Ten Steps To Make Boston a World-class Bicycling City

Mayor Menino says he want to make Boston a “world class bicycling city.”  And now that he’s been elected to an unprecedented fifth term, he says that he’s ready to take additional risks to bring significant improvement.  So what needs to be done to realize the vision?

Here are ten ideas, and one over-arching concept:  All these suggested actions will have a much greater chance of success, and have a much greater impact on local culture, if the city frames them as steps towards achieving an ambitious set of high-level goals – and then measures annual progress.  Appropriate goals might include increasing the city’s total number of cyclists by 10% per year and cutting the number of traffic-related pedestrian and cyclist injuries in half every two years.

In addition, since I think that improving conditions for cycling significantly overlaps with improving conditions for walking and traveling in a wheelchair, this list includes some suggestions for all three.

Of course, these are my suggestions….I urge readers to contribute their own! 

Becoming world class requires action in all five of the “ E” categories that the League of American Bicyclists uses to award “Bike Friendly” designations:  Engineering, Education, Encouragement, Enforcement, and Evaluation – to which I add the Sixth E of Equality, not only for all modes of travel but for access by all sectors of the population.

But in this post, I’m only going to discuss the initial category:  Engineering, meaning improvements in the physical layout, or infrastructure.  (Subsequent posts will cover the other categories.)

Why focus on Engineering?  I believe that individual decisions and actions are largely shaped by the surrounding environment, or context.  In transportation, infrastructure sets the context for behavior.  When roads are narrow, we drive slowly.  When a city has a protected and complete bikeway network, we begin to cycle – not because someone has convinced us that bicycling is good for our health, we already know that, but because it has become easy and safe and efficient.

So here are my top ten:

1. Implement Complete Streets.

The Complete Streets policy now being considered should not only prioritize cycling, walking, and access to transit whenever a trade-off with traffic is required, it should also focus on increasing the “greenness” and attractiveness of the streetscape.  In addition, the policy should require that all surface materials to be used on sidewalks, paths, crosswalks, and plazas meet criteria created in negotiation with disability group representatives.  A Complete Street does not trade pedestrian safety off against cyclist safety – foot travel areas must have at least 5’ of clear space, allowing a wheel chair to pass a pedestrian, rather than the 3’ minimal required by law, and curb cuts must be close to corners and desire lines.  Once completed, the city needs to aggressively implement the Complete Streets policy.  In reality, this will only impact roads undergoing major repairs or repaving, but the city should also create a process to allow the public to identify streets and intersections that feel particularly unsafe for walking or cycling, and include them in the cue for as much of a Complete Streets makeover as funds allow.

2. Create a Bikeway Network

Because the Complete Streets makeover will take many decades, create at least another 20 miles of additional bike lanes or “cycle tracks” a year for the next 10 years on city streets (state owned roads don’t count!) and annually add painted “bike boxes” in at least 50 intersections.  Give priority to streets that contribute to the creation of a city-wide network of bikeways in order to facilitate commuting (to workplaces or schools), access to shopping areas, and the safety of people using the city’s proposed Bike Sharing system.

3. Focus on the “Traffic Intolerant” Majority

Look for opportunities to attract “traffic intolerant” cyclists.  A major thrust should be the creation of a city-wide network of off-road paths for cyclists and walkers.  This will require upgrading and extending existing multi-use paths in metro parks and greenways.  Where on-road travel is unavoidable to complete the network, carry the “greenway” vision forward by creating cycle tracks set off by trees or planted medians.  (“Cycle tracks” – also called “protected bike lanes” or “side paths” – are physically separated from both cars and pedestrian “lanes” by a curb, a row of parked cars, trees, median, or even a two-foot painted “shy space.”)

4. Make Better Use of Advocates

To help city staff implement this policy, have the city Traffic Department and Public Works present all plans for all street work to the Boston Bikes Advisory Group (and comparable Pedestrian, Transit, and Access city-wide or neighborhood groups) at least 6 months before work begins so that the group can make suggestions on how to maximize bike friendliness.

5. Expand Bicycle Parking 

Install at least 500 additional bike racks every year, at least half of which should be installed in citizen-requested locations and the remainder placed where the Boston Bikes Advisory Group believes the need is greatest. Change zoning regulations to require that all commercial buildings and all new multi-unit residential building provide high-quality outside bike parking racks near major entrances and secure indoor bike parking facilities for workers and residents.  Encourage office buildings to provide showers and lockers for employees.

6. Reduce Injuries Through Slower Traffic

Adopt “traffic calming” as a city-wide strategy to create streets structurally designed to slow traffic to between 20 and 25 mph using raised intersections, chicanes (swerves in the road), speed bumps, curb extensions, narrower lane widths, and other methods.  Give priority to streets and intersections near schools, elderly residences, libraries, parks & playgrounds, and neighborhood shopping clusters.  On main streets, as much as possible time traffic lights to ensure that while cars go slower they have fewer stops and therefore travel the same distance in roughly the same amount of time as when they did the former “speed to the next stop light” routine.

7. Increase Safety & Improve Traffic Flow Through Signal Retiming

Retime all traffic and pedestrian signals – at least 200 each year – to maximize cycling and pedestrian safety while allowing for steady traffic flow.  Whenever possible, replace the old “exclusive” walk signals, which force pedestrians to wait until all traffic has stopped before crossing, with “concurrent” timing that allows pedestrians to go on green but gives them a head start of 3 to 5 seconds (also called “leading pedestrian indicators”).  Priority should be given to the long list of signals needing retiming that WalkBoston has already given to the city.  As other cities have shown, allowing cars to move steadily at a regular but slow speed (e.g. under 25 mph) both increases traffic “throughput” and reduces intermodal conflict.

8. Begin a “Sunday Streets” Program

Experiment with closing one or more streets to traffic each summer Sunday, rotating which neighborhood gets the temporary open space each week.  (Or else, create “shared space” that allows cars but only if they yield to everything else and go no faster than about 5 mph.)  If these temporary “community spaces” generate positive public response and business activity – as they have in almost every other place they’ve been tried – begin expanding the number and schedule across the city and the year.

9. Support Neighborhood Involvement

Support the continued creation of neighborhood bike clubs, perhaps associated with each of the Main Street Business Associations, and require that all development plans in that area be presented to the local groups for review and discussion on how to increase its bike-friendliness.

10. Increase Administrative Focus and Follow-Through

To ensure progress, hold a monthly meeting of all department heads related to these efforts (Traffic, Public Works, Water/Sewer, Environment, etc) — with representatives of advocate groups allowed to be part of the conversation.

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