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When building bike lanes isn’t enough

Yes, it is a critical first step to getting more people out of their cars and onto bikes. But government, business, and civic groups can do more to encourage cycling.

A cyclist sloshed through Coolidge Corner.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

If you’re a cyclist, there aren’t many cities in America better to ride your bike in than Boston, and even fewer states better than Massachusetts.

Boston has about 76 miles of on- and off-street bike lanes and paths, with ambitious plans to expand that network. Its bike share program has proven hugely popular, with thousands of riders using those big blue bikes to travel more than 8 million miles last year. And last year, the state was ranked the most bicycle friendly in the country, ahead of meccas like Oregon and Colorado.

So what more could a cyclist want? Well, here’s one thing: more cyclists.


Though data on cycling are spotty, surveys indicate that only 2 percent of Boston commuters get to work on bikes, significantly lower than in cities like Portland, Ore., Boulder, Colo., Washington, D.C., or even Cambridge and Somerville. And while it is entirely unscientific, a routine visual inspection of city bike lanes suggests many are only lightly used — save for several heavily traveled corridors, including along Massachusetts Avenue and in certain parks.

City officials maintain that such anecdotal evidence is deceiving and that ridership has been steadily climbing. But it is far from clear that on the current trajectory, the city will reach its own goal of having 8 percent of all commutes be by bicycle by 2030.

Reaching that goal is vital to the city’s health. The increased use of bikes usually means the decreased use of cars, which will shrink the city’s carbon footprint and its need for costly parking spaces. At a time when the T is slow or undependable, cycling can not only fill gaps in the transit system but can also be the most efficient mode of travel.

Moreover, bicycles add to the vibrancy of street life, a potential boon to neighborhood stores, restaurants, and cafes. And let’s face it, we could all use a bit more exercise.


But here’s the rub: At some point it will take more than just infrastructure to get people onto bikes.

None of this is to say that building that infrastructure is a waste of resources or precious pavement, as many critics assert. “When we talk to people, the thing we hear most frequently is: ‘I would like to ride a bike but I don’t feel safe,’ ” said Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the city’s chief of streets, transportation, and sanitation.

So having safe bike lanes that connect residents to work, shopping, schools, and parks is the logical first step to expanding bike use. That is precisely what the city is trying to do by adding lanes in places like West Roxbury, along Boylston Street in Back Bay, and in Mattapan.

But now is also the time to press for new and innovative approaches to encouraging, cajoling, and incentivizing more people to try the bike. This is a task that the city can lead but should not have to do on its own.

The League of American Cyclists, a national nonprofit that promotes cycling, contends that more cities should include bike training in elementary school physical education classes. In Washington, D.C., for instance, every second-grader learns how to ride a bike. The district has its own set of training bikes for those youngsters who don’t have their own. There are about two dozen other cities, including Rochester, Minn., and Jersey City, N.J., that have similar programs. The Boston Public Schools should consider it, too.


Adult classes should be more widely available as well. Boston sponsors a course to teach women and gender-diverse people how to ride a bike. (Men use bikes far more often than women.) And many local bike clubs sponsor group rides that can build confidence in novice cyclists. But more communities could sponsor bike-oriented classes and events, like the Mattapan On Wheels annual bike-a-thon.

Electric bikes should also be part of the equation. E-bikes can make cycling an attractive alternative for people with long commutes, older or disabled riders, or people who have children or cargo to ferry. The city is looking to start a program to defray the cost of an e-bike for older people and people with disabilities. The state may follow with its own subsidy program. Such a plan should be open to all e-bike buyers.

There are a host of other strategies that have shown promise elsewhere. Some states allow tax deductions for the cost of bike commuting or to help pay for Uber rides home when bad weather strikes.

Lastly, growing the Bluebike program is crucial because it allows people to get comfortable with urban cycling without spending $500 or $5,000 on equipment. The city is looking to add 400 new docking stations.

Many of these efforts — particularly those involving so-called road diets that squeeze car lanes and parking spots — are certain to face continued opposition from residents and business owners. Their concerns should not be disregarded, as many people have no choice but to use cars to reach distant jobs and many businesses rely on car-dependent clientele.


But we firmly believe that a safer mix of cars, pedestrians, and bikes — as well as scooters and other micro-mobility devices — will make Boston streets greener and more pleasant places.

Amelia Neptune, director of the Bicycle Friendly America program at the League of American Bicyclists, notes that even in Amsterdam — where more than two-thirds of commuters and students travel by bike — cars once dominated the streets. It took a rash of car crashes that killed children in the 1970s to motivate a mass movement for better bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

“It wasn’t always a cycling utopia,” she said. “They made a conscious decision to become more bike friendly.”

For cyclists, there is comfort in a crowd. The more cyclists there are, the more visible they are to drivers, and the more those drivers learn to accommodate them on the road. Here’s to building those crowds.

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