Biking Boston’s Great Blackout of 2012 (and My Most Awesome Encounter With BPD Yet)

Last night I noticed my twitter newsfeed was blowing up with #bostonblackout, which led me to discover all the news about the transformer at the Hilton blowing up and causing a massive power outage in Back Bay. Even though it was almost midnight when I found out, there was only one thing I knew I had to do: grab my digital cameras, hop on my bicycle, and ride around Boston to experience and document the blackout myself. Especially since it looks like power will be completely restored by tonight; biking in a blackout Boston might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Biking over the Mass Ave. Bridge is one of my favorite places to bike in Boston because of the stunning view, and last night was no different. Well, actually, the view was very different:
Boston Blackout: Skyline from Mass. Ave Bridge

I ended up right by the Hilton where the transformer fire started and asked a Policeman about it, who was very happy to see I was exploring around by bike and even gave me a fist pump farewell:

I ended up making new friends with some other bicyclists who also biked into Boston to explore what it’d be like to bike in a completely dark Newbury St:
Boston Blackout: BPD and Lone Street Lamp Light Up Newbury St, the Prudential Center and the Hilton Hotel

Ghost Town Illuminated
Where we cheered on other bikers also biking down a completely dark Newbury St.
Hooray! For Blackout Bicycling

We rode all over the city, and discovered how strange it felt to bike from a completely lit Beacon St. into one that was completely dark except for the occasional headlights:

Dark Steeple at Berkeley and Marlborough
Last night was one of the most awesome bike rides I’ve ever been on. I’ll have more to add to this story soon, including more videos, but in the meantime, feel free to checkout the entire Flickr photoset here and keep posted on my Youtube channel.

A few things I noticed while biking: It felt strange for the brightest lights in the city to be the constant flashing of Police Cruiser lights. On the other hand, they were also strangely comforting. The streets were very quiet, and even in the darkest streets, there were a fair number of people walking around, hanging out, and enjoying themselves. We ran into a lot of bicyclists, and even a few other groups of people biking. Cars seemed to be much more cautious towards us, especially taxi cabs, who were not only going slow, they were cautiously approaching intersections and yielding to us bicyclists everywhere.

Oh, and happy Pi Day!

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5 Responses to Biking Boston’s Great Blackout of 2012 (and My Most Awesome Encounter With BPD Yet)

  1. Weather Guy says:

    I didn’t get out to see it, but your description reminds me of the 2004 blackout. I was in NYC, and it was really weird getting around when there was no lighting, no motors except for car engines, lots of walking and people being, well, nice to each other. I wonder whether there were any free food giveaways this time around.

  2. William says:

    Cars seemed to be much more cautious towards us, especially taxi cabs, who were not only going slow, they were cautiously approaching intersections and yielding to us bicyclists everywhere.

    This is a great example of Hans Monderman’s “shared space” concept. [1] The removal of traffic control devices inspires caution and removes the need to hurry up and take your turn when the light is green and removes the anger at others who skip ahead and don’t wait like everyone else.

    I ran across an amazing paper recently on the counter-productive nature of most traffic-control devices. [2] You see this behavior most clearly in the “race to the next red light” that occurs constantly on city streets, and the aggressive behavior around light changes.

    As compelling as it is to think that simply leaving the lights off would make everyone behave better, I suspect people would get used to the “new normal” and start driving like maniacs again in short order without some other key changes, like strict liability for drivers and education campaigns (starting with requiring re-testing for licenses after some number of years) around the new (or new old!) traffic paradigm.

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shared_space
    [2] http://www.bikewalk.org/other_pubs.php

  3. greg says:

    @Weather Guy: I wish I biked when the 2004 NYC blackouts happened; at that time I was in high school living in the NYC ‘burbs. I didn’t see any free food giveaways anywhere around while I was biking, though I did see people who managed to find pizza pies.

    @William, that’s interesting, I’ve heard about the “shared space” concept, and the nature of traffic-control devices is a fascinating one indeed. Behavioral economics of traffic with respect to bicyclists and pedestrians, or understanding how people behave on a micro level in urban areas is an area I’d love to learn more about, and would probably be something I’d write a thesis on were I to go back to school for a Masters/PhD in economics.

    My hunch is that the thought of waiting for a red light (or series of them) in the present causes such displeasure in most people’s heads that racing them is worth it not only because it causes an adrenaline rush, but because the benefit of “winning” the race outweighs the risk of sitting in traffic. I guess if the threat of “traffic” wasn’t so well defined, then the thought of “racing” to the next light would be replaced with the horrible risk of colliding with another vehicle, which would be outweighed by the benefit of being cautious. In this situation, everybody wins.

    I also suspect the same would happen with behavioral after a while if all traffic control devices disappeared, but even if people still drove like “maniacs,” I wonder what effect it would have compared to the system we have now. For instance, so what if everyone still appeared to drive like a maniac if the total number of traffic collisions was suddenly cut in half over time even after people adjusted their behaviors.

    I wish perfect traffic measuring devices and information existed to test these theories.

  4. Rebecca says:

    I had thought about riding down there because I knew there would be few cars & would be fun to see. But then I thought this is kind of sad that I would want to take advantage of the experience of a bike ride free from conflict with cars when we should be experiencing that now with all this newly installed bike infrastructure. I would like to see bike lanes on the main streets in Boston not just accommodate cyclists but encourage apprehensive people to bike to get to where they need to go. This city would be teeming with people of all ages on bikes if they felt safe from cars. What I would love to see is the entire length of Newbury Street become a pedestrian & bike street.
    Thanks for sharing with us your experience of biking down there. I remember the fun of biking in Boston after the blizzard of 1978 when I was probably about your age. For days only emergency vehicles were allowed on the streets & people brought their lawn chairs out to Comm. Ave to watch people cross county skiing and the few of us on bicycles. When a vehicle came by we would toss our bikes up on to the snow bank & get out of the way.

  5. PHF says:

    I’ve noticed that since the blackout many of the traffic signals/lights seem to be out of their usual rhythm. Has anyone else?

    I’ll have to learn the sequences all over again I guess.

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