Cycling on Cape Cod can be a fun prospect, but there are dangers

Six cyclists have died in crashes on Cape Cod in the past 10 years.

Another 82 bicycle accidents resulted in serious injuries. In total, over the 10-year period, there were nearly 2,000 cycling accidents in Cape Town, according to figures from the State Department of Transportation.

“It’s dangerous out there,” said Jonathon Lamson, a Hyannis resident who rides his bike every day to get around.

Lamson sat on a pavement waiting for a bus at Falmouth Shopping Center as he spoke, his bike resting on his legs.

A few months ago he was hit by a car on Route 28 while he had a flashlight on his bike. Fortunately, he was not injured.

The number of accidents is just too high, said Steven Tupper, deputy director of transportation at the Cape Cod Commission.

Nearly 2,000 cyclist accidents over the past decade

“We still have a long way to go to make cycling safe in the region,” Tupper said. “America has a car culture. Our current challenge is to adapt a system that in many ways was developed for the car and is not well suited to other modes of transportation that exist today.

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The number of accidents, provided by the state, is likely an underestimate because many bicycling accidents go unreported, Tupper said.

Nearly 80% of crashes involving a bicycle or pedestrian from 2012 to 2017 resulted in a minor injury, according to data from the Cape Cod Commission. That 80% drops to 25% when looking at car crashes not involving bicycles or pedestrians over the same period.

Bike lanes were installed in 2017 along the shoulders of Route 6 in Wellfleet and Truro.

Similarly, the percentage of fatalities for accidents involving a bicycle or a pedestrian was 2.3%. This 2.3% drops to 0.3% for accidents involving neither bicycles nor pedestrians.

These figures may be worrying, but Galen Mook, Executive Director of mass bikea non-profit cycling advocacy group, said riding a bike isn’t as dangerous as it looks.

The state typically has fewer than 10 bicycle-related fatalities per year, compared to more than 600 motorist fatalities.

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The streets are for people using all modes of transportation, Mook said.

“It’s not for cars,” he said.

Still, road users like cyclists and pedestrians need to be protected, especially since they are not surrounded by steel and airbags like motorists, he said.

On Cape Cod, cyclists are often tourists, J-1 visa students, young people and low-income people, Mook said.

The Cape Cod Rail Trail Viaduct in South Dennis was built to improve safety along the popular bike route.

“Not everyone in Cape Town is able to have a car,” he said. “We need to be able to enable them to walk and cycle safely for many miles in Cape Town.”

Three cyclists have died in Cape Town in the past 10 years

Lorraine Hurley died in Cape Cod Hospital on October 2, 2015 after being hit by a vehicle on Stony Brook Road in Brewster while riding her bicycle. The driver of the vehicle was charged with speeding and careless operation of a motor vehicle. Hurley was a holistic medical doctor on Cape Cod.

Miles Tibbetts, 16, was killed in August 2013 while cycling on Route 6 in Wellfleet. He attempted to cross a busy section of the highway and was not wearing a helmet when he was hit.

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Yelmur Samarkham, a 21-year-old student from the Republic of Kazakhstan, died in July 2014 after being hit on Route 132 in West Barnstable while riding his bicycle. Samarkham was in Cape Town on a J-1 visa.

Biking on Cape Cod

Cape Cod has significant strengths when it comes to biking. But, there are challenges.

Bike commuters can find themselves on roads without dedicated bike lanes, where they have to share the road with heavy traffic.

Highway 28 is an example, Tupper says. The route – mostly two-lane – winds around much of the Cape, linking Bourne, up to Falmouth, then all the way east to Orleans.

On the section of Route 28 in Falmouth, cyclists are often seen sharing the road with cars. Cyclists ride in the thin shoulder strip, inches from cars. Cars tend to swerve slightly into the oncoming lane to ensure they don’t brush past cyclists. Sometimes traffic will back up to allow cyclists to ride in car lanes rather than on the shoulder.

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There are safe and protected areas for cyclists, such as the Cape Cod Rail Trail. The Cape Cod Rail Trail is a 25-mile paved two-way trail from the mid-cape to Wellfleet.

But these protected areas do not connect the entire peninsula, Mook said.

Cyclists take the Shining Sea cycle path near Carlson Lane in Falmouth.

Some roads are not wide enough for dedicated bike lanes.

Falmouth resident Connor McLaren cycles to work at a grocery store three times a week, mostly on local roads. His route is mostly hilly and about five miles long, he said.

McLaren feels safe riding, but wishes there were wider designated cycle lanes throughout the city.

Cyclists use the Cape Cod Rail Trail in South Wellfleet.

In the Cape Cod National Seashore, the three protected trails can still present hazards, especially on the Province Lands Trail in Provincetown like steep hills, windblown sand, low tunnels and sharp turns.

How to improve cycling infrastructure

Improving a roadway to make it safer for all users isn’t always about widening it, Tupper said.

Sometimes that means re-examining a road and making adjustments, like reducing a car-only lane to make more room for bikes or putting in a level crossing.

Other ways to protect cyclists include slowing traffic or building more lane networks to connect to the Cape Cod Rail Trail and other protected areas in business districts, Mook said.

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Mook also mentioned “Vision Zero,” a national campaign that believes road deaths should not be accepted. Historically and today, society views all road accidents as unavoidable.

“We have to change that mentality,” Mook said.

Local initiatives to make roads more inclusive for all users include the “Complete Streets” initiative. Complete Streets uses state transportation funds to help cities improve streets for all users, including pedestrians and cyclists, Tupper said.

The Cape Cod Transportation Improvement Program has more than $275 million in state and federal funding.

The Cape Cod Commission also works with the Cape Cod National Seashore, the cities of Wellfleet, Truro and Provincetown on the Outer Cape Town Cycle and Pedestrian Master Plana plan to create an interconnected bicycle and pedestrian facility connecting the towns to the Cape Cod Rail Trail and the Seashore.

Change can meet resistance

One of the biggest challenges in improving roads is geography, said Katherine Jansen, MassBike board member and member of the Falmouth Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee.

Is Cape Cod a safe place to bike?

“It depends,” Jansen said.

Where she lives in Falmouth there are plenty of safe roads. However, in certain areas such as along Route 28, cycling can be very dangerous.

Many roads are surrounded by protected or protected land, which can make expansion difficult, she said.

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Effects on surrounding natural resources must also be considered, Tupper said.

Cape Town’s fragmented government can also make a regional approach to road infrastructure difficult. A city can build a bike lane, but once the road crosses a municipal boundary, officials need to come together to agree on what to do, Mook said.

Rebecca and Peter Noble expressed concerns in 2018 about the proposed Cape Cod Rail Trail extension that would run behind their Wellfleet home and end at Route 6. The state's proposal has since been put on hold.

“It’s a challenge to have a regional context around widening carriageways, or even getting rid of traffic lanes if necessary, on a regional position, because where that may make sense in an area due from the business district, it’s not necessarily the whole corridor,” he said. “We all know that a cycle route is only as safe as its weakest link.”

The public must also accept changes to their routes, Tupper said. However, it is possible to improve road infrastructure without destroying an area’s character, he said.

Automobiles have made Cape Town more accessible

The conversation around improving infrastructure for cyclists can be difficult because Cape Cod is self-centered. Due to Cape Town’s rural character, people often have to travel many miles between town centres, Mook said.

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The invention of the automobile was a major boon to Cape Town’s tourist economy, as motorists were able to explore all of Cape Town rather than being confined to fixed destinations. The construction of the Bourne and Sagamore bridges in the 1930s gave motorists access to Cape Town.

Many local cycling and pedestrian committees have called for greater safety for cyclists and pedestrians.

Improving cycling infrastructure also benefits municipalities by bringing additional revenue to the city and motorists by reducing traffic, Jansen said.

“How to get people to share the road is a million dollar question,” she said.

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