When I started commuting by bicycle a couple of years ago, a colleague told me there were two types of cyclists: those who’d been hit and those who would be. Others commended me for helping reduce congestion/pollution/my waistline, but with a whiff of worry, as if I were telling them I’d signed up to be a knife-thrower’s assistant. Almost invariably they’d confess cycling in Boston was too frightening for them.
I figured I’d be fine, as long as I followed traffic laws. And mostly my heart rate increased only when it should — going uphill. I did grouse about why Boston had such spotty bike lanes downtown, but I found the stress manageable. Then last year on Veterans Day, I slammed into a car while riding downhill on Cambridge Street between Government Center and Mass. General. The driver had been making a legal U-turn. I saw him and turned my head to check behind me. When I looked back, he had stopped, blocking most of both lanes. I smashed my glasses, needed four stitches under an eyebrow, broke a thumb, and totaled my bike.
I doubt my accident would have happened if Boston had bike lanes on that part of Cambridge Street. It makes no sense that it doesn’t — Cambridge Street is a significant thoroughfare for bicyclists who, like me, commute to and from Somerville and Cambridge over the Longfellow Bridge. Cambridge took advantage of the Longfellow renovation project to create bike lanes leading to the bridge, including some safe bike lanes, where cyclists are separated from vehicle and pedestrian traffic, usually by a curb or stanchions. The bridge has safe bike lanes, too. But once cyclists reach Charles Circle at the base of the bridge, they have to depend on the kindness of Boston drivers. Cambridge Street has no bike lanes between the Longfellow and New Chardon Street, where bike lanes appear along City Hall Plaza, then disappear after Court Street.
In effect, bike lane hopscotch.
Boston officials say Cambridge Street was last redesigned before bike lanes became a significant element in urban planning, and that it will get bike lanes. Community discussions need to happen. Why they didn’t happen much earlier is head-scratching, given swelling traffic congestion as population grows, the MBTA’s struggles, and Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s desire to respond to climate change.
Boston has added about 6 miles of protected bike lanes during the Walsh administration’s five years. “We need to be building 7 to 8 miles a year for the next three years” to meet the goals in Go Boston 2030, the mayor’s transportation blueprint, says Becca Wolfson, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union. The city’s plans fall far short, anticipating 9 new miles of safe bike lanes by 2022. Projects on Summer Street and Commonwealth Avenue will be completed this summer, while design phases start for extending the Southwest Corridor bike lanes from Ruggles Station to Charles Circle and those on Mass. Ave. south to Columbia Road. All good, but for the safety of Boston’s cyclists, the wheels of city government must spin faster.
Cambridge, which passed an ordinance requiring that its planned bike lanes be safe, built only 1 mile of protected bike lanes in 2018. Still, it has reset street maintenance priorities to accelerate bike lane build-outs. Boston could do the same. The share of Bostonians who commute by bicycle has risen from about 1.9 percent in 2013 to about 2.2 percent in 2017, even as the city’s population has increased. The Bluebikes bike-sharing program has seen ridership soar by almost 50 percent since 2014, to 1.8 million rides in 2018. About 6 percent of Jamaica Plain’s commuters bicycle.
Accelerating bike lane build-out would go a long way toward helping the mayor’s credibility recover from 2017’s repaving of Congress Street as if bicycles did not exist. Advocates were duly outraged, because the street has been earmarked for bike lanes since Tom Menino was mayor. City officials say a necessary transit study hadn’t been completed, but the street still needed to be repaved. The hopeful news is that Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets, tells me the city has doubled the size of its Active Transportation group, which among other things works on bike infrastructure, and is accelerating building safe bike lanes. He says Mayor Walsh “will be setting an updated timeline and outlining a strategy for [bike infrastructure] improvements later this year.”
Some critics say cities should simply give up on bicycles, because you’ll never get meaningful numbers of commuters to ride them. That’s wrongheaded. People will ride if they feel safe doing so and protected, connected bike lanes help people feel safer. In March, after my thumb was pronounced healed, I began cycling to work again, taking a slower route home that includes the safe bike lane on Staniford Street and one on Cambridge’s Cambridge Street. Still, I have to go on the dreaded Charles River Dam Road, where a cyclist was killed last year.
There is no silver bullet for the city’s congestion problem. But bikes could be part of the answer. Let’s hope Mayor Walsh shifts bike lane construction into a higher gear.
This article has been updated to correct the name of Columbia Road.