Through the eyes of a city cyclist
City streets are filled with dangerous drivers, clueless pedestrians, and potholes. But bicycling to work is an act of freedom — and connection
It’s still one of the best parts of my day.
I’ve been commuting to work by bicycle for 10 years now — not every day and less so as the kids get older and need to be shuttled around more — but as regularly as I can manage. I live in Newton near the Brighton line and work at the Globe offices in Dorchester; my various routes, each around 10 miles, take me along the Charles, or through Allston and downtown, or through Roxbury from Longwood to Savin Hill. It’s hardcore urban bicycling, and I love it.
This gets me expressions of both concern and occasionally scorn. And when tragedy occurs, as it did recently to two bicyclists in the Boston area, one killed in a collision with a car, another with a tractor-trailer, people start looking at me like I’m crazy. Why take the risk? How is that fun?
Let me tell you. First off, it’s my direct experience that cycling in the city is safer than in the suburbs. The car traffic is generally slower and more managed, for one thing, and drivers are more on the lookout for pedestrians and other random moving objects. Outside Boston the minivans come whipping around corners, their denizens yakking on the phone or talking to children in the back seats. A rider can be lulled into vulnerability in suburbia, too. I’ve also come to the conclusion that biking down Commonwealth Avenue through Allston, with its stoplights and fairly orderly lines of cars and cyclists, is far less nerve-wracking than dodging the joggers, strollers, and rollerbladers of the Charles River bike paths.
I start my morning commute coming down Kenrick Street, a steep, tree-lined hill with a public golf course, the expanse of Chandler Pond, and the back of the St. John’s Seminary glimpsed between the houses. The Newton/Brighton border occasions a change from smooth pavement to dangerous craters; it’s the first of many moments when I have to focus on both the immediate foreground and what’s happening a block ahead. Every morning is different, every ride a new landscape of clarity, calculation, and response.
There are risks to city cycling, but they can be greatly minimized by attitude and behavior, and the benefits are worth it. As someone who grew up biking through Greater Boston, bike-commuted on or off for two decades in New York, and returned in 2002 to the potholed streets of my youth, I believe that the only way to truly know and see a city — its breadth and depth, its neighborhoods and people — is to get out of the car and go on foot or, preferably, on wheels. What’s crucial to biking in Boston, though — and not enough cyclists themselves understand this — is having respect for everyone else out there on the road while maintaining as close to a 360-degree Zen state of hyper-awareness as you can muster. This isn’t work. Actually, it’s a large part of the pleasure.
I take a right onto Washington Street and enter a stream of heavy traffic, crossing through Brighton Center and then choosing one of my three usual routes, often on impulse. It’s manageable riding and I try not to weave in and out of lanes. The object is to be predictable and to get to work in one piece, not to be a hotshot. Whenever I approach an intersection, I slow down so there’s not a car or a truck or a bus to my immediate left. The working assumption is that any car to one’s left is about to take a right, especially in Boston, especially if it’s not signaling. So I let it. Or, if it’s safe, I move behind and over to the car’s left. Over the years, I’ve learned how to read automobile body language and can tell, with uncanny accuracy, when a right turn is about to be made. But why mess with fate? This is how cyclists get killed, by believing cars and pedestrians are aware of them. They aren’t. Ever.
The serious inner-city riding begins, and I maintain an easy centrality between the moving traffic to my left and the parked cars on my right. I was doored once in Roxbury, and it wasn’t pleasant. What I said above about minimizing risks? There are two things it’s impossible to plan for: a car clocking you from behind and a door opening in your path. All you can do is keep your eyes open and make yourself as visible as possible.
Eventually I come out into Dorchester, into the long avenues and tightly knit neighborhoods. This is what I love about cycling: It takes me to different parts of Boston and to the people who live there. It’s not pretty but who cares; you want pretty, head out to Dover with my weekend Spandex crew. They’re great guys and the group peleton is fun, but when I head in toward town, it’s usually on my own. One of my favorite recreational rides is down through south Brookline into Roslindale and West Roxbury, out to Hyde Park and Readville. I’ve ridden the broad avenues of Southie and the close streets of East Boston, out around the industrial moonscape of Chelsea and up the hills of Charlestown, alongside the Charles, the Neponset, and Mother Brook, the nearly four-centuries-old manmade stream that connects them.
I wear a helmet, of course. A few years back, my younger daughter squawked about wearing one, but then a barista at a local coffee shop died in a cycling accident. He was coming down Commonwealth Avenue in Newton at dusk, didn’t realize the cross street had a delayed green, and slammed into the side of a minivan. Fell over, hit his head, got up, walked around, and collapsed. He wasn’t wearing a helmet; why should he have been wearing a helmet? He was young, it was a beautiful evening, he must have felt so free coasting down that hill. Now he’s dead. I don’t know if a helmet would have saved his life. But my daughter wears hers all the time now, no protests. I wish putting one on made you more stylish instead of a ringer for Steve Carell in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” But it doesn’t. It just lessens the odds.
Maybe you don’t agree; there’s a vocal anti-helmet crowd out there. I see them especially around the colleges, whipping along the avenue late for class. The thing about bicycling is that it’s a big tent, with all kinds of riders holding all sorts of beliefs. So here is what I believe: that not wearing a helmet is stupid. That biking with headphones is especially stupid. That both cars and pedestrians have the right of way over me on a bike, because one weighs two tons and could kill me, and the other likely doesn’t see me coming and I could kill him or her. That any cyclist who cuts off a car or a pedestrian or blows through an intersection without looking isn’t a free spirit but a self-absorbed twerp.
There are certain spots in town where I can’t help but reflect on my mortality. The place in Central Square where a car door opened and threw a bicyclist into the path of an oncoming bus in 2002. The Beacon Street intersection where a garbage truck turned right and killed a doctor cycling to work. The street in Roxbury where I was doored. Now the places in South Boston and on Morrissey Boulevard where Tanya Connolly and Doan Bui died recently. I am reminded I am here by the grace of God, my wits, and a healthy respect for everyone else on the road, and that this way I choose to move through the world — that gives me untold enjoyment while freeing me from the lockstep of daily life — involves not isolation but connection.
I think of the chatty crossing guard outside Everett Elementary School in Dorchester and the morning dog-walkers on Malibu Beach; of strolling couples and mothers of young children on the long, lazy Southwest Corridor path from Back Bay Station to Forest Hills. I remember the locals in Roxbury who picked me up after my accident, guarded my bike while the ambulance came, and pressed names and phone numbers into my hand in case I needed witnesses. I think of the tiny, wood-frame penny-candy store on Weld Street in Rozzie where there’s always a neighborhood sage hanging out. I think of the grizzled caretaker in Fairview Cemetery in Hyde Park who got to talking, dug around in his records, and made a family connection I didn’t know I had.
To bicycle through Boston isn’t and shouldn’t be to cruise apart from the crowd. It’s to appreciate one’s place in it.