I don’t own a bicycle. But I recently reclaimed my inner cyclist as part of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission’s Climate Innovations study tour to Northern Europe. Our agenda included experiencing sustainable mobility with a bicycle tour of Copenhagen, voted world’s best city for cyclists.
You might expect Cycling City to be a mecca of Lycra on wheels. But among the hundreds of riders on the road, no one looked like a Boston bicyclist, suited up for commuter battle.
Our tour guide, Niels, was helmet-less and dressed in a sharp blue suit. Spandex and gear, he explained, are for exercise cycling in the countryside. On the daily commute to work or school, the Danish take it easy, with relaxed, stress-free city cycling.
Stress-free city cycling? Never heard of it.
My head filled with flashbacks to the two previous bike tours I’ve joined in Boston: sweaty hands gripping handlebars where Massachusetts Avenue meets Columbia Road in a six-way intersection; silent prayers as cars zoomed by too close for comfort on River Street in Mattapan.
Crash fear is all too often justified in Greater Boston. In the first four months of 2016, 8 people were killed and 307 injured from crashes on Boston streets, up 20 percent compared to the same period in 2015. Last month, another fatal crash in Cambridge underscored the urgency of VisionZero and making our streets safe for all.
Many of these crashes are entirely preventable with street design that puts a buffer between cars and bikes — called “protected bike lanes’’ or “cycle tracks.” Separating cars from cyclists also makes pedestrians safer, with less sidewalk riding, slower vehicle speeds, shorter crossing distances, and safer intersections.
Pedaling through Copenhagen, I saw that safety is just the baseline benefit of world-class cycling infrastructure. When every street has bike lanes shielded from cars by a curb or median, cyclists ride without fear, and more people become cyclists: women, seniors, even kids riding alongside their parents. Safe infrastructure means cycling becomes an affordable transportation option open to all.
In Copenhagen, cyclists make up 45 percent of all commuters, and city planners have quantified the benefits. Adding up costs avoided by reducing traffic congestion, noise, crashes, wear and tear on infrastructure, and air pollution, they estimate 64 cents of net social gain from every mile traveled by bike instead of car. More residents getting regular exercise drives down health care costs by an estimated 61 cents per mile cycled.
But fitness and sustainability won’t motivate commuters to abandon their cars. To get nonprofessional riders on bicycles, cities must make bike commutes safe and convenient. In Copenhagen, cycle tracks receive top priority for snow clearance, followed by pedestrian sidewalks, then car lanes. Every detail of street design accommodates cyclists, from separately timed bicycle signals to plentiful bike parking at train stations.
Boston’s streets, on the other hand, are designed for conflict. Painted bike lanes function as space for double-parked delivery trucks, pushing cyclists into traffic. Posted signs and “sharrows” unrealistically ask drivers and cyclists to get along. The result is that only 1.9 percent of Boston commuters are willing to risk a bicycle trip — the bravest and most aggressive cyclists, who often provoke anxiety and rage in drivers.
We can do better.
Mayor Walsh and the Boston Transportation Department are leading a comprehensive effort to engage residents in planning our transportation future. We must reimagine our streets as spaces for all, not just cars.
For Boston, the urgency goes well beyond safety. Our continued economic growth depends on solving our transportation crunch. With a struggling public transit system that won’t be expanding service anytime soon, already gridlocked roadways will have to absorb many of the more than hundred thousand additional commuters projected by 2030. Carving out space for protected bike lanes is the most cost-effective way to increase our transit capacity and move more people on our streets.
To be clear, building a seamless and convenient network of protected cycling infrastructure will require trade-offs. On many streets, adding a cycle track means narrowing or removing car lanes, or eliminating on-street parking — scenarios that bring panic to car and business owners. Although research suggests that retail sales actually increase after switching parking for protected bike lanes, the proposals rarely see support from abutters. Yet we must acknowledge that our current transportation situation isn’t working for all residents, and it will worsen unless we take bold action to empower more affordable and sustainable options.
We can solve the car-bike conflict, and the solution unlocks a brighter, more inclusive economic and environmental future for Boston.
Michelle Wu is president of the Boston City Council.
Due to an editing error, a previous version of this piece misstated the number of deaths and injuries related to crashes. It has now been updated.