Boston’s Plan To End Its Bike-Unfriendly Image? More Bikes

(Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

Nicole Freedman, director of bicycle programs for the city of Boston, stands near a few of the communal bikes at City Hall available for city employees as part of a bicycle-share program. Freedman is hoping a planned expansion of the program will give people fewer excuses not to bike in Boston. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

Boston isn’t known as the most bicycle-friendly city. It’s been ranked not once, not twice, but three times as one of the worst places in the country to ride a bike.

But now the city is trying to change its reputation. And it plans to do that by — guess what? — putting more bikes on the city’s streets.

Sarah Van Norden bikes to work, and she loves it. It’s the fastest way to get from her home in Belmont to her office in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area. It’s also cheap, and it’s great exercise. But she doesn’t always feel safe doing it.

“When I start out in the morning it’s like, don’t get killed,” Van Norden says. “It’s not like, let’s see how fast I can do this commute, let’s see if I can cut a few minutes off my time. It’s like, don’t get killed today.”

Van Norden said she sees reckless behavior all the time.

“Running red lights, going through stop lines, going the wrong way on a one-way street — I just see people doing crazy things in their cars and on their bikes,” she says.

There’s no reliable data on bike accident rates in Boston, so it’s hard to say how many crashes and injuries are caused by that craziness. But here’s a twist: an increase in the number of bicyclists can actually reduce accident rates. That’s because the mere presence of more bikes tends to make people more aware of them and more careful around them.

(Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

Shane Jordan, left, education director for MassBike, talks to a participant at a recent bicycling workshop he conducted at Suffolk University. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

In other words, there is safety in numbers.

Nicole Freedman, the city’s director of bicycle programs, is betting on that to start a new bike program. She points to three communal bikes locked near the main entrance of Boston City Hall.

“We’re looking at the City of Boston Bike Pool, which is aimed at encouraging employees to ride bikes instead of using cars for work trips,” Freedman explains.

There are 30 of these bikes at about 10 city buildings around Boston, but they’re only for city employees. Next spring, Boston plans to launch a much larger bike-sharing program for the general public that could put up to 3,000 more bikes on city streets.

Freedman hopes this will give people fewer excuses not to bike in Boston — and she’s heard them all.

” ‘I want to bike, but I’ll get sweaty’ — that’s one,” she recounts. ” ‘I want to bike, but it’s too cold.’ Unfortunately, the very next day it’s, ‘I want to bike, but it’s too warm.’ ”

And she says the most common reason is this: “I want to bike, but I’m scared of the traffic.”

“The perception is that if you ride your bike in Boston, you will be run over by everyone and die,” says Shane Jordan, education director at the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, known as MassBike. He runs bicycling workshops, including one at Suffolk University, where he shows about a dozen students a photo of several bicyclists riding through Harvard Square at night.

“What are these people doing that’s wrong?” he asks the group. “No helmet. No lights. All dark clothing like ninjas in the middle of the night. So all the rules you have to follow in a car, you have to follow on a bike.”

Jordan says if everyone follows the rules of the road — that means drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists — and if the city adds a lot more bike lanes and bike racks, Boston should be able to handle thousands of new bikes.

But Peter McGuire, a graduate student at Boston University who went to a recent bike safety fair on campus, is skeptical. First of all, he says, there are Boston’s roads.

“One of the most ridiculous things is that they’re trying to bring in 2,500 new bicycles into the city,” he says, “and you still have all these holes that are just gutted and pitted and make biking not a lot of fun in general.”

McGuire also says there’s a culture of disobedience among Boston bicyclists.

“If drivers aren’t going to give us the respect that we deserve, then we’re probably not going to respect the laws as much as we probably should,” he says. “You’re going to run red lights. It’s just going to be one of the things that happens.”

Officer Scott Rocheville of the Boston University police says it happens all the time. He shakes his head as he watches a woman on a bike pedal diagonally across eight lanes of traffic on Commonwealth Avenue, go over the Green Line train tracks and blow though a red light.

“She’s not wearing a helmet, she’s doing her own thing,” he remarks. “They think everybody can see them, but I’d say probably half of the cars don’t see you and the other half don’t care.”

So Boston still has a way to go before it can become the “world-class bicycling city” that Hub officials want it to be. But with more bicyclists, more bike education and safety in numbers, that time may eventually come.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on wbur.org.
  • Seoulman

    McGuire makes a good point about respect: if drivers treat cyclists as a nuisance, then that attitude will be reciprocated right back, AND cyclists will not have any incentive to follow road rules.
    But it’s a fantasy to expect Mass drivers to make this change by themselves. I’d like to believe that simply getting more people to ride bicycles will make the streets safer, but in reality only Beacon Hill legislation can change drivers’ attitudes and behaviors. Let’s start with more bike lanes and a firm, enforceable decision on bicycle traffic laws, and then go from there.

  • Adam Kovac

    I bicycle 2.5 miles each way to work on a daily basis. I am guilty of the usual things that infuriate drivers: riding the wrong way down one way streets, going through stop signs, etc. However, I do this with the full knowledge that I am the one at risk. What might help us understand each other is that most bicyclists hold the same regard for traffic laws as most pedestrians: guidelines, suggestions, but not hard and fast rules. Imagine, if you will, you are a pedestrian at a crosswalk at 10pm. If there is no traffic, many would cross against the light. The bicyclist takes the same liberty. As for bicyclists who disrupt traffic with their obnoxious riding, please keep in mind that you were likely infuriated by an obnoxious auto driver on your commute as well. In fact, I was passed by an SUV this morning which then turned right immediately in front of me. Last Thursday, a group of inebriated adolescents harassed me from the safety their SUV then opened their door to force me to swerve out of the way. Making more laws will not solve any problems unless they are enforced, and what is really needed is more patience and tolerance from all sides.

  • oligoden

    There is also the issue that it does take a cyclist a longer amount of time to get through an intersection. I’d say most of the “illegal” things I do on a bike have arisen in an effort to get through intersections in a reasonable amount of time without getting in the way of cars going straight, left, or right at the intersection. Sometimes, it’s safer to be the first one through the intersection. The city needs to consider this when putting in lanes and lights.

  • jeffe

    I’m not a bike rider. I would never ride a bike in Boston.
    The reason is simple, from the crazy car drivers to the truck and bus drivers I can’t imagine riding on the streets of Boston. Add to that the amount of people that are on their cell phones while driving you have a recipe for getting hit. I can’t say how many times I have to swerve to avoid bad driving. I can’t imagine doing it on a bike. Some of the so called bike paths are not wide enough for a tricycles let alone bikes. Boston deserves it’s rating.

    As for the bad cyclists, well most of them seem to think that they can do whatever they want. I find a lot of them are pretty obnoxious. It’s as if the whole world revolves around them. Case in point, the first poster who admits to breaking every traffic law and has an attitude of “so what” “everyone does it”. Between the bad drivers and angry cyclists I don’t see much in the way of change.

  • http://oldnewenglander.blogspot.com/ Jonathan Margolis

    Cyclists who say that they will obey the traffic rules when drivers show them more respect have it exactly backward. Bicycles will not be treated as other vehicles unless riders operate them as such. A large part of safety in operating vehicles lies in the predictability of other operators. Cyclists who go the wrong way on one-way streets, run stoplights, jump on and off of sidewalks and otherwise disregard both safe riding and the law only reinforce the views of those drivers who do not respect people on bikes. That kind of riding endangers not only those who engage in it, but all cyclists.

  • Stan

    As a public-safety issue, why are we encouraging more bicycles on the roads? Once riding a bicycle 15 years ago I got car-doored and still have a scar to show for it. My best friend got clobbered a few years ago and his back hasn’t the same. Even tom menino got whacked by a elderly driver and messed up his knee. I don’t ride on the street anymore. I think it’s better for my health to ride the T.

    Aside from that, current efforts to do city planning around the bicycle are short sighted. Ten years from now, the bicycle will be about the same (just a 20 year old bike is not all that different from a modern bike). Bikes will cruise at 15-20 mph, weigh less than 10 pounds, and leave the rider largely unprotected.

    Meanwhile, battery tech is rapidly improving. We may see more lightweight electric scooters and motorbikes that can keep up with the speed of traffic. Or, we might see more tiny, inexpensive cars that are safer for the driver and easier to park. Technology seems close to making the human-powered passive bicycle obselete, so why not plan for that?

    And how does it make sense to eliminate car-lanes used by thousands of cars to make room for bike-lanes used by dozens of bikes? It’s weird.

  • John

    Bikes are a menace to pedestrians. Stay off the sidewalks, don’t run red lights, and don’t go the wrong way.

  • Art Stutz

    How about installing traffic signals that sense the presence of bikes the way they sense automobiles. Many lights will never turn green for a bicycle. This forces bikes to beak the law.

  • Judith

    Let’s simplify this: it’s all about respect … for the law, for yourself, and for those around you. Whether on foot, on two wheels, or four or more. Nobody deserves a bad awful day. I like what Adam said … “what is really needed is more patience and tolerance from all sides.” If we could but run the whole planet this way …

  • Johnny T

    I am a hardened, veteran Boston cyclist of many, many years and I’ve seen it all. I don’t think I’m one of the ones motorists hold up as the epitome of the law-scoffing, belligerent cyclist, but I do indulge in some “perks,” such as treating red lights as stop signs – meaning that I’ll slow down or stop at an intersection, but if it’s clear, off I go. I’ve gotten very good at reading traffic situations, but not perfect, and some close calls have been of my own making. So I admit all this. However, there is a certain class of driver that does not believe cyclists even have a right to the road and shows his antipathy by driving too close or yelling mean-spirited comments from the safety of his automobile. He does not understand tactics cyclists must take to avoid injury or death, such as riding a certain distance from parked cars to prevent being “doored,” or taking routes more into traffic to get past on-ramps. There is a real, prevalent attitude out there that roads are meant for cars only and bicycles don’t belong. So please, spare me anecdotal evidence of how dangerous cyclists are. It’s the sense of entitlement and arrogance on the part of the so-called aggrieved motorist that poses the real threat.

  • SBGF

    I used to commute to work by bike, but what finally did me in was the number and height of the hills I have to go up on my commute, and there’s no way to solve that problem. The idea of having free bikes is nice, but wouldn’t work for me because I’m shorter than the average person and I’m sure most of the bikes would be for 6 ft tall men. Also, the problem with not having showers at work is not trivial for most people. And it’s impossible for working parents to pick up kids from school or the babysitter on a bike if you have more than 1 kid, and don’t get me started on the safety issue of parents/bikes/kids on the busy, narrow streets of New England. In theory, biking as a way to commute is great, and I loved it when I was young, had a shower at work and didn’t have kids, but it doesn’t seem feasible for large segments of the population.

  • SBGF

    I like Stan’s ideas.

  • Jemimah

    I’ve been riding a bike around Boston for 25 years, having cut my city riding teeth with friends who were bike messengers. I don’t wear a helmet, I don’t sit at a stop light if the road is clear, I can occasionally be found on a sidewalk or a one-way street going the “wrong” direction. I’ve never been doored, never run into a person and never, ever, ever taken my mind off what I’m doing or forgotten the fact that I’m the vulnerable one when it comes to being injured or not being seen. I don’t ever go as fast as I could along a line of parked cars, I always announce that I’m “passing on your left/right” to pedestrians, I expect every car to do the silliest thing they could possibly do. I don’t gawk around, I don’t listen to my iPod and I do, whenever possible, make eye contact with drivers, smile at them, and say excuse me and thank you to those trying to be courteous on the road, be they walking or driving. I’m not the only one trying to make my way around the city, nor are they. We need to work together and even if we don’t like each other’s mode of transport, we need be as respectful as possible. I LOVE BIKING IN BOSTON. I don’t need bike lanes, but am happy to have some. I do think that if you’re afraid of biking in the city, you shouldn’t do it. You have to be really sure of yourself riding a bike, just as driving a car. Fearful drivers and riders are both hazards to everyone else. The one thing I’d like to say to drivers and pedestrians, is you do your thing and I’ll do mine. We can all coexist just fine.

  • Steve D

    Bicycling is just one of the modes of transport, and is not going to meet the needs of all, just like cars, buses or trains/subway don’t. Bikes are going to be there, whether the facilities are there or not, so why not add the facilities (bike lanes, etc) to the streets where it makes sense? Motorists; you seem so negative toward bikes, but think if each one of those riders were added to the surrounding roads in cars? Would you be any happier? Not likely. You would just complain about that. Everyone needs to change there attitude around Boston. So grumpy and negative. I love to bike around the city, because when I get frustrated in traffic, I can just dismount, and walk my bike through the park or grab a snack. In a car, you need to sit there and deal. Where you going to park that big thing? Everyone; change your “you are doing something different than I, so you must suck” attitude, and simple solutions to these issues can be found.

  • http://www.bostonknucklehead.com Boston Knucklehead

    This city is really not designed for people on bikes but it is time they try to make some changes. More and more people are really starting to ride their bikes to work everyday.

  • BethOnABike

    While greater awareness of cyclists by Boston drivers is a step forward for safe cyclinig, this is not going to be the solution to actually making cycling in Boston safer. The first step must be ensuring that cyclists actually have somewhere to ride. In particular, some of the downtown streets are so narrow that their two lanes of cars can barely fit, and only the most daring of cyclists would dare try to squeeze in. Dedicated bike lanes are THE first step to safe cycling. Personally, I always breathe a sigh of relief as I ride onto the Mass Ave Bridge towards Cambridge (1), knowing that I somehow survived the streets of Boston and can actually enjoy the rest of my ride. Unfortuantely, even there cyclists are not free of lanes riddled with potholes and bad patches (2), which are much more dangerous to cyclists than cars.

    Cyclists also face dangers at intersections, particularly when trying to turn, or to go straight without a bike lane protected from right-turning traffic. On some low-traffic roads, I can declare myself a car, signal my direction and make eye contact to merge with drivers and turn, but in other busier streets, it feels safer to actually wait on the curb as a pedestrian to cross. Innovations like advance stop line “bike boxes” (3) and bike-specific traffic signals (4) (not to mention ensuring existing traffic signals actually detect bikes’ presence) are helping to alleviate such problems in other cities.

    A related problem is that while cyclists are technically required to follow car-traffic laws, there are times when this is comical or even more dangerous than circumventing them. By having laws that compromise cyclists’ safety, it leads to a mindset where other traffic laws seem “easier” to break. As good as it sounds on paper, bikes are not cars (nor are they pedestrians), and should have their own set of bike traffic laws with regards to such situations. A good example of this is running red lights at pedestrian crossings. There’s a particular 5-way intersection on my commute that has a cycle of all red lights and all pedestrian crossings, before the light turns green. It’s much safer for me to zip carefully across the (unpopulated) intersection on my bike during the red-light-pedestrian-crossing cycle than to wait for the green and get beaned by a car turning right as I try to go straight, or cutting off my left turn.

    Although I realize that Boston’s budgetary restrictions probably prevent actual improvements like bike lanes, increasing the number of cyclists riding unsafely is not the solution to Boston’s unsafe streets. Until there are reasonable spaces on the road for cyclists to travel in, and clear rules on which traffic laws it makes sense to apply to cyclists, Boston’s reputation as a bike-unfriendly city will be not only reputation but reality.

    (1) Safety Benefits of Bike Lanes http://www.cambridgema.gov/~cdd/et/bike/bike_safety.html
    (2) Road Patching Standards http://www.bikeplan.com/10quest.htm#anchor770158
    (3) Bike Boxes http://www.livablestreets.com/streetswiki/bike-boxes
    (4) Bike Traffic Signals http://current.com/items/89336069_san-francisco-gets-first-bicycle-traffic-signal.htm

  • jamie

    “Officer Scott Rocheville of the Boston University police says it happens all the time. He shakes his head as he watches a woman on a bike pedal diagonally across eight lanes of traffic on Commonwealth Avenue, go over the Green Line train tracks and blow though a red light.” And did nothing about it. If bicyclists got traffic tickets just as drivers do, then we’d be equal.

  • Will

    Getting more bikes on the road seems like a great idea. With enough bikers there would be a critical mass forcing traffic to notice bikers and showing decision makers that a greater percent of infrastructure should be geared towards bikes.

  • Sam

    Are you kidding me? This city’s streets are not even safe to walk, let alone biking on a regular basis.

    The authorities should learn something from European cities which are much more pedestrian/biker friendly than our Boston e.g. dedicated Bike Lanes.

  • KLane

    You are living in cloud-coo-coo land if you think Boston will ever be safe for cyclists. When Boston fixes its potholes (one caused me serious injury) and Boston enforces its traffic laws (note the trucks parked in the Comm Ave bike lanes in front of BU East) and Boston educates its drivers about cyclists, Boston may become a cycle-friendly city. Don’t talk about cycle-friendly until then. And don’t put the blame on renegade cyclists; their lawlessness is a defense mechanism.

  • hans laubach

    Boston and the bikes – I have been biking in Boston for over 4 years. It is a great way to commute and I embrace all the positives that come with it. However if I see the three bikes standing at City Hall it feels almost laughable. most major cities of Europe have now thousands of city bikes waiting to be picked up at every street corner. THis is all funded by the cities themselves however here you can really talk about safety in numbers. Three bikes in fron tof the city hall makes a nice photo though.

  • http://aquavitaua.com aquavitaua.com

    would never ride a bike in Boston=))

  • Mark Lowenstein

    It is all well and good to discuss fancy new bike sharing programs and all that. But let’s get the basics right first. For all those who complain about danger with traffic, the most dangerous biking is on some of our poorly maintained bike paths – anyone tried to bike on the Cambridge side of the river lately? The beautiful bike path from Watertown to Boston, except for some minor fixes lately, is in awful condition. Has not been repaved in about 20 years. Then there’s signage. Are there ANY signs along the Charles or Emerald Necklace bike paths, saying something like “downtown this way”, or X miles to major destination, or “best route to” (like we do for the airport). There are a little, not very expensive things we can do to make the city more bicycle friendly without having to put in all sorts of fancy programs. Like keeping the wonderful shoulders of roads like VFW Parkway and West Roxbury Parkway free of deep potholes, sand, gravel, broken glass, sewer ruts, etc – this stuff is WAY more dangerous than cars!

  • http://www,johnlukemills.com John Luke Mills

    I used to commute on a bike years ago from Dorchester to Cambridge. I never got hurt but did have many close calls. What kept me safe was keeping in mind that, “I am in an obstacle course with moving obstacles that are trying to kill me”. My girlfriend had this strange idea that she had rights on the road. She got hit multiple times.

    I finally gave up when they stopped fixing the streets. I just couldn’t keep a mental map of all the moving cars and likely future paths and have enough time left over to look for potholes. At lot has to change before biking in Boston isn’t an extreme sport.

  • http://OldRoads.com OldRoads.com

    I have a used bike shop in Cambridge.
    I tell my customers a cycle is the fastest way around the city and the most dangerous way around the city.
    I do believe the more humans we get on cycles, the safer and more accepted it will be for everyone.

  • Lynda

    I got hit by a car last year in Cambridge while riding my bike. Not only did I have to deal with a huge hassle of bills and insurance claims (which only paid for a small part of my accident), but the driver of the car sent me a bill for her shattered windshield. I will never ride a bike in Boston again.

  • rich

    I must say, I am sick and tired of the attitude of some bicyclists. They are just as bad as some of the bonehead drivers. Numerous times, I came close to be hit by some morons charging down at me as well as other pedestrians without regarding for our safety, and some even curse as if they own the walkway.

  • Keith

    I think there’s a feedback loop going on: many drivers don’t think bikes belong on the road, so they don’t make room; then cyclists think that every driver is out to kill them, so they start acting as if there aren’t any rules.

    But state law has given the same rights and responsibilities to cyclists for years, and in Jan 2009 the law was made more explicit. If police would enforce the existing laws, and hand out tickets equally — to motorists and cyclists alike — attitudes would eventually change.

  • Sherbornpeddler

    Governor Patrick has a rotating door appraoch to Transportation leadership. Scientific American article figures real progress happens when there is a woman in charge. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=getting-more-bicyclists-on-the-road

    Carpe Diem Deval!

  • Pingback: SO BOSTON. | a greener state of mind

Most Popular