When I told my editor I was going to bike to the Globe’s downtown office from my home in Milton for a column, his response was: “That actually sounds dangerous.”
Thanks for the words of encouragement, boss.
Jeff Mullan, a veteran bicyclist I planned to ride with on my inaugural two-wheeled commute, gave a similarly unsettling response when I asked if we would be safe. “I would be willing to bike in with you if you want,” he said. “But, if you aren’t a biker, I can’t represent to you it is safe.”
But on a recent morning, off we went anyway.
Like legions of others, I had long wanted to try biking to work. Many people do so routinely. Could I manage even one trip? Between fear and inertia, I had never put foot to pedal for a commute.
My desire grew as I watched people zip around Boston on Bluebikes, bypassing pedestrians and stalled traffic. But there’s always been a caveat. Boston may have gotten more bike-friendly, but there’s a long way to go. The street layout makes no sense, designated lanes are inconsistent, drivers are impatient, and nobody (bicyclists and pedestrians included) follows the rules of the road.
But when Mayor Michelle Wu urged people to seek alternative ways to get into the city during the Orange Line shutdown, a moment of personal reckoning arrived. It was time to give two wheels a whirl.
The night before my 8.5-mile ride downtown, I was so anxious I couldn’t sleep. Many of us know somebody, or a friend of friend, who has been killed or seriously injured in a bike accident.
That’s why I wasn’t going it alone. Mullan practices safety first. Maybe that’s because he’s a partner at Foley Hoag, a big law firm, and served as state transportation secretary during Deval Patrick’s first term. Mullan also once told me something that has stuck in my mind: His bike commute is the best part of his day.
Through trial and error, Mullan has learned which route from his home in Milton to his Seaport District office is best, and he’s figured out the optimal times to travel ― minimizing close encounters with big, scary vehicles is paramount. The commute is about 40 minutes door-to-door, which is faster than relying on the MBTA.
Mullan also avoids biking in the dark, which means he only rides between March and November. Nor does he bike in the rain. And he wears what I have learned to recognize as the commuter cyclist uniform: A sturdy helmet and anything fluorescent yellow.
The day I commuted with him we left Milton at 7 a.m., about a half-hour after sunrise. The route: down Central Avenue to the Neponset River Greenway Trail, then onto side streets in Dorchester along Tenean Beach. We came up Freeport Street and shot onto Morrissey Boulevard to Day Boulevard, and then onto Old Colony Avenue to Dorchester Avenue toward downtown. We turned on to A Street, which led us into the Seaport.
I worried the ride would be physically challenging, especially with my arthritic hip, but it wasn’t. Instead, the experience was mentally exhausting, at once harrowing and cathartic. You can’t beat the freedom and fresh air that come with cruising along the Neponset River and Boston Harbor on a crisp, sunny morning — not to mention the sense of accomplishment of having biked to work, all by 8 a.m.
But I could have done without the constant reminders of my mortality.
During the trip, I saw my life flash before my eyes twice — both times on Morrissey Boulevard; first, when cars from the Southeast Expressway zipped down a ramp to merge, and later as we wheeled around Kosciuszko Circle, which is anxiety-inducing even in a car.
When we crossed from the circle into South Boston, I was greeted by a welcome sight ― a brightly painted, dedicated bike lane.
It was at this point, about halfway into the journey, that I realized this cycling experiment would make me a better driver, one more mindful of how to share the road.
For example, I have a new perspective on double-parked vehicles, especially delivery trucks, which are ubiquitous. They are like land mines for cyclists. That was ever more apparent as we traveled along Dorchester Avenue in Southie. All I could think about is how one ill-timed door opening could send me tumbling into oncoming traffic.
Turns out, there are many people like me. Call us the bike curious. One oft-cited research study out of Portland State University suggested there are four types of cyclists: the fearless, the confident, the interested but concerned, and the “no way, no how.”
The vast majority of people fall into the latter two categories: roughly 30 percent have no interest in cycling, while more than 50 percent would like to bike more, but worry about getting hurt or worse.
“What that means is that we have a huge potential to capture new riders,” said Becca Wolfson, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union, an advocacy group.
That opportunity is loudly knocking now. It might be the silver lining of a subway system in disarray. The use of Bluebikes, which Boston made free during the monthlong Orange Line shutdown, surged to about 635,000 trips between Aug. 19 and Sept. 18, a more than 50 percent increase compared with the same period last year.
The bike traffic was noticeable, especially along the Southwest Corridor bike path, which runs parallel to the Orange Line from Forest Hills to the Back Bay.
This moment is not lost on Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the city’s chief of streets, who gets around primarily on his e-bike.
Cyclists have been pressuring the Wu administration to improve the city’s bike infrastructure. In August, some of them staged a protest by forming a “people-protected bike lane” along Charles Street on Beacon Hill.
In September, the city unveiled a three-year plan to vastly expand its bike network so that 50 percent of residents will be within a three-minute walk to a connected bike route. The focus has been about making cycling a safe and viable mode of transportation, and less about building out recreational trails.
“There’s a stereotype of bikers as being these kind of gear-obsessed, spandex-clad, race-aficionado-type people. But when I actually ride in the city, I see almost none of that,” said Franklin-Hodge. “What I see is normal everyday people . . . who are just living their life and doing their thing, and they found a way to do it with a bike. So that to me is the future of biking in Boston.”
Even though I lived to tell the tale of biking to work, I’m not sure I will do it again. Maybe it would be more practical with an e-bike — a bike with an electric motor, so I don’t have to break a sweat ― and safer after the state creates a dedicated bike lane along Morrissey Boulevard, which is in the works.
Still, in the days that followed my inaugural bike commute, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I could bike more and drive less in other parts of my life. Ultimately, conversion is as much about getting people out of their cars to save the environment — and their sanity — as it is about avoiding traffic and getting some exercise.
Instead of driving to the Open Streets festival on Dorchester Avenue last Saturday, my 11-year-old son and I arrived on bikes. It took us 15 minutes. On Monday, I had to drop something off at the post office, which is about a mile from my house. It was six minutes by bike.
Efficient and environmentally friendly, sure, but Mullan is onto something else. Biking is often the best part of my day, too.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.