Ignorant Thoughts on Bicycling in Boston

[One-way "No Bikes" street near Harvard Square.]
OK, first of all, I have never ridden a bicycle in Boston. That said, I was just in Boston / Cambridge / Somerville /Newton for a week, and want to make some ignorant statements about the opportunities and challenges of bicycling in one of America’s most dense and walkable cities. Obviously, this is going to be shooting in the dark, displaying a complete lack of rigor. I'm just making wild guesses about one of my favorite places.

Most of what I know about bicycling in Boston comes from having walked around a lot there for many years, observing people on the streets, on bicycles, and chatting with folks. Also, Boston is mentioned in bicycle literature and online as being a place that aggressively promotes “vehicular cycling” (VC), or the theory that bicyclists should always act like vehicles (i.e. cars) on the roads and streets. For example, Epperson’s History of Vehicular Cycling talks about the role that well-known advocate John Allen played in adopting those principles in Boston. And in Pucher and Buehler’s recent excellent book, City Cycling, they write:
In many cases, bicycle planners hired by state and local government have been VC adherents who used their influence to prevent rather than promote bikeways. Two examples are Boston and Dallas…” (115)
Boston seems like the case study of a city that has gone about as far as you can go with the vehicular cycling approach. Here are a few reasons why...

The Good Things: Traffic Calming, Density, Demographics

[One of Somerville's many excellent sidewalks / crosswalks.]
The future of bicycling in Boston has a lot going for it. First of all, there are tons of young college students in the city, relatively more than anywhere else in the US. College students are an ideal bicycling population because they’re young, adventurous, and broke. The bicycle potential of this group is huge.

Boston also already has the most difficult land use pieces of the puzzle in place. Almost everywhere, you have lots of mixed-use density, land uses that support short trips of a few miles. It's almost impossible to "retrofit" this kind of urban fabric into a previously zoned city, but Boston has this great legacy of walkable urban fabric.

Finally, Boston has already done a lot of the traffic calming work that is so difficult in other cities. Almost everywhere, car drivers will stop for pedestrians to cross the street. (It’s an eerie feeling, coming from anywhere else in the US.) Traffic doesn’t go that fast. There aren’t a ton of STROADS.

The key point here is that driving in Boston completely sucks! It’s a routine experience to be stuck in traffic, and to look out the window to see an old lady with a walker pass you by. (A la Office Space.) Boston has done a lot of the difficult political work restricting cars, potentially improving the quality of life for non-motorized modes.   

The Bad Things: Narrow Roads, Few Options, Very Little Dedicated Infrastructure

[A lonely "share the road sign" does not a bike lane make.]
Boston’s blessing is also its curse. Because of the older street plan, there’s no grid. If you want to get from Point A to Point B, there is often only one main street that will take you there, and it’s going to be completely congested, full of cars stuck in traffic. Space is at a huge premium. There aren’t really any alternate routes. The street map places stark limits on bicycling solutions.

This space constraint is a big reason why vehicular cycling has been the main approach for Boston bike planners. Almost everywhere, the only way to ride a bike is to be out in the middle of a busy street filled with aggravated Boston drivers.

That’s why almost all the people I talked to about bicycling had nothing but horror stories. Everyone wanted to tell me about their friend who had a bad accident. Granted, I’m sure there are many people who ride and enjoy it. I saw a ton of bicyclists there, despite the crappy March weather. But vehicular cycling on busy streets is going to limit the potential of bicycling in Boston. And there's no alternative.

[A ghost bike in Allston.]

[One of the few cycletracks, stretching for a few blocks near MIT.]

My final guess about Boston’s bicycling situation has to do with the town/gown tensions that run rampant in the city. Boston and its neighboring cities are very split between locals and non-locals (e.g. students). Any café or pub you go to, people will probably be talking about gentrificaiton, and glowering at the Universities and students that are making life more expensive and difficult for the longer term residents.

[Mostly useless PSA posters aimed at drivers.]
I’d bet that this dynamic makes bike advocacy in Boston into a challenge. As long as bicycles are associated only with students, I’d imagine that the politically connected, older “local groups” (who drive more often) would be resistant to new bike infrastructure. (E.g. this project in Somerville.) The advocacy approach there seems to be, "blame the bikers." For example, the much-derided safety campaign or these PSA posters I saw at a Cambridge bike shop.

Bicycling in Boston has a lot of potential, and illustrates pretty well the limits of the vehicular cycling approach. With their large group of young riders, good land use patterns, and traffic calmed streets, cities in the Boston area have taken the VC approach about as far as it can go. In my opinion, increasing beyond this point won't happen without changing the streets, making better separated bike routes on the city’s main arteries. And that seems to me to be a real political challenge that won't be solved easily.

[A VC sign on a congested street in Newton.]

[Almost all sidewalks are "No Bikes" sidewalks, which makes sense b/c of the huge number of walkers.]

[Hanging out at Shays, talking about how neighborhoods have changed thanks to Harvard's housing policy.]
[A decrepit sharrow: your typical Boston bike infrastructure.]


Anonymous said...

Past tense, dude. The Boston DOT director who was a VC fanatic is gone, and Boston no longer has an official pro-VC policy. WHich is why bike lanes and bike tracks are poppint up everywhere.

Bill Lindeke said...

Yeah I heard that. Nice to see.