I’ve biked over 12,000 miles on the streets of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville and Milton, and it has often been an adventure…
People have cut me off in traffic – but you expect that in Boston. I’ve had people throw drinks at me. Did they think I was dehydrated? I don’t think so. People occasionally shout things, too. Usually something about ‘get off the road’, but sometimes it’s hard to tell ’cause voices don’t carry well over the road noise, distance and speed differences. When I had long hair, guys would hoot and holler at me. That was weird… I’ve also crashed into a car door. I should have gotten stitches for that one… Have you ever wiped out in traffic in the middle of a rotary in the rain? Scary. Wiped out on garbage slime? Eeeew. Run a red light across four lanes of traffic without a clear view? Stupid. There’s more, but you get the idea…
Cambridge, as always, is pretty progressive. They have many bike lanes, which makes biking there better. But in Boston, you have to fend for yourself. It can be tough. My (proverbial) hat is off to those who commute or courier in the city. I’m too lazy for that now…
By Stephen Madden | August 29, 2006
BOSTON SHOULD be one of the best cities in the United States in which to ride a bike. It’s beautiful, it’s largely flat, and it has wide avenues that could easily accommodate cars and bikes together. It also boasts the Emerald Necklace, the Paul Dudley White Memorial Bicycle Path, and the upcoming South Bay Harbor Trail, some of the country’s most scenic and useful bike paths.
And yet Boston holds a perennial spot on Bicycling Magazine’s list of the nation’s worst cities for cycling. After two days and 75 miles of riding around Boston earlier this month, I know why. Boston, you need to construct dedicated bike lanes, fill in your pot holes, and give riders a break.
A bike lane is exactly what it sounds like: a narrow lane, demarked with paint on a surface road, usually on the right side of the thoroughfare between automobile traffic lanes and parking lanes or the curb. The lane is for bikes only, and offers cyclists a place to ride where they can feel safe from traffic. Studies have shown that the more miles of bike lanes a city has, the more often people ride their bikes.
Bike paths, on the other hand, are lanes completely removed from surface streets, such as the White path along the Charles River and the Harbor Walk that runs from South Boston’s Castle Island past the Kennedy Library in Dorchester. The two should complement each other, and be connected so cyclists can knit together safe, efficient routes.
During my ride around Boston and its environs, the only bike lanes I saw were in Cambridge. In fact, Boston cycling veterans say the city may have just three-quarters of a mile of bike lanes — about half a mile on Perkins Street and about a quarter mile on Morrissey Boulevard. (Portland, Ore. , a city of similar population, boasts 163 miles of bike lanes and 66 of bike paths.)
I was amazed that the Freedom Trail, the eminently walkable red-brick lane of history and one of the city’s premier attractions, wasn’t explicitly rideable; I had to walk my bike across the metal-grate pedestrian lane of the Charlestown Bridge on my way to Old Ironsides, and few sites had bike racks.
Part of what makes Boston such a beautiful, livable city is its scale. I was able to ride from my hotel on Tremont Street to Castle Island in a leisurely 20 minutes. That same degree of compactness means that many of the city’s winding streets simply do not have room for bike lanes. But the broad boulevards around the major universities do, as does Blue Hill Avenue.
Boston would also benefit greatly from an aggressive program of road resurfacing. (On this point, drivers and cyclists will find something to agree on.) I used all of my bike-handling skills to swerve around, jump over, and roll slowly through potholes and pavement cracks. You shouldn’t need a shock absorber-equipped mountain bike to ride in the city.
And while Boston’s drivers have a reputation for aggression and recklessness, I’d suggest that it’s the city’s pedestrians who need to watch where they’re going. While I was riding, plenty of drivers slowed down, and waved me into traffic and across tricky crossings. But Hub pedestrians seemed indifferent to my presence, almost belligerent in their challenges. A bicycle is a vehicle, and while pedestrians often have the right of way, they don’t always. Common sense dictates you don’t walk in front of a moving vehicle, regardless of how many wheels it has.
The news isn’t all bad — quite the contrary. The previously mentioned bike paths are heavily used by Boston’s active cycling community both as commuting routes and as excellent recreation paths. The city has a strong bike culture, with myriad cycling clubs and events. The MBTA has run special bikes-only cars on select North Shore trains. And on Oct. 1, Storrow Drive will be open only to bicycles as the city hosts the annual Hub on Wheels ride, expected to attract 4,000 riders this year.
The League of American Bicyclists estimates it would cost the city $5,000 to $6,000 per mile to paint bike lanes. While some drivers may be upset at losing space on already congested roads, creating a more hospitable environment for cyclists may encourage some of those same drivers to leave cars at home.
Fewer cars would mean cleaner air (as Portland added bike lanes, greenhouse gas emissions dropped to pre-1990 levels), healthier residents, saner drivers, and quicker trips. For everyone.
Stephen Madden, editor-in-chief of Bicycling Magazine, is a Dorchester native and a former bike messenger for Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault.
© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company