Imagine a Massachusetts Avenue where commuters and students have their own lane to pedal from Boston Medical Center to Arlington. Or a reconstructed Boylston Street for shoppers getting around on two wheels, or a re-done Huntington Avenue that allows Hubway-using tourists to move easily from Copley Place to Symphony Hall, the Museum of Fine Arts, Northeastern University, and the Longwood Medical Area.
More cycling makes a more vibrant city. Boston and Cambridge have come a long way in a very short time in promoting cycling and bike sharing. But for the most part, the streets still belong to daredevils willing to risk their lives on painted lanes in between whizzing cars on the left and parked cars on the right, where a deadly door could be opened into their lane without warning.
As much as I enjoy cycling, it still never occurs to me to pump air into my tires on weekdays. If Boston is to become the world-class bike city it says it wants to be — every day of the week — it needs major avenues with truly separated bike lanes.
Just ask Nicole Freedman, Boston’s outgoing director of bicycle programs, who is leaving to run Maine Huts and Trails. She said Boston has all the potential to emulate European cities where bike commuting and touring are ways of life, if it builds the bike tracks that have become iconic throughout Europe.
“In a lot of ways, we’re just like Copenhagen in terms of our layout,” Freedman told me Tuesday. “People think Copenhagen’s always been like it is, or they say, ‘Oh, that’s Europe,’ but 30 years ago, trying to cycle there was like it was in Boston four years ago.”
Boston’s share of commuters who cycle to work and school, which rose from 1 percent in 2000 to 2 percent by 2009, seems pitiful compared with the 35 percent of such commutes in Copenhagen in 2010. Butexperts say Boston and Cambridge, because of their density and the institutions in their midst, are primed for a major increase.
“A bicycle track down Massachusetts Avenue would be perfect, just perfect,” said urban planner John Pucher of Rutgers University. “It would connect Harvard and MIT to the universities in [Boston] and create this great corridor of people going back and forth on bicycles.”
Pucher published a study in the journal Transportation last month that found that the greater the supply of segregated bike paths in a city, the greater the rates of cycle commuting. “Physically separated bike lanes increase cycling levels, cycling safety and greatly encourage women, children, and seniors to cycle,” Pucher said. “There are bike corridors in Denmark and the Netherlands where a quarter of trips taken by seniors are by bike. That is currently unimaginable in the US. But we can increase our percentage if we try.”
The logistical challenges would be significant. Just painting a bike lane on a street, Freedman notes, takes up 5 feet of space (5 feet that cars and trucks use anyway). A physically separated bike lane takes about 8 feet. Boston eliminated 77 parking spaces to paint its lanes on Mass. Ave. between the Charles River and Symphony Hall. Boston and Cambridge would obviously have to eliminate many more spaces for true bike lanes.
In the short term, that would be an inconvenience for drivers. But the loss of car parking pales next to the possibilities that open up when patrons cycle to the Symphony, seniors putter to a market, students pedal to class, and workers get their exercise by commute. Boston may be losing a visionary in Freedman, but it should not lose her vision.