Can Boston Handle the Truth?

by Joe Hendry

On October 30, 1997, an unfortunate accident occurred between pedestrian,William Spring and cyclist Jonathan Gladstone. The Boston Herald and theBoston Globe slanted the facts of this story to vilify the bicycle couriercommunity. Fleet Bank president John P. Hamill took time out from his attemptsto grab as much of ATM user's money as possible (by charging service feesfor the use of ATM machines in Massachusetts), in order to condemn allbike couriers. Hamill and the Boston media have promoted a horrible imageof bicycle messengers not because of their behaviour, but mainly becauseof bigoted, intolerant, and prejudice attitudes. This bad reputation comesfrom perceptions, as couriers' safety records are no worse than any othercyclists' records and are much better than motorists.

There are no studies nor statistics to show that bike couriers causemore accidents or injury to themselves or others. In 1992, the AutomobileInsurance Society of Quebec prepared a study on the safety concerns involvingbike couriers based on the "experience, opinions and perceptions ofmunicipal authorities in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Seattle,New York City and Washington, D.C. as well as of cyclists' associationsin Canada and the United States." This study concluded that couriers'"behaviour draws attention because their clothing and bag make themmore visible," and in fact couriers "have no more of a propensityfor accidents per kilometre travelled than other bicycle riders...and forthat reason caution is advised in imputing accident risk to couriers inorder to justify specific intervention targeting this type of road user."

Boston already has a courier ordinance. Now they want to make it tougher.The city has a task force looking into ways to increase enforcement andpunishment of couriers. Are there any couriers on the committee lookinginto this? NO! Last year, (and probably continuing this year) police harassedand ticketed Boston's couriers because of the city's stupid jersey designthat was very difficult to comply with. The city failed to consult bikemessengers before finalizing their design.

The anti-courier movement knows absolutely nothing about the effectsof licensing on behavior. Many cities, including Boston, have looked tolicensing as a way to "control couriers" but all have failedand turned to harassment. After licensing is in place the most common violationfor which couriers are ticketed is not having a license.

A few of Boston's citizens have called for couriers to pass a test beforeobtaining their license. In 1989 the City of Vancouver introduced a licensingand registration program for bicycle couriers that required them to passa written test and a road test.. The purpose of the licensing program wasto "improve " the "dangerous and reckless" riding behaviorof couriers and respond to "citizen complaints of infractions regardingcouriers" as these were the number two complaint to the police (speedingcars was number one), in 1988.

According to Cycling BC ,the administrative body of the program, over2000 (estimated 250 per year) couriers have passed the test in the last8 years. Since 1994 the City of Vancouver has issued the following numberof licenses: 1994: 398 . 1995: 487. 1996: 486. 1997 to date (November)396, that's almost 1800 licenses in less than four years. Although messengerscan have their license suspended, there has never been one single suspension,ever. After eight years citizen complaints to the police about couriersremain unchanged at number two.

This program has been a complete failure in its intended goals. It hashad no effect on the riding behaviour of messengers and it has made noattempt to address the problem of perception. It has pushed messengersfurther to the fringe of society and served as a mark on messengers forspecific harassment by police.

The reason licensing is unsuccessful is because it fails to recognizethe truth. The problem is not the behavior of couriers. It is the intolerantperceptions people have of them.

The Boston Globe articles don't care if it was the courier's fault ornot. There has been no attempt to print Gladstone's side, even though ithas been available on the Massbike list. The current anti-courier articleshave nothing whatsoever to do with the recent accident. They are exploitingthe accident to promote a hostile attitude toward couriers and cyclists.

The "facts" relating to couriers printed by the Globe aremerely anecdotes: "couriers need lessons from Miss Manners"...couriers "bang on car doors" and "scream at pedestrians"...."I've never been hit but I've been a victim of their crude remarks."

When the discussion comes around to couriers people rely on anecdotalevidence, opinion and perception. No one ever quotes statistics and figuresbecause there are none that support their arguments. Everyone talks aboutwhat they perceived to be a "near miss" (I'm sure many are thinking"I nearly had to share an elevator with one!".) That's becausevery few have ever been involved in an accident with a courier. This issueis about discrimination against a visible minority. Any cyclist committinga traffic violation downtown is assumed to be a courier. These people shouldexamine the reasons for their prejudices. Are they logical or ignorant?

Boston's couriers provide many benefits to the city. They make the streetssafer for pedestrians because they replace cars that kill and injure manypedestrians every year. They also save the money that would be necessaryto treat these injuries. They reduce gridlock, congestion and many typesof pollution such as air, noise and smell. They do less damage to the roadsand therefore save the city and its taxpayers money on construction costs.They act as goodwill ambassadors, providing information and directionsto tourists. They provide a fast and efficient service that Boston's businesscommunity not only relies upon but also demands. They are sought out bybusinesses to increase their profits and reduce costs. Couriers save Boston'sbusiness community lots of money every day. Their speed is the last lineof defense against office workers' and executives' natural tendencies towardprocrastination. Messengers save the business community from the deadlinesthey encounter on a daily basis. With the current trend toward downsizingand the increasing workload of workers, more deadlines are in danger andmore professional bicycle couriers are needed.

If Hamill and the Boston media are sincere in their public campaignfor road safety, they will condemn the harassment and prejudice towardany type of road user. They will call for increased enforcement and educationof all road users on an even handed basis. They will expect Boston to looktoward ways of improving its design and use of roads and they will wantefforts directed at preventing the most injuries instead of the most famousinjuries.

If bigoted and prejudiced views are tolerated, which visible minoritywill be their next victim?

Gladstone's version of the events

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