Riding a bike on the streets around the Public Garden once felt like a dangerous endeavor, only accessible to the most fearless and experienced cyclists.
Enter COVID-19. The city of Boston expedited a plan to build protected bike lanes on all four sides of the garden. It was a reality by the end of 2020.
Nearly two years after the coronavirus hit, many streets in Greater Boston have been transformed to accommodate safer biking. With far fewer cars on the road in the initial months of the pandemic, advocates who had long been pushing for bike lanes saw a swell of political will to remake the streets.
But as the new normal solidifies, there’s been backlash: from some business owners and drivers who say that the changes, made for a minority of commuters, have been too sweeping and swift — and from bikers, that the process to build connected, protected bike lanes is moving too slowly. It’s left many neighborhoods in the uncomfortable interregnum between our car-focused past and more bike-friendly future and forced cities and advocates to rethink how they engage with the public.
“As we’re seeing the will and the winds shifting, we’re organizing to build the demand and the voice,” said Becca Wolfson, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union, which advocates for protected bike lanes. “It’s out there.”
Boston and other Massachusetts cities and towns are trying to create and expand protected bike lane networks. The goal is to get more people to replace trips normally done by car — appointments, commutes, grocery store runs — with bikes in order to lower carbon emissions, relieve congestion, and make streets safer for pedestrians.
But, currently, many bike lanes aren’t connected, providing safety for only a few blocks before bikers are lurched, sometimes unexpectedly, into unprotected car traffic.
“There is not a neighborhood in the city that looks at their current street system and says, ‘This is safe, this is convenient in the way that I want it to be,’” said Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s new chief of streets. “Every neighborhood is looking for improvements.”
Since the pandemic began, biking activity has increased in most Massachusetts municipalities by more than 25 percent, according to the most recent data available from the state’s Department of Transportation. Bluebike rentals in 2021 far outpaced rentals in 2019. US bike sales increased 65 percent over the 12-month period ending in July 2021, while electric bike sales were up 240 percent, according to NPD Group, a consumer analytics company.
In a survey conducted by MassINC Polling Group of 670 registered voters in the Boston area last May, 75 percent said they support constructing separated bike lanes even if it means less space for driving and parking cars. Separated bike lanes are physically separated from motor vehicle traffic with a vertical structure (flex posts, parked cars, curbs).
In 2020, Boston and surrounding cities and towns within the Route 128 beltway added around 24.5 miles of bike lanes, according to data compiled by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and provided to the Globe. In 2021, they added another 9.7 miles.
Some of those lanes have required construction, including those on Washington Street in Brookline, which are separated from car traffic with a curb. Others, including those around the Public Garden, are dubbed “quick-build,” meaning they can be constructed virtually overnight, requiring only new paint or dividers. A row of parked cars now separates bikers from car traffic on Beacon, Charles and Boylston streets, and a row of flex posts separates them on Arlington Street.
And the bike lane boom spreads far past Greater Boston.
A recent report by the Barr Foundation measuring the impact of these initiatives found that a bike lane on Waushacum Avenue in Sterling, a town of fewer than 8,000 in Worcester County, allows 6.5 times more people to get to Main Street by bike.
A bike lane on North Street in Pittsfield allows 5,500 people to bike to local businesses within 15 minutes. And in Salem, separated bike lanes on Willson Street created an 8 percent drop in average car speeds and a 61 percent drop in people driving over 40 miles per hour. Separated bike lane infrastructure like flex posts and narrowed car lanes can force drivers to slow down and abide by posted speed limits.
Not all are on board, though. Drivers who are used to wider lanes and faster travel and business owners who rely on on-street parking have raised significant concerns about new bike lanes.
“Traffic has become worse, it creates confusion,” said Narender Chhabra, 74, owner of Chhabra Bridal Wear on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, who drives to work.
Cambridge has been a leader in creating separated bike lanes, adding 4.12 miles in 2021 with a goal of reaching around 25 miles by mid-decade. That’s included separate, side-by-side bus and bike lanes on a half mile-long stretch of Massachusetts Avenue in North Cambridge added in November. The changed traffic pattern halted nearly all curb-side parking.
Small businesses along the stretch say they were given little or no warning about the street redesign.
“You can’t just blindside somebody like that,” Cindy Hughes, 55, co-owner of Fast Phil’s hair salon. “They have zero regard for small businesses.”
On a recent weekday evening at Fast Phil’s, two chairs were full and someone was waiting for a haircut. The first question Hughes asked people who walked in the door was, “Where’d you park?” She is keeping a list of where her customers come from and how they get to the shop (most drive from outside Cambridge) to try to quantify the impact of the street’s makeover.
She said her business is down around 50 percent since before the bus and bike lanes went in, and she doubts she will be able to make up the difference with residents who can walk or bike to the shop. Hughes commutes to Fast Phil’s from Stoneham and said she is having to rent driveway space from a nearby resident.
Fast Phil’s has been at its Mass Ave. spot for 18 years and has eight years left on its lease there, she said. She said she supports bike lanes but worries that if the city doesn’t provide more parking, the shop will go out of business.
“Do I want that for the planet? Yeah,” she said. “But at the expense of losing my house and my son in college? No . . . They can’t just think that changing this overnight is going to fix everything. Will it help? Probably. But it’s not helping us.”
One of her biggest complaints is that she sees few bus riders and bikers using the new lanes. Transit advocates say that’s by design — buses and bikes can move far more people while occupying far less space than cars.
Nate Fillmore, co-founder of Cambridge Bike Safety, said the city should try to mitigate the impact on businesses as much as possible and suggested adding more metered parking on side streets and signs directing drivers toward the side street parking that is already there.
“If local businesses are suffering, then there are things that have not been done that they should add,” he said.
There is room for improvement when it comes to engaging with business owners and residents around bike lane projects, advocates say.
Vivian Ortiz, a transportation advocate in Mattapan, is doing community engagement about the plan to redesign Blue Hill Avenue with center-running bus lanes and protected bike lanes. Instead of expecting people to attend city meetings, Ortiz said, it’s important to talk to people on the street who use it every day and share personal experiences.
“You have to talk to people where they are,” she said. “They have to find people who are already doing the work and have us be the bridge builder to introduce the city to our neighbors.”
At a recent community town hall in Mattapan about the Blue Hill Avenue redesign, co-owner of Cafe Juice Up Fiex Thevenin said he has concerns about the project’s impact on parking.
“Where are my guests going to park?” he said. “Where are the guests from the other businesses . . . going to park? We’re already short on parking space as it is now . . . Access and getting this thing done right is really important to us.”
After implementing 6.5 miles of separated bike lanes in 2020, Boston did not add any new separated bike lanes in 2021. The two biggest barriers to doing more are that all the low-hanging fruit is gone, and the city needs to hire a lot more people to design, engineer, and construct, said Franklin-Hodge, the city’s chief of streets.
Boston plans to construct several separate bike lanes projects this year, including on Boylston Street in the Fenway, Tremont Street in the South End, and on Massachusetts Avenue in Dorchester, Franklin-Hodge said.
“If you look back over the last 10, 15 years in Boston, we put bike lanes where it was easy, and where there’s a lot of support,” he said. “To do significant transformation of our streets, which is our goal, we need to build trust. . . . I see tremendous potential for Boston to become a national or even international leader in transforming its transportation system.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the mileage of bike lanes added in the Boston area in 2020 and 2021. According to data compiled by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and provided to the Globe, Boston and surrounding cities and towns within the Route 128 beltway added around 24.5 miles of bike lanes in 2020 and 9.7 miles in 2021.