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derrick z. jackson

Making Boston top in cycling commutes

Nicole Freedman’s words were as grand as the map draft on her City Hall desk. The map shows the city rimmed and crisscrossed 30 years from now by 364 miles of bike lanes, tripling its current 120-mile network.

Freedman is the director of Mayor Menino’s Boston Bikes program. The bicycle trail network is the centerpiece of a plan to make cycling so central to transportation that biking would account for 30 to 50 percent of all trips in Boston by 2043. These would range from commuters cycling in from bordering suburbs to local residents rushing out for a carton of milk.

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That would bring Boston, currently at around 2 percent of all trips by bike, to European levels of cycling. No other major US city has a goal that high.

“We talk a lot about being the Copenhagen of the United States,” Freedman said of the Danish city that wants bike trips to account for 50 percent of commutes by 2015. Copenhagen is already at 36 percent. “It took Copenhagen 30 years to get to where it is today. They were just as congested and polluted as we were. But they had a vision and a plan. We have one now.”

Freedman, winner of the 2000 US Olympic road-race cycling trials, was clearly exuding her competitive spirit. Thirteen other cities are currently ahead of Boston in bike commuter share, according to the League of American Bicyclists. Many mayors are looking to bikes to help curb congestion and pollution, promote fitness for people of all ages and incomes, and make their cities attractive to a younger generation that is eschewing cars and suburban sprawl for dense, lively districts and greener transportation options.

Seattle, which is second in the nation in bike commuting, wants to triple the number of cyclists by 2030. San Francisco is shooting for a bike-commuting rate of 15 to 20 percent by 2030. Portland, Ore., America’s top city in bike commuting at 6.3 percent, wants 25 percent of all trips to be by bike in 2030. Chicago plans 100 miles of protected lanes by 2015.

In Freedman’s vision for Boston,171 of 364 miles of lanes would be either off the road or protected from traffic by some kind of barrier. The public demand for those protections is growing rapidly in Boston, with a new push coming from women riders.

No other major US city has a goal that high.

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In Boston and even in the top US biking cities, women make up no more than a third of commuting riders. But Freedman says membership in the two-year-old Hubway bikeshare system, which this summer logged its one-millionth ride, is 47 percent female, closing in on the 50-50 gender balance among cyclists in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Finland.

Adding more protected lanes would be a powerful incentive for wider use of cycling. Such lanes would stretch across Boston from Somerville, Everett, and Cambridge down to Milton and Dedham. A person could cycle from the edges of Newton and Brookline to the ocean.

Freedman hopes the first new lanes will be built by 2018 around the Public Garden and along sections of Massachusetts Avenue, and Seaver, Cambridge, and Summer streets. Progress depends on several factors, such as aligning lane building with road reconstruction projects and working with residents and merchants to encourage them to appreciate the benefits of cycling, not just its potential impact on parking.

Then there is the matter of funding. Freedman assumes the new network of lanes will cost “tens of millions” of dollars. There is no doubt about that. Chicago’s protected lanes reportedly will cost $28 million. Portland’s 2030 plan calls for $600 million for nearly 700 miles of new bike paths. San Francisco is considering a Copenhagen-like 235-mile system costing up to $600 million.

But those figures pale next to the cost of the Big Dig, which has still left Boston with many daily traffic headaches. The need for non-car transportation makes Freedman optimistic there will be resources to transform Boston into a Copenhagen. “We might get there even faster than 30 years,” she said. “When Copenhagen started doing this, they were almost alone. Now, everybody’s thinking about this.”

Freedman finished 47th in her only Olympics. But in her plan to make Boston the nation’s top city for cycling, she’s aiming for nothing less than the gold medal.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.
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