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Thinking outside the bike lane

A “bike box” was recently painted at the intersection of Beacon, Webster and Centre streets in Brookline, giving cyclists a head start at the traffic lights.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

As more residents in Boston’s western suburbs ditch their cars for bicycles, state and local officials are thinking beyond just painted bike lanes as they strive to make roadways safer.

Brookline recently put in a “bike box’’ at one of its major intersections to give cyclists a head start at traffic lights. Newton has installed a bicycle signal to direct riders across the street. And Arlington is in the midst of two major roadway projects that call for new bike lanes on Massachusetts Avenue and revamping the intersection at Arlington Center.

Some communities, including Watertown, are looking to add the Hubway bike sharing program. Others are considering separated bike lanes called cycle tracks, which advocates say is the future of urban cycling, while some communities, such as Framingham, are just starting to look at ways to increase the use of bikes in town.


“The west is doing phenomenal things,’’ said Richard Fries, executive director of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition.

Fries said accommodations for cyclists are gaining momentum because consumers are demanding it. He said the success of the 11-mile Minuteman Bikeway, a path that runs through Bedford, Lexington, Arlington, and Cambridge, for example, has been profound.

“That bike path has become the main street of Arlington, Lexington and Bedford,’’ he said. “All of a sudden hordes of people are saying it was so easy to get from Cambridge to Bedford and I want to keep going. We’re seeing amazingly cool things as a result of this demand.’’

One example is the Arlington Center Safe Travel Project on Massachusetts Avenue and Route 60, which will create a safe and visible connection that fills a gap in the bikeway, said Laura Wiener, the town’s assistant director of planning. The gap currently forces cyclists onto Route 60 and onto Mass. Ave. in order to reach the other leg of the path.


The project calls for an extension of the bikeway through Uncle Sam Park, adjacent to the sidewalk; on-street bike lanes on both sides of Mass. Ave. between Swan Place and Route 60; and a bike signal and accessible ramps at Swan Place and Mass. Ave. to encourage westbound cyclists to cross Mass. Ave. and ride in the westbound bike lane.

“What happens now is if you’re going toward Lexington, you come out to Swan Place and the bike lane ends,’’ Wiener said. “People tend to stay there and ride against traffic or walk on the sidewalk with bikes. The signal will make it easier to cross the street and get into the westbound bike lane.’’

Also in Arlington, new bike lanes are going in on a heavily-traveled 1-mile stretch of Mass. Ave. between the Cambridge city line to Pond Lane as part of a major roadway and streetscape improvement project. Wiener said Mass. Ave. currently accommodates about 100 bicycles during the morning peak hour.

Fries said changes are also taking place in several communities because state and regional transportation agencies are pushing for it. The state Department of Transportation implemented a new policy several years ago that requires communities to put in bike accommodations when possible for all MassDOT-funded projects.

But advocates and planners say while many projects are moving forward, they often take years to complete and are not always embraced by the entire community. In order to accommodate bike lanes, parking or roadway space must often be reduced. And cost is always a factor, officials said.


“We’ve tried to work with some of them but there is still a perception that they can’t fit bike lanes in because of parking,’’ said Eric Bourassa, director of the transportation division at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. “When it comes down to making the decision to make a road smaller or get rid of parking, it’s still a challenge in the suburban towns to make those trade-offs.’’

John Pelletier, chairman of Newton’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, said there are discussions about extending lanes on Centre Street and also on Beacon Street west of Newton Centre. But he acknowledged that it’s a challenge because it would take away on-street parking, which is the only option for many residents.

He said the city is also looking at adding bike boxes at several intersections and is interested in having Hubway bike rental stations in the city. Bourassa said Watertown is also looking to add Hubway stations.

“It’s not an easy discussion but it’s important to a lot of folks,’’ Pelletier said. “There are a lot of folks out there cycling and I see people using our road networks every day. It’s how do we meet that demand with all the other demands?’’

Brookline is one community that has put together a long-term plan for bikes that is updated each year, said Cynthia Snow, chairwoman of the Brookline Bicycle Advisory Committee. She said money has been allocated each year through the town’s capital improvement budget for bicycle infrastructure work.


Snow said the side streets in Brookline are fairly easy to navigate but it’s difficult to get anywhere without going on one of the major congested roads like Beacon or Harvard street.

“We’ve been reasonably successful getting shared-lane markings and bike lanes but it’s still far from safe and friendly for people who aren’t willing to take some risk in traffic,’’ she said.

The safest solution, she said, is a cycle track. She said the town’s first one will be going in on Route 9 from Brookline Village to the Boston city line as part of the Gateway East project. Cycle tracks are becoming increasingly popular in Boston and Cambridge.

In Cambridge, for example, a cycle track was installed on Concord Avenue from Alewife Brook Parkway to Blanchard Road, but ends before the Belmont town line, where it becomes a more traditional bike lane.

“You really need to separate cars and bikes and that seems to be the direction the forward-looking towns nationally are going,’’ Snow said.

And there are even communities that still have little or no bike accommodations at all. Fries said Framingham has very little but town officials are looking to come up with a long-range plan.

Fries said Waltham is one community that has been slow to make changes but city officials said several new bike lanes and sharrows (a shared lane marking) are in the works.

New lanes will be going in on a portion of Lincoln Street, and also High Street, said Michael Garvin, the city’s traffic engineer. Sharrows are slated for South and Prospect streets.


Garvin said only a few roads are done at a time because new markings are done in conjunction with construction projects.

“It’s slow because the best time to do it is when you’re repaving a street,’’ he said. “That’s when we take a good close look at it.’’

In Cambridge, a cycle track was installed on Concord Avenue from Alewife Brook Parkway to Blanchard Road, but becomes a more traditional bike lane before the Belmont town line.Craig F. Walker / Globe Staff
A cyclist rides from the cycle track into the painted bike lane on Concord Avenue.Craig F. Walker / Globe Staff
A driver crosses the bike lane on Concord Avenue to make a right turn.Craig F. Walker / Globe Staff

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at