Boston Bicycling: Five Changes To Move From Better To World Class

It was only a few years ago that Bicycling Magazine called Boston the nation’s worst place for cyclists.  Senior city officials were openly hostile to bicycling.  The media portrayed cyclists as wild messengers cursing at everyone and running over pedestrians.

Then Hub On Wheels revealed that there was a mainstream constituency for bicycling.  The Mayor got a bike and discovered that bicycles were fun and cyclists were friendly.  LivableStreets Alliance started pulling the city’s advocacy groups together while pushing for the bike lanes and cycle tracks previously scorned by the “vehicular cyclists.”  Nicole Freedman was hired to create the Boston Bike program which has significantly improved road facilities, expanded access, and promoted skill training.  The Mayor proclaimed that “the car is no longer kind.”  And the Hubway bike share program made cycling part of the everyday routines of thousands of ordinary people.

Things are a lot better.  Boston has just been awarded Silver Status by the League of American Bicyclist’s “Bicycle Friendly City” program.  It’s simply amazing how many people are now out on the road – there are even bike traffic jams at certain intersections!  Who would have imagined we’d move so far in such a short time!

Of course, not everything was done perfectly and frustrating short comings abound.  Bicycling is not yet mainstream; we haven’t yet hit the tipping point.

So what would push Boston from being “better” to reaching the “world class” status the Mayor has proclaimed as our goal?  The “Six E’s” strategy includes Encouragement, Education, Enforcement, as well as Evaluation.  These are all important.  (I particularly love the Roll It Forward free-bike and the Youth Instruction programs focused on low-income kids.)  But I believe the strongest foundation for real progress comes from the fifth and sixth “Es” – Engineering and Equity.  Some percentage of the population will never get on a bicycle.  But there are a lot of people who would be happy to ride if they felt safe – primarily meaning safe from cars.  It’s true of baseball fields and bike facilities (and highways!) – if you build it, they will come.

The projects that will move us to the next level have to be safe and easy enough to make bicycling attractive even to cautious riders.  They have to serve both functional and recreational needs – as useful for commuting as for weekend family outings.  They have to make bicycling an even more visible part of our transportation mix.  And they have to be done well.

Here are five possibilities – I urge readers to suggest possible others:

  • Expand Hubway
  • Create the Bicycle Network
  • Develop Open Streets Program
  • Connect With The Regional Greenways
  • Prioritize Bicycling, Walking, & Transit


1)      Expand Hubway

In its first season, Hubway bikes were used for over 140,000 trips – at least 10% of which replaced a car ride.  Users, most of whom were not previously regular cyclists, overwhelmingly chose Hubway because it was a faster, more enjoyable, environmentally and personally healthy mode than the alternatives.  There were 61 Hubway stations last year and the city hopes to add another 20 or 30 this year, reaching outward from the current base.   As Hubway expands, so will the proportion of the population that sees – and does – bicycling as an “ordinary” activity.  The challenge is to not only increase the density of stations in existing areas but also speed up its expansion into areas of likely use – adjacent neighborhoods, along the rivers and harbor, and around our parks.  Do it properly, but do it – expand Hubway!

2)      Create the Bicycle Network

Boston is in the final stages of creating a 20-plus year Master Plan for bicycle facilities.  In the past five years, the city has gone from 150 feet to 50 miles of bike lanes.  Future plans are to create up to 417 miles of marked bike routes, including 95 miles of off-road shared paths (including lots of DCR park paths), 64 miles of traffic-separated buffered bike lanes, 95 miles of “regular” bike lanes, 86 miles of low-traffic “neighborways,” and 77 miles of sharrowed streets.  The challenge is to make sure that the Master Plan is actually implemented – moving from the first stage of opportunistically placing bike markings wherever streets were being repair to a second stage of deliberate installation of additional facilities to close gaps and create a highly useful network of connections within neighborhoods and from residential areas to commercial centers.

3)      Develop Open Streets Program

Bicycling is fun.  It’s healthy.  It brings people together.  It’s also a great business stimulus.  San Francisco has its monthly Sunday Streets festivals shutting down long roads in successive neighborhoods.  New York has Summer Streets program that shuts down nearly seven miles of Park Avenue on three Saturdays. And, of course, there is Bogotá, Columbia’s weekly ciclovia where about a third of the population (approximately 2 million people) walk, bike, dance, and play on over 75 miles of car-free streets.  In Boston, Circle The City – a partnership of LivableStreets Alliance, Emerald Necklace Conservancy, Boston Parks Advocates, the Boston Consortium for Food and Fitness, and the City of Boston – will have three Sunday events this coming summer, two based in Franklin Park and one on the Rose Kennedy Greenway.  The challenge is to expand these – perhaps by closing Storrow Drive early every Sunday morning, or getting neighborhood Main Street programs to successively sponsor them, or shutting some long roads like Dorchester Ave or Newberry Street.

4)      Connect With Regional Greenways

No city is an island.  Dealing with Boston’s traffic congestion, parking problems, and air pollution requires creating non-car alternatives for people commuting from the suburbs.  Rail and buses are the best, but bicycling is close behind.  We already have the Charles River paths and the Minuteman Bikeway – the nation’s first and the nation’s most heavily used bike paths.  But neither of these, nor the many other short stretches of park paths and other low-stress bikeways around the region, provides an uninterrupted route into the city.  There are too many gaps.  We need a connected web of routes suitable for both commuting and recreation by both experienced cyclists and families out for a weekend ride.   And they all need to converge on Boston, which therefore needs to play a central role in creating the regional system.  The challenge is getting agreement on which of the “missing links” provides the most leverage of existing resources and should be prioritized – and then making it happen!

5)      Prioritize Bicycling, Walking, & Transit

Boston, like MassDOT and many other municipalities in the metro area, now understand that bicycles have to be included in (most) road designs.  But, in too many cases, it is still seen as an “accommodation.”  However, our country has spent so many decades and so many billions of dollars prioritizing car facilities that creating a more balanced transportation system requires more than simply including bike (and pedestrian and transit) facilities.  They have to be prioritized.  The first concern of road design has to be “how can we maximize bicycle (and pedestrian) safety, convenience, and utility for all types of people?”  And only when that “best possible” design has been developed should attention turn to what can be done with the remaining space for cars.  Of course, there will have to be compromises along the way.  But the results are likely to be very different from what we now take for granted as a “normal” street – resulting not only in more bike-friendly and pedestrian-comfortable streets but also fewer and less serious car accidents!


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