Yale’s efforts to promote cycling to, from and around the University as a viable alternative means of transportation for both staff and students is both encouraging and praiseworthy. However, the emphasis of the message and the focus of resources are shortsighted and ill-conceived, and the ten-place ‘Bike to Work at Yale’ safety course offered three times a year is clearly insufficient. The fall 2008 issue of Working at Yale attempts to address the question of, “What should I wear when I bike to work?” by suggesting cyclists should concentrate on comfort — surprising since surely safety outweighs the importance of comfort.
As fall draws-in and darkness descends ever earlier, it is abundantly clear upon recently observing cyclists on the streets surrounding the University, that the message should instead concentrate on the importance of bright, reflective clothing, which enhances cyclist’s visibility to motorists. More worryingly, the most glaring and consistent oversight within the University’s message promoting the benefits of peddle-power is the absence of material emphasizing the importance of cycle safety and, in particular, use of effective bicycle lights — an absolute necessity for riding during the hours of darkness. Indeed, in most European countries, where cycling on the roads is far more prevalent, use of bicycle lights is not only promoted but enforced by law.
As a former student at the extremely bicycle-friendly University of Oxford, England (Oxford city center is largely closed to cars and dominated by bicycles — 2007 statistics show that 19 percent of Oxford commuters ride a bicycle to work), I recall frequent police initiatives whereby cyclists riding in darkness without lights were given a $60 fine, which was revoked upon the presentation of a receipt for the purchase of appropriate lights to local police within 48-hours of the offence – a highly commendable policy given that one Oxford University student a year on average over the past two decades has been killed as a result of a bicycle collision with a car. Surely Yale must act more responsibly to aid in accident prevention before it is too late.
Yet, the University is by no means the worst offender when it comes to promoting bicycle safety. The majority of New Haven Police Department bicycles are not equipped with lights. What chance does a motorist have of seeing an officer in comically inappropriate dark clothing riding the busy central New Haven streets in the evening without lights, flouting both stop signs and red signals as if in a patrol car? This is an increasingly shocking and concerning sight in our city and one which needs to be corrected immediately.
While relatively low cyclist numbers in New Haven currently marginalize the relevance of cycling dangers, they will inevitably emerge and gain prominence as more people take to their bikes in an effort to cut the gas bill and seek green alternatives for their daily commute. Within the existing atmosphere of ignorance towards cycling safety in the city, the occurrence of accidents and associated fatalities are simply a matter of time. Therefore, as the driving force behind this proposed change in attitude towards the relative merits of two wheels over four, the University, in conjunction with the police, must surely take responsibility for educating its staff and students appropriately – a task with which it is currently falling dangerously short.
Assistant Director, Research
Yale Office of Development