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

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(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.

This program aired on September 21, 2009.

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Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



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