Boston's Outgoing Bike Czar Talks Future Of Biking In The City

After more than seven years overseeing Boston's bicycle initiatives, the city's bike czar is heading to Seattle to lead a new transportation initiative in that city.

In 2007 under then-Mayor Thomas Menino, Nicole Freedman helped launch Boston Bikes, the city's initiative to make Boston more bike-friendly. Since then the city has added 92 miles of bike lanes and launched Hubway, one of the first bikeshare systems in the country.

Freedman, who was a professional bike racer for 13 years and an Olympic cyclist, says she thinks Boston has "more promise" than other cities in becoming a world-class cycling city.

Freedman also says the city will have an announcement Tuesday regarding Commonwealth Avenue — a roadway where cyclists have been killed in accidents in recent years and where people have called for more bike safety measures. (Update: The city on Tuesday evening announced protected bike lanes along a stretch of Commonwealth Avenue.)

Here's what Freedman had to say about making an old city like Boston more bike-friendly, the future of cycling in the city, creating protected bike lanes and what she plans to do with her 11 bikes when she moves.

This conversation has been lightly edited.

You oversaw Boston’s bicycle initiatives over about seven years, how has biking in the city changed in that time?

When I started the bike program in 2007 we actually didn't have a bike program and we were very far behind all of the other cities. In fact, we didn't have a single mile of bike lane and we had been three times rated the worst cycling city in the country in Bicycling Magazine. So the task was how do you change culture, and since then we've made tremendous strides. We've added 92 miles of bike lane and I think this upcoming year under Mayor [Marty] Walsh we’ll hit our 100th mile of bike lane, which will be a real breakthrough.

We were one of the first cities in the country to launch a bikeshare system and to this day it’s one of the most successful systems in the country.

The third big achievement is related to our community bike program. We’ve very much been a leader in community biking and making sure we are welcoming cyclists from all walks of life in Boston.

Do you think Boston can truly be a cycling city, given how old the city is?

Absolutely. It’s funny because I’ve done talks all over the country and someone always raised their hands and — this is sort of an aside --- but I remember being in Indianapolis and someone saying, "Well we can’t be just like Boston, we’ve got these wide open roads, they’re really fast," and I’m thinking there’s something in every city.

The one thing Boston has better than any other city is people lived here before the car and it was a great city before the car and we know it can be a great city without a car. In fact in many ways by having great public transit, by being a fantastic walking [city], being on the front end of car-share and having biking — when you’ve got all of those together it makes it that much better to bike and/or to live without a car or minimum car use. I think it has more promise than many cities.

What would you consider your biggest achievement while overseeing Boston’s bike programs?

I think there’s two that are quite different. One is Boston was really a pioneer in terms of bikeshare. We were really influential in thinking through what should the business model be for bikeshare across the country. We were proof of concept — Can it work in other cities? What are the finances? Can you do it without a city putting in money? Will sponsors come? Will you get enough membership and ridership? The work we did helped move forward bikeshare systems in late cities like New York City, Chicago, [the] Bay Area, etc.

I think the other is that we started our [overall] bike programs later than other cities. One of the lessons learned from other cities was about equity and ensuring that the programs are welcoming to everyone — low income, high income, all ethnicities, English speakers, non-English speakers. Right from the start we set out to have a community bike program and to date it's donated over 4,000 bikes to low-income residents. We've worked with almost 25,000 youth providing on-bike training and classes.

A Hubway station in Boston (jon.t/Flickr)
A Hubway station in Boston (jon.t/Flickr)

Let’s talk more about Hubway. What would you like to see happen with the bikeshare system moving forward?

I think we really want to expand it into the neighborhoods more and we want to make it year-round. One of the things is ... making it an essential part of the transportation infrastructure. And that means getting deeper into neighborhoods, particularly getting more into Dorchester [and] cracking the nut of East Boston, which means you can’t just put in a few stations in East Boston, you’ve got to go in with 10 or 12 stations. It means continuing with the subsidized membership program to make it affordable to all residents and continuing to grow the membership on bikeshare.

A lot is happening related to helmet machines and I think one of the next steps will be integrating helmet machines into the system or providing helmets for low cost or rent at stations.

What are some of the major challenges Boston faces in terms of its bicycle initiatives and biking in the city?

What you see in Europe and what you see in some of the cities that are the most progressive on bikes is when you put in protected bike lanes — bike lanes where there’s a physical protection between the cyclists and the moving vehicles — you see exponential increases in ridership ... and you see that over and over in studies from Philadelphia, New York City, D.C., Chicago — you see doubling of ridership very quickly. What that means is you're getting people that are much more scared of cars, much more cautious, to feel comfortable biking.

One of the goals is to mainstream cycling, to change culture and part [of] that is to create facilities that make it welcoming for all users. You shouldn’t have to be a cyclist to ride a bike, you should be a person that wants to get from A to B in the most convenient, most fun and fastest way possible.

Protected bikes lanes are something many people, particularly bicycle advocates, have been calling for. Does the city have plans to create protected bike lanes?

I think the city is definitely moving in that direction and the transition is underway. This last season, we added a cycle track on Mount Vernon Street in Dorchester, right by UMass Boston, and as part of the next step you’ll see cycle tracks coming more and more to downtown. Connect Historic Boston, a federally funded project through a TIGER grant, is building four miles of just incredible protected bike lanes just in the heart of downtown.

How difficult would it be to have these protected bike lanes in a city like Boston, where a lot of the streets and roadways are very narrow already?

It’s doable. In 2012 we completed the bike network plan of Boston and there’s currently a project to do a mobility action plan for the whole city. As part of the action network plan, we biked 400 miles of the city and said how does this all piece together and work as a cohesive system. What we came up with, with the bike network plan, is a spine of protected bike facilities that get you to and from major origins and destinations, such as downtown ... major institutions, all of the bridges using all of the linear paths getting to the transit centers.

Does that plan mean more of the street will be taken up or more of the sidewalk will be taken up by these protected bike lanes? How do the protected bike lanes fit into the current infrastructure?

The bike network plan is a 30-year vision, so everything is a bit incremental. There is a fixed amount of space between buildings and when you look at trends in Boston and when you look at trends nationally, you do start seeing a decrease in driving and an increased use of public transit and an increased use of biking. So a lot is reallocating space. We have some roads that have extra travel lanes or you might have parking that is working at 50 percent capacity and you can repurpose that space and ultimately you’re increasing the quality of life for everyone.

Speaking of challenges, WBUR is located right along Commonwealth Avenue on Boston University’s campus and it’s a road that has been known as a dangerous area for cyclists — a couple years ago a BU student who was biking to class died in an accident. What will the city do to address this and make this area safer for cyclists?

I think one of the most important things in our work is you do put safety first and if there’s one road that you really want to focus on for safety, it’s Commonwealth Avenue. It has an incredibly high volume of pedestrian, motor vehicle, biking and transit and you do have conflict. And of all the roads in the city, that was one of the highest priority ones to say, "How do we make this as safe as possible?"

(Update: The city on Tuesday evening announced protected bike lanes along a stretch of Commonwealth Avenue.)

What are your plans for Seattle? What are you hoping to do in that city?

It’s a new position, I’ll be leading active transportation initiatives. That really is sort of personally broadening what I do beyond bikes a bit and I think that is the place to be in many ways.

In this position, it’s never been about just biking, it’s really about creating a city that people really enjoy living in, enjoy walking around, enjoy being outdoors in, a city that makes people happy and taking a broader approach. Looking at, how do we help people not have to be in their cars sitting in traffic? How do we integrate bikes with pedestrians with transit? How do we capitalize on and make the most of car share, electric vehicles, self-driving vehicles? I’m looking at sort of the bigger picture of all of that.

What will you take with you from your experience overseeing Boston’s bike initiatives to Seattle?

I will be taking about 11 bikes with me on the airplane. [laughs]

Wait, you have 11 bikes?

I do have 11 bikes, I’ll have to pare them down a little bit. Hopefully I’ll only have eight or nine when I depart [laughs] ... your question was what will I take from Boston?

Yes. What will you take with you from your experience here in Boston?

It’s been fantastic to see the change in Boston. Here it was about going from the worst to getting us to be very very good and hopefully I can take all the experience of how you work with the public, how you help to change culture, how you make people realize it’s not about bikers — it’s not about spandex. Seattle is on the cutting edge of all sorts of active transportation, which is moving around without a car ultimately. Everything is transferable in terms of what you do for bikes, it’s not that different when you provide it to pedestrians to transit to car-share, etc.

So getting back to all those bikes you have. Why do you have so many?

[laughs] They collect in my basement. I have the commuter bike and then the backup commuter bike and then the winter commuter bike and then four road bikes because I used to race. You know, one might have a flat. Then I got a new mountain bike, the guest mountain bike if I have guests in town. It’s just, you know ... [laughs]. I’m not the norm [laughs].

And you plan to take all of them to Seattle?

No, I’ll take most of them. I will say this, my car is worth $100.

So, I guess that kind of balances it out, maybe?


What would you like to see happen in Boston moving forward regarding biking?

I believe the mayor will do a fantastic job in continuing what we started and taking it from ...  a city that was off the charts bad to a very, very good U.S. city. And I hope Mayor Walsh continues what he’s been doing and what his predecessor did and takes it from a very good city to a world-class city.

This article was originally published on March 24, 2015.

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Zeninjor Enwemeka Senior Business Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a senior business reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.



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