COVID Diary #9: Commuting in the age of pandemic

A cyclist heads north on Mass Ave just north of Harvard Square.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A little after 11 a.m. this past Saturday, I eased myself onto my bike and headed toward Boston. My destination was Northeastern University, where I teach in the journalism program. I wanted to see if it was realistic to commute by bicycle once in-person classes resume this September.

What prompted this experiment was a story in The Boston Globe. According to Steve Annear, even as ridership begins to recover from the pandemic, more passengers are refusing to wear masks — and the MBTA is taking a decidedly laid-back approach to enforcement.

“What I’ve been doing as a rider whenever I see people not wearing a mask is I’ve been getting off in between stations and running to the next car, hoping the people on the new car will all be wearing their masks,” a rider named Victoria Kroeger told Annear.

Terrific.

For more than 20 years, I’d commuted to Boston from the North Shore by car, a soul-sucking ordeal that grew worse every year. Then, in 2014, we moved to West Medford, returning to a neighborhood where we’d lived for a few years in the early 1980s. I discovered the joy of walking to the train station and then hopping onto the subway at North Station. Commuting became almost a pleasure. We all love to complain about the T, but it rarely let me down.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I want to get onto sealed trains and subway cars with hundreds of strangers, any one (or dozen) of whom could be carrying the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Especially if maskless morons are spewing aerosolized particles of disease into the air.

Which is why I was on my bike Saturday, maneuvering on side paths and urban streets. From the Alewife Greenway I picked up Mass. Ave, then headed toward Harvard Square. From there I followed the Charles River to Boston and back to Mass Ave. I turned right onto St. Stephen Street at Symphony Hall and from there pedaled to my office, which I couldn’t actually get into because of pandemic restrictions.

I’d covered 8.9 miles in 53 minutes, a little faster than it would take by public transportation. I was no worse for the wear; but it was a hot day, and I was sweating freely. If this had been an actual commute, I’d want to take a shower — but the locker rooms at the campus recreation center are closed for the foreseeable future because of the pandemic. (And I wouldn’t take the risk, anyway.)

I’d proved that I could do it, but I hadn’t convinced myself that I would do it. After shattering my elbow in an encounter with a wet speed bump 10 years ago, I didn’t ride a bike again until last year. So I’m ever wary about the hazards of urban biking. I’m also not going to ride in the rain or in the dark. For me, biking to work is a maybe option under perfect conditions, but hardly a comprehensive solution.

So what am I — what are all of us — supposed to do?

A couple of years ago, we decided to become a one-car family. My wife takes it for her short drive to work, and she has no other options. I’ve thought about trying to lease a car until V (Vaccine) Day. But I’ve heard from many of my colleagues that they’re also thinking of driving because of concerns about the T, so it seems more than likely that parking will be a nightmare. I’ve thought of relying on Lyft, but I’m not convinced that would be a COVID-free experience, either.

The message on the MBTA website is simple and direct: “All riders and employees are required to wear face coverings while riding the T.” But will the T start doing a better job of enforcing it? What about social-distancing? What about air quality? What happens when a subway car stops, the electricity goes off and air circulation is cut off?

These are things we all ought to be concerned about, especially when thousands of college students from all over the country — most definitely including states that are surging now — arrive in Boston a few weeks from now.

It had been a couple of months since I’d been on campus, so I spent a little time looking around. I was surprised by how many students were sunning themselves on Centennial Common — not huge numbers, but enough to make the campus feel at least semi-populated. Then I headed home, this time skipping the river route and taking Mass. Ave from Hemenway Street into North Cambridge, shaving a half-mile off my trip.

It was fun. But I couldn’t help but notice how light traffic was compared to what it will be like on weekdays after Labor Day. Maybe some hardier, younger folks than I could make the transition to commuting by bike. But I’m almost certainly going to have to depend on the T, and I’m not going to be alone.

Multiply my story, and my concerns, by tens — if not hundreds — of thousands, and you’ve got an idea of what challenges the region is going to face this fall. According to the T, there were 1.16 million trips taken in February, the last month before the pandemic hit. Safe public transportation is indispensable to our economy and to the well-being of our community.

We can’t let the T become a vector for a new COVID surge. We have to get this right.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Some questions about a bicyclist and an enraged driver

After reading Tom Farragher’s Boston Globe column this morning about Chris Smith, a legally blind bicyclist who says an enraged driver got out of his car in Brookline and came at him with a baseball bat, I’ve got two questions.

  • Is it wise or even legal for someone who has lost much of his vision to be riding his bike on public ways? Aren’t we always told that cyclists have to follow the same laws as drivers?
  • Was it a good idea for Smith to rap his knuckles on the side of the car as they were both making their way through traffic? Farragher calls it “a signal of safety. I’m right here, it said, don’t hit me.” I wouldn’t. I’d call it obnoxious behavior by a cyclist, and at the very least I’d be giving him the hairy eyeball.

Let me be clear: There was no excuse for the driver to go off the way Smith describes. But I don’t think it’s all that clear-cut that Smith was in the right. Cyclists: I want to hear from you, either here or on Facebook.

Elbowing my way back to health

Fifty-two weeks ago today, I rode my bicycle for what I can pretty much guarantee will be the last time. I shattered my right elbow in an accident, bringing to an end what had been a fairly remarkable run: despite leading a pretty active life as a backpacker, a runner and a cyclist, I’d made it to 54 without ever having broken a bone.

The actual anniversary date of my accident is tomorrow, Sept. 19. But today, the third Sunday of September, feels more like the real anniversary.

My injury was devastating and yet not all that debilitating. I broke the tip of my elbow almost clean off, and there was cracking of the bones all around. It was put back together with plates, pins and screws. Despite being very diligent about doing my rehab, it doesn’t feel remotely the same. Yet there’s been very little pain, even within a few minutes of the accident. Today I have almost the full range of motion, and can lift reasonably heavy objects. I’m told it will continue to improve.

I know how lucky I was. In fact, as you may know, Boston Globe reporter Bella English suffered far worse injuries in a bicycle accident the same day that I went down.

For those who are interested, here’s what happened. Because of recurrent gout, I had pretty much given up running in favor of cycling. I had a few favored 18- to 20-mile routes, but on the afternoon of last Sept. 19, a Sunday, I decided to try something new. I headed out along Route 127 past Endicott College, then cut toward Wenham, and rode around the Gordon College campus.

I didn’t like the route, as there were too many cars, and the roads were rutted and bumpy. Still, my accident really came out of nowhere. I was cutting through the empty parking lot of the Briscoe Middle School in Beverly, turning right, which of course had me leaning to the right. I wasn’t paying attention and hit a speed bump at maybe 17 or 18 mph. The weather had been drizzly off and on, so the pavement was wet. My bike slid to the left, and I went down, directly on my right elbow. I also slightly injured my back and bumped my head — though not hard, and I was wearing a helmet.

For a few minutes, all I knew was that I was in a lot of pain. I tried to lay back, but every time I did, a driver would stop and ask if I was all right — much appreciated, but I didn’t want an ambulance coming. So I forced myself to sit up. It soon became clear that I’d hurt my elbow, though I didn’t know how badly. I stood and walked around a bit — dizzily at first, but soon I started feeling better. I called my wife, who came and got me.

Now, as a sign of how little pain I was in, while we were riding home I tried to decide whether to ice my elbow or go to the emergency room. I opted for the latter, but went home first and took a shower. I did discover that it hurt a lot if I tried to lift my right arm over my head. I got dressed and drove myself to the Lahey Clinic emergency room in Peabody — a choice I made solely because I thought it would be less crowded than Beverly Hospital. I had to sign something at the desk, and it was really difficult. Still, I figured it was just a momentary thing.

Barbara and I were supposed to go out to dinner. I called her from Lahey, and groused that if I wasn’t seen in a few minutes, I’d leave. But I got in, X-rays were taken — and the damage was revealed. The doctor on call put a cast on it. The next morning, Monday, I drove my daughter to school, then drove to the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, prepared to go into surgery that day. Not sure I’d thought through how I would get home.

At Lahey Clinic, post-surgery. I walked around and slept with that thing for several weeks.

As it turned out, surgery was scheduled for Tuesday morning. My surgeon was Dr. Andrew Marcantonio, from whom I learned the seriousness of my injury. First, there was his name tag — “Traumatologist,” it said. Second, when I asked him when I’d be back to normal, he said (I’m paraphrasing), “With an injury of this nature, we speak in terms of functionality.” Oh, great.

I went home that day, feeling pretty good, and even watched part of a gubernatorial debate that night. I fell asleep, but I’m not sure the Percocet was to blame. I was out of work for three weeks, and when I came back, I was wearing a huge brace on my right arm.

Anyway, I will fast-forward here. Thanks to my amazing physical therapist, Julie Peterson, I made fairly rapid progress and got some help for a longstanding problem with my right shoulder as well. I don’t mean to suggest it was all onward and upward. I lost my confidence to the point that I got scared being so far from home on a trip to New Haven on Nov. 30, and drove back that night rather than stay in my hotel room. It was months before I could bend my elbow enough to tie a necktie. But I kept getting better.

Overall, I was so impressed with Lahey that I switched my primary-care physician, and finally started treatment for gout, which I’d had occasionally for about a dozen years, but which had suddenly gotten much worse in 2010. (I have learned that gout is serious business. If you’ve got it, get help.)

And because my gout is now under control, I started running again last February. Believe it or not, I lost a month when, in March, I tripped over a root, landed on my face, banged the bionic elbow and injured a rib. (I had to make a presentation to Northeastern faculty and administrators the next day with a scab covering my entire chin.) But I got back to it, and am now running five miles a day, three or four days a week. At 55, I’m probably in as good a shape as I’ve been in a while.

My one remaining frustration is that my elbow feels strange, almost constricted, when anything rubs against it, like a shirt sleeve. I won’t go backpacking because I need protection, and when I’ve tried things like a rollerblading pad, I can’t stand the feel of it rubbing up against my elbow. Dr. Marcantonio has suggested it might feel better if I have the metal removed at some point, but I don’t like the idea of elective surgery. And even he said most patients opt to keep it in.

Overall, though, I know I’ve been pretty lucky — lucky not to have been hurt more seriously, lucky to have gotten good treatment and lucky to be healthy and physically active at 55.

Besides, I can say with certainty that I will never be in another bicycle accident. How many people can say that?