It’s unfortunate she was sexually assaulted, but dressing so provocatively in that part of town and at night is a failure to take responsibility for ones own safety.

  • Jason

    If he believed that people should take responsibility for their actions then he would tell drivers to pay attention and avoid hitting pedestrians and cyclists, instead of telling pedestrians and cyclists that it’s just a fact of life that “cars” are going to hit them.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Look, I get it. Malone Kidanemariam should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. He failed to take responsibility for his actions.

    But the mayor was not asked about Rick Archer, he was asked about Boston in general.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    I agree. Motorists should be held to licensing standards similar to Europe. I also believe the test should be weighted that competency of Bicycle and Pedestrian laws need to be demonstrated to pass. I also believe that the motorist should get a copy of the incorrect answers with the correct response (or if test security is an issue. verbose paragraphs on the missed questions).

  • satrain18

    This is Boston, not the Netherlands.

  • acerttr250

    Well, aren’t you the smart one. But…not so smart. When the door is opening…it’s what…..

    Class?

    Moving

  • Greg B.

    Yeah that’s almost the same. Holy crap you’re detached from reality and rational thought.

  • Greg B.

    Now “wear a helmet” is victim blaming. Jesus you folks are nuts.

  • Greg B.

    You’re wrong but your self-righteousness won’t let you see that. As long as you admit that a cyclist who runs a red light and becomes one with the grille of a truck is at fault too….

  • Bernard Finucane

    Well just because he isn’t getting paid doesn’t mean it isn’t a coordinated campaign.

  • Mitchell Brown

    Maybe you should stop being a fucking prick.

  • Mitchell Brown

    Yes. Find that data and post it. (Note: what you’ll find is that there is not correlating data to support your position).

    Post it when you find it.

  • Mitchell Brown

    No. You’re ALWAYS at fault if you rear-end a car. No matter what.

    Any insurance adjuster will tell you that. So will any driver’s handbook.

  • You move the goalposts with every comment and accuse others of twisted logic? Cars are a major cause of head injuries, far greater than bikes. Put on that motoring helmet.

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