Pedal Promise

17 Mar

Pedal promise

The ongoing perils and recent improvements en route to a riding renaissance.

By TOM MEEK  |  May 13, 2010

Bike-safety-2010-main
FAST LANESince Mayor Menino reinstated Boston’s bike program in 2007, the city has added 15 miles of bike lanes, with another 20 miles to come this year.

Boston has its fair share of deserving bad reputations: the sports fans whined for some 86 years about a “curse” because the Red Sox couldn’t seal the deal; the drivers are terrible; and, thanks in no small part to those driving skills, the city’s streets were thrice voted by Bicycling Magazine as some of the worst in the country for cyclists.

But like the Sox’s dry spell, all bad things must eventually come to an end. So Boston set about to reform its bad bike behavior, because — well, for no other reason it seems than a few years ago someone bought Mayor Tom Menino a bike. For that, all local bikers should be thankful, even if there are still perilous intersections to cross.

Check out the Boston Bike Bible 2010 with info on bike stores, events, maps, and much more.

Having finally discovered the city’s streets to be dangerous for two-wheelers, in 2007 Menino vocalized his desire to retool Boston into a world-class cycling city. He’s since done plenty to back up his talk, reinstating the city’s bike program and hiring urban planner and former Olympic cyclist Nicole Freedman as director of Boston Bikes (a position that had been dormant since 2003). As part of that initiative, the city laid 15 miles of bike lanes and installed new racks, increasing ridership in the city by some 43 percent through 2009.

Bicycling Magazine took note, tagging Boston as a “future best city,” moving it from the worst-cities list to the best, ranking just below the half-way point at number 26.

Still, an up-and-comer the city remains. On April 7, 22-year-old cyclist Eric Michael Hunt, of Mission Hill, was killed after a collision with an MBTA bus on Huntington Avenue. That accident, still under investigation, came amidst a rash of other incidents, some of which were life-threatening.

From tragedy can come triumph, however. Menino seized on the opportunity to better the biking situation, inviting local officials and bikers to brainstorm much-needed improvements. As a result, a number of long-fought-for policy changes have in the past few weeks been implemented or scheduled.

Whether some of them are empty promises remains to be seen, but much has already been accomplished. Here, then, the Phoenix examines the long, bumpy road that leads to biking renaissance in the Hub.

COMPETING WITH CARS
“The car is no longer king in Boston,” Menino declared to an audience of cyclists during an inaugural Bike Safety Summit, held April 21 at Boston University’s Morse Auditorium.

The event, called largely in response to the spate of accidents, covered a broad range of topics, and featured an even broader line-up of all stars who can get things done: Transportation Secretary Jeffrey B. Mullan, MBTA General Manager Richard A. Davey, Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis, Boston Transportation Commissioner Thomas J. Tinlin, Boston EMS Chief James Hooley, and Barbara Ferrer, the executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission.

But the main topics on everyone’s mind seemed to be cars and buses — specifically, how to avoid collisions, and how to make drivers more aware of the cyclists with whom they must share Boston’s crowded, potholed roads.It’s a persistent concern, given the approximately 1400 accidents recorded in the city from 2008 to 2009, 14 of which were fatal, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles.“I bike out in Lexington and Concord,” says Rhonda Teck, an avid cyclist from Somerville, “but I don’t bike in the city because it’s too dangerous. There’s too many cars.”Officials at the summit promised the assembled crowd of more than 100 that a number of changes would be forthcoming. Among them, word from new MBTA head Davey that T officials would load “bike scenarios” into bus-driving simulators. The T followed up the summit with a statement affirming: “Our Bicycle Safety Program/Campaign will also identify ways to increase mutual respect between bus drivers and the biking community.”

See Something, Say SomethingThere are countless ways that you personally can make the city a better place to bike, all in a few moments’ time.JOIN a local advocacy group, which does everything from lobby officials to review proposed city plans — in short, they get stuff done.
>Cambridge Bicycle Committee
>Boston Cyclists UnionREPORT accidents, bike thefts, hazardous intersections, and unclear signs.
>For potholes in Cambridge, call 617.349.4854
>For potholes or hazardous road conditions in Boston, call 617.918.4456
>Go to cityofboston.gov/contact/?id=179, e-mailnicole.freedman.bra@cityofboston.gov, or use the city’s free Citizens Connect iPhone app, which allows users to submit photos and work requests
>For bicycle thefts in Boston, or to register your bike in the event it is stolen, go to stolenbikesboston.com

REQUEST a bike rack or free bike map.
>For bike racks or maps, call 617.918.4456
>Go to cityofboston.gov/contact/?id=179, or e-mailnicole.freedman.bra@cityofboston.gov

This week, MBTA personnel reportedly met with representatives from Boston Cycling Union (BCU), MassBike, and the City of Boston to discuss additional reforms, including placing stickers on buses that would inform bikers of blind spots.

Perhaps the biggest coup of the night, though, was the announcement by Commissioner Davis that bike accidents would be specifically flagged in police reports so that trends and trouble spots could be studied — something that Cambridge has been doing for years.

According to the BCU, “a drop-down list will be added to the BPD database that will allow a ‘bicycle-related’ designation at the data entry stage.” New incident-report forms expected to be introduced in 18 months will also contain “bicycle related” check boxes.

Davis says he will work with his officers to make them more aware of cyclists, and that parking in a bike lane will now warrant a steep $100 fine.

BUILDING A SAFETY NETWORK
Since Freedman was appointed as Boston’s so-called bike czar, she has overseen the implementation of those 15 miles of bike lanes and the installation of 500 bike racks. The city plans to add another 20 miles of lanes and 250 more racks this year.

“When you put bike lanes on the road,” says Freedman, “it slows down traffic and, also, bikes tend to obey the rules more because they feel legitimized on the road.”

That rationale jibes with a widely regarded academic paper on biking by PL Jacobsen, “Safety in Numbers,” which concludes: “A motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking and bicycling if more people walk or bicycle.”

More is less, then — and Cara Seiderman, Cambridge’s transportation program manager, has the data to support it. The biking population in Cambridge doubled between the years 2002 and 2008, yet the crash rate held close to its average of about 90.

“If you build it,” says Seiderman, “they will come.”

Of course, to build a good urban biking network, you need money — no easy task now that budgets are tight and funding is scarce.

Local bike-advocacy groups are particularly fearful the bridges in the Charles Basin, which are currently under repair as part of the stimulus-funded Accelerated Bridge Program, won’t have adequate foresight for cyclist and pedestrian use because of the “on time, on budget” mandate from the state.

According to Freedman, a heat map of cyclist activity shows that few places in the city receive more bike traffic than bridges, and that more than 70 percent of cyclists questioned by her staff felt the issues of infrastructure and road-surface conditions should top the list of the city’s biking priorities.

We are concerned that the DOT [Department of Transportation] will only do the minimum,” says David Watson, executive director of MassBike, “and in that case, the bridges won’t be touched for another 50 or 75 years . . . it doesn’t make sense. We may never see this opportunity again.”

Asked about such concerns, MassDOT said in a statement that it was “strongly committed to advancing bicycling as an important transportation mode,” and pointed to the planned 740 miles “of on- and off-road bicycling routes, known as ‘the Bay State Greenway’ ” (BSG). As laid out, the BSG — which leverages existing routes like the Minuteman Bikeway— would “consist of seven interconnected east-west and north-south corridors, many of which [will] connect to urban or dense residential areas. Four of the seven BSG corridors [will] serve Boston directly.”

“There is no reason,” adds Luisa Paiewonsky, MassDOT highway administrator, “to think that [on time, on budget] is incompatible with thoughtful bike and pedestrian planning.”

MassDOT is also in the process of performing a feasibility study to construct underpasses for bike and pedestrian use under the Western Avenue, River Street, and Anderson Memorial bridges, which would grant continuous flow along the Charles River Esplanade without intersecting with vehicular traffic.

DIY SAFETY
“When it’s car versus cyclist, the car always wins,” warns Transportation Commissioner Tinlin. His advice: “Back off and be safe.” No matter how many bike lanes are built, nor how many driver-awareness programs are instated, bikers are charged with thoughtfully sharing the road and obeying traffic laws.

READSo what are the rules anyway?

Though many cyclists and cycling advocates at the recent summit have questioned whether “car-centric” lights always make sense for cyclists, city officials say they are serious about “balanced enforcement,” and will warn or ticket any bikers who are recklessly endangering themselves or others. Respect on the road, after all, must be a two-way street.

Since putting the city’s bikers on notice, the BPD has reportedly issued at least 50 warnings and one ticket to cyclists on and around the Comm Ave bike lane. Though not legally enforceable for people over age 16, almost every speaker at the summit also encouraged riders to wear helmets, citing the fact that approximately 90 percent of cycling fatalities each year involve bikers who are not wearing head protection.

Speaking with the Phoenix, Watson likewise urged cyclists to report crashes and accidents, so that the city can get a better handle on what’s going on in the street. (Boston and Cambridge have a number of options for reporting bike crimes and road conditions; for details, check out “See Something, Say Something, Cycle Safely,” sidebar in this article.)

CULTURE CORRECTION
With a second Safety Summit planned for a few months from now, and ridership swelling in Boston, municipal and state agencies seem to at last be getting onboard with a future vision of cleaner, safer, more livable streets. To really affect change in the cycling safety, though, experts say Boston must work on reforming not only infrastructure and awareness, but the way we as a city view our roadways and bicyclists.

“Culture is a big piece,” says Watson. “The lanes are easy, it’s just paint. Changing how people think about how they get around is the real challenge.”

Watson points to Europe as a potential model for success. “Everyone talks about Europe like it was always a haven for bikes, but if you went to Copenhagen 40 years ago you would have seen lots of cars and far fewer bikes than today,” he says. “With the oil crisis in the ’70s, people there made a conscious decision to make a long-term investment in bicycle infrastructure and educate the population — particularly children — about biking, and the result is the relative paradise for bikers we see today.”

Seiderman seems to use this as a model. “I will have done my job,” she says, “when it’s safe for a 10-year-old kid to bike to school or the park on their own.”

That time has not yet come. At a recent Critical Mass ride, two Boston University students pointed to the unsafe conditions along the stretch of Comm Ave that borders the school. “Mayor Menino may ride his bike in the city,” said Amanda James, “but he doesn’t ride out on Comm Ave.” Her companion at the event had seen a girl on a bike hit by a car just a few days earlier.

Freedman, meanwhile, indicates that the city’s efforts are working. The summit, she tells the Phoenix, yielded some 45 ideas and suggestions from the community, all of which will be given consideration.

“You can call it lip service,” said one biker at the summit, who preferred not to give her name, “but it’s the first time we ever got lip service.”

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