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Fear, loathing, and bike lanes in West Roxbury

Is the backlash against bike lanes really so strong that the neighborhood would prefer keeping Centre Street unsafe for everyone?

The city has proposed a plan to slim Centre Street in West Roxbury down to one travel lane in each direction, with a turning lane in the middle.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

After the 2019 death of an elderly pedestrian who was struck while crossing Centre Street in West Roxbury, it seemed as if the community might have had enough of the unsafe layout of the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. The peculiar design of the four-lane road makes it especially treacherous, with injuries and near-misses occurring far too frequently.

What happened instead was an uprising against a plan to reconfigure the road, spearheaded by local businesses and residents worried about the loss of parking and irritated by what they perceived as a conspiracy by the nefarious “bicycle lobby.” The surprising intensity of the backlash echoed the increasing politicization of even the most mundane traffic safety changes in neighborhoods across the country; former mayor Marty Walsh’s administration quickly shelved the idea.


More than four years later, the street is still unsafe, and the pandemic-fueled problem of takeout drivers double-parking near restaurants has added to the preexisting hazards. The crash rate on Centre Street, according to the city, is 34 percent higher than comparable Massachusetts roads.

Now the city is taking another shot at redesigning the road, with a new mayor who seems less inclined to fold in the face of opposition. The Wu administration detailed its plan for the stretch of Centre Street between LaGrange Street and the West Roxbury Parkway in a packed community meeting on Wednesday. The city wants to slim the road down to one travel lane in each direction, with a turning lane in the middle, a design that has been shown to be safer. It would place pedestrian islands in some intersections and tinker with the location of MBTA bus stops. The plan would retain about 95 percent of the parking that’s currently available, addressing the anxiety of local businesses.


And, yes, it would make room for cyclists, too.

A key part of the city’s presentation was a map of recent crashes showing how unsafe the street is for motorists themselves; most of the incidents involved cars, not pedestrians or cyclists.

In other words, the street isn’t safe for anyone. Reconfiguring it in the way the city has proposed would protect all road users. Surely the loathing of bike lanes hasn’t gotten so bad that everyone in West Roxbury has to accept a more dangerous status quo just to keep those annoying, self-righteous bikers quaking in their Lycra, right?

It’s not just in West Roxbury, and not just in Boston, that street redesigns have become lightning rods. Residents often resent losing parking spots for little-used bike lanes, and in places like Mattapan the controversies have taken on a racial tinge, with some residents perceiving bike lanes as a one-way path to gentrification. Fringy conspiracy theories also abound about supposed plots to prevent people from driving and to confine them to “15-minute cities.” The fervor of the opposition to the 2019 plan in West Roxbury may have caught the Walsh administration off guard, but strong pushback from different political directions is fast becoming the norm.

Of course, it’s always fair to debate how to best apportion street space. But not everything has to become a battle in a culture war. Not every accommodation for bikers comes at someone else’s expense. Some changes to streets really are win-win propositions. The only people who would be harmed by the proposed changes in West Roxbury are speeders and double-parkers — who are breaking the law anyway. Anyone trying to walk across the street, or make a left turn in their car, would enjoy safer travels. It’s abundantly clear that the road is unsafe, and the city shouldn’t let overwrought bike-lane politics stymie an overdue change once again.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.