Biking in Boston: What to know before you get rolling

In all the warm-weather excitement, a persistent thought might also re-enter your brain: "I want to start biking." (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
In all the warm-weather excitement, a persistent thought might also re-enter your brain: "I want to start biking." (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

When it's a sunny day, the thought might pop into your head: "I want to start biking." Or maybe you've been sitting in your car during rush hour traffic wondering if you could get to your office faster by bike. Maybe an MBTA closure near your home has meant it takes twice as long to get where you want to go.

If that sounds like you, you're not alone. On a mild, clear September day in 2022, there were over 39,000 bikers out and about on Boston's roads, a number based on bikes passing through 54 specific locations during one of the city's seasonal counts.

Maybe you have that one friend who gets around by bike in any season and constantly sings its praises: speed, convenience, independence, affordability, health and environmental benefits and on and on.

You want it. But it all feels overwhelming — and perhaps too dangerous.

Here are a few things to know before ditching your car, public transit or your own two feet for a pair of wheels.

No. 1: Greater Boston has a bike-share option

Maybe you want to dip your toe in two-wheel waters before diving in headfirst with a bike of your own. Fear not, you could try a public bike-share.

A woman returns a Blue Bike to a station in Kendall Square. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A woman returns a Bluebike to a station in Kendall Square. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The main option is Bluebikes (formerly known as Hubway), which covers Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville and Everett. Bluebikes docks are common on many a street corner, and you might even spot one hidden in plain sight near where you live or work. Here's the full system map.

Prices range from $2.95 for a single-trip pass (for the first 30 minutes), to $10 for a 24-hour "adventure pass." For unlimited rides, there are monthly memberships, and a $129 annual membership. There's also an income-eligible program.

You'd want to download the Bluebikes app to help streamline the process before finding a dock. From there, pay the fee or use your pass, unlock your bike, and away you go. Simply return the bike at the dock nearest your destination.

Bike-share is a low-stakes way to figure out if biking is right for you. But that doesn't mean you should scrimp on safety. It's a good idea to always wear a helmet (kids 16 and under must wear one, per state law), and follow the standard best practices and safety precautions.

And fair warning: You might find these shared bikes a bit ho-hum when it comes to speed, especially compared with a bike of your own.

No. 2: There are great places to ride — and trouble spots

The city of Boston touts its efforts to boost biking and slash crash numbers, but also admits "many people don't feel comfortable riding a bike on our streets."

"There are some really great off-road paths ... and there are some — and we know that there are going to soon be more — protected bike lanes on the streets," said Eliza Parad, former director of organizing for the Boston Cyclists Union. "But that is still a small number. There are a lot of missing connections."

A cycylist and a young woman on a scooter manuver between open doors of double-parked vehicles and the flow of traffic down Commonwealth Ave. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A cycylist and a young woman on a scooter manuver between open doors of double-parked vehicles and the flow of traffic down Commonwealth Ave. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The question of how bike-friendly the city is draws mixed reviews. A scorecard compiled by PeopleForBikes, a national bike advocacy organization, in 2022 put Boston in the 43rd percentile in its ranking of best large cities to bike, with particularly low ratings on several metrics: access to the neighborhoods where residents live and access to major shopping centers.

Over the years, various measures of how accessible biking is to all city residents have steadily improved. Other rankings peg Boston as one of the top-10 best cities to bike in, noting positive factors like its numerous bike paths, repair shops and air quality. But accessibility varies throughout the city.

Noah De Amor, founder of the Bowdoin Bike School in Dorchester, in 2019 said biking in Boston is slanted toward the privileged.

"In order to feel safe [biking] in Boston ... right now, you have to be very fit and very fearless," De Amor said at the time. "I think that the way that the streets are set up just reeks of privileged culture. It just kind of sends a message that only certain people should be cycling on the streets."

But this reality, too, appears to be changing. The city is making greater investments in infrastructure aimed at connecting bike routes, and is targeting its outreach to encourage more women, elderly and people with disabilities to take up biking.

In this 2016 file photo, Noah De Amor stands with his bike outside Bowdoin Bike School in Dorchester. (Hadley Green for WBUR)
In this 2016 file photo, Noah De Amor stands with his bike outside Bowdoin Bike School in Dorchester. (Hadley Green for WBUR)

Rides to try

If you want to start off riding more leisurely somewhere more protected, here is a list of some parks and public spaces to check out:

Know where to be cautious

While these paths and trails are great for biking, riding on city streets requires a higher level of awareness.

Boston's Vision Zero initiative aims to end serious and fatal bicycle crashes by 2030. This Vision Zero map offers a look at where and when bike crashes have occurred, and here are a few specific areas of caution to keep in the back of your mind before hitting the streets:

The Commonwealth Avenue reconstruction, seen here in late March, will include a protected bike lane. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Commonwealth Avenue reconstruction, seen here in late March, will include a protected bike lane. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Some advice if it feels like things are getting dicey? Behave more like a pedestrian.
"If you don't feel safe on the road, ride on the sidewalk," Parad said, adding it's best to find an alternate route and avoid traffic-laden areas altogether when possible.

Organizations like the Boston Cyclists Union also host group rides for people who would rather have some experienced company while acclimatizing to city biking.

There can also be comfort in a routine, said Mark Vautour, store manager for Landry's Bicycles on Commonwealth Avenue. If you plan to ride to and from work, for example, do a little preliminary research and get to know the ins and outs of that particular route.

No. 3: There are laws and regulations to follow

For many people, riding a bike means flexibility and independence. But there are rules of the road, and you'll want to at least know your rights before mounting up.

Here are the laws you must follow as a biker in Boston proper:

  • You have to follow all traffic laws and regulations — that means stopping at stop signs and traffic lights.
  • You have to yield to pedestrians, and "ring a bell or give another polite, audible signal" while passing a person walking — no whistling or sirens.
  • You can ride your bike on the sidewalk, but biking in the street is encouraged.
  • You have to keep at least one hand on your handlebars.
  • You have to use a white light on the front of your bike and either a red light or red reflector on the rear: The front light has to be visible at least 500 feet away, while the rear light must be visible at least 600 feet away.

There are also do's and don'ts when it comes to bringing your bike on the T. Generally, bicycles are not allowed during rush hours, and they're never allowed on the Green Line or Mattapan Trolley. For more specific rules on each line, click here.

Despite all the rules, defensive biking is always a good idea. Motorists, for instance, must check for passing cyclists before opening their door, maintain a safe distance when passing on the left, yield when making left turns, and are prohibited from making abrupt right turns, according to state law. And yet, you'll hear many stories out there of close calls at intersections, and of bikers getting "doored."

If worst comes to worst and you get into a crash, this list from the bicycle advocacy organization MassBike lays out what you can do and factors to keep in mind.

No. 4: You'll want to be prepared for the elements — and sweaty clothes

Greater Boston's weather is anything but predictable, and that poses challenges for bikers: You might depart for your destination under partly cloudy skies, only to deal with a downpour when it's time to head back. That creates problems from slick roads to reduced visibility to braking ability.

In short, it's best to be prepared — and doing so doesn't require a bunch of fancy gear. "Certainly you can use things a lot of times that you can just find in your home," Parad said.

Snow? What snow? (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Snow? What snow? (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Here are some no-fuss items to pack to be weather-ready in warmer weather from Mark Vautour at Landry's:

  • A plastic cover for your seat in case it rains. (Plastic bags work in a pinch.)
  • An extra pair of socks, so if you do get stuck in the rain, you can keep your feet dry.
  • An extra T-shirt or towel so you can wipe off any sweat. (Another tip to avoid getting drenched: Pace yourself to and from your destination.)

And once you've mastered summer biking, here are tips for winter biking from the city of Boston:

  • Wear layers: You'll warm up while biking, and layers will help you regulate your body temperature.
  • Protect yourself from the cold: Wear a thin hat that will keep your head warm but also fits under your bike helmet. Don't forget gloves and a scarf. Goggles or glasses can protect your eyes from the cold. (Think what you would wear for skiing.)
  • If the temperature is below 32 degrees, watch out for shiny patches on the road — there might be black ice. Also try to avoid metal grates and train tracks that might be slippery if there's slush or snow.
  • Make sure your lights are working, and bring extra batteries. Consider wearing more reflective items like ankle bands if there's lower visibility.

Bonus: What's one thing you wish you knew before you started riding?

Mark Vautour, store manager for Landry's Bicycles:

Just how much fun it would be. I grew up in the suburbs. When I moved to the city, I started riding my bike to go places, and it's just plain fun.

When we first opened the bike shop in Boston, I didn't know anything. Like I knew literally nothing ... but we'd go on these great bike rides after work, we'd close up the shop and we'd go ride somewhere — whether it was to go get a burrito or ride to the top of the Arboretum at night and see the city. I wish I knew how many places you could see on a bike, and just the pure joy of riding a bike. I swear to God, it keeps you from growing up.

Eliza Parad, former director of organizing for the Boston Cyclists Union:

When there are painted lanes on the ground, really the safe place to ride in a painted lane so that you don't get doored is close to the outside line. When I started riding, I used to ride right next to the [parked] cars — and luckily I haven't gotten doored. But I learned that many years later.

Noah De Amor, founder of the now-closed Bowdoin Bike School:

Like most people, when I started riding, I didn't know how to maintain my bicycle. Bicycling definitely afforded me a level of personal freedom of mobility that walking and taking the T did not ... but one limiting factor was if anything ever went wrong with my bicycle, I would have to pay somebody to fix it. Either that, or I would have to find somebody with the skill set who was willing to do it for free.

Simón Rios, WBUR reporter:

I was in a bad crash a couple years ago, and that really changed my whole outlook. I think the biggest takeaway from that is that I just don't trust drivers anymore, whereas before I just blindly ... gave them the benefit of the doubt, that if I'm in the right and I'm following the rules of the road, that I can count on every single driver to watch out for me. And one day, one driver didn't respect that and hit me, and changed my life.

This article was originally published on May 30, 2019.

Jack Mitchell Associate Producer
Jack Mitchell was an associate producer in WBUR's newsroom. He works across a wide spectrum of departments and shows — from the newscast unit, to, to Radio Boston.



More from WBUR

Listen Live