Steve Miller of Livable Streets and Nicole Freedman, Boston’s bike czar, spoke yesterday evening on the state of bicycling infrastructure in the city of Boston at a well-attended meeting at the public library in Copley Square. Boston City Councillors and mayoral candidates Felix Arroyo and Mike Ross supported this fifth annual event with their presence. City Councillor Ayanna Pressley may also have been present.
Much of the presentation was a celebration of bicycling in Boston. WalkScore named Boston the fifth most bikable city in the U.S. Boston saw an increase of 82% in ridership between 2007 and 2011 as indicated by 2011 American Community Survey counts. New bike lanes have been added and a priority shared lane will be tested on Brighton Avenue.
Two accomplishments that stand out, in my opinion, are the bike lanes on Mass Ave and Brookline Avenue. The city removed 71 parking spaces on Mass Ave in order to put in bike lanes on the busy street. That took some political muscle. The bike lanes in the Longwood area also required removing some on-street parking and made Brookline Ave a much safer street for bicyclists.
Freedman is a fantastic speaker: knowledgeable, funny, and confident. Boston is lucky to have her back after she cut short her sabbatical a few months ago. Here she explains why she didn’t find it as challenging to raise $5 million for the Hubway system as she did for her own bicycle races: “There was nothing harder than trying to fundraise for a white, wealthy, over-educated woman that wanted to ride bikes. Bikeshare was easy.”
Freedman is progressive when it comes to bicycling but has to deal with a city administration slow to change and a driving public that prefers comfort to the health and well-being of city residents. In response to a question as to why the city caters to those who demand more roads and parking, which only create more congestion, Freedman said:
“If I could do anything in my power to make Boston bike-friendly, I would never put in a single bike lane. I would add a congestion charge, put in a $10 gas tax, remove all the parking and, if there’s any parking left, charge an arm and a leg. Good thing I’m not running for elected office.”
To Freedman’s earlier point, the Hubway bikeshare system has used no city money. Usage is way up compared to this time last year and new member sign-ups in April were the highest of any month so far. The system will expand to Charlestown, Jamaica Plain, South Boston, and parts of Roxbury and Dorchester in the fall of this year.
We can also look forward to the final draft of Boston’s Bike Network Plan in June. The city’s goal is to raise the percentage of trips by bicycle from 1.7% today to 10% by 2020.
Also coming soon (around July) are the first helmet vending machines in the nation. MIT students responded to Nicole’s challenge by designing Helmet Hub, which not only vends helmets but also accepts them after they are used. The helmets are then inspected and cleaned before being made available for re-use.
Many of the questions centered around equity and safety. A number of cyclists were rightfully concerned that low-income residents of Boston don’t have equal access to bike lanes and the Hubway system. Nicole explained that the Hubway system has to have a high concentration of stations and so could not be widely spread upon launch. Plans are afoot to continue to expand the system. Also, Nicole pushed hard to award 550 $5 memberships to low-income residents.
Safety was the foremost concern of the bicyclists who spoke. Boston had five bicyclist fatalites last year and just lost another bicyclist a couple of days ago. The evening began with a moment of silence.
Freedman said that there is no magic bullet. She said incremental changes would lead to a future with protected infrastructure. She hailed a recently-released safety study which will help determine what changes will be most effective. 1825 stickers have been placed in taxi cabs warning passengers not to open the doors without looking. 19 Public Works vehicles thus far have had side guards installed to prevent bicyclists from falling under the wheels (large trucks were responsible for many of the recent deaths). By 2020, the city aims to reduce the cyclist crash rate by 50%.
Still, many who spoke were angry. One man demanded to know why the deaths weren’t the primary topic today. A woman claimed that the entirety of a bike lane is unsafe because of the risk of dooring. Yet another speaker wanted a mechanism to report badly-behaving drivers.
One man protested the lack of enforcement of the car-parking ban in bike lanes. He recalled seeing the Roslindale bike lane for the first time, only to find a Boston cop car parked in front of a Dunkin Donuts, squarely in the bike lane.
Unfortunately, Freedman pulled out her trope about everyone behaving badly. She had people in the audience raise their hand if they had jaywalked, biked past red lights, or sped up in a car on yellow. Hands went up in each case. She then said that everyone behaves badly on the streets, not just drivers. True enough, but I have yet to hear of a case where a jaywalking pedestrian smashed a car, killing the driver.
Jeffrey Ferris of Ferris Wheels Bike Shop continued his quixotic fight for a new bridge. He said that most bike crashes occur at intersections. Thus his support for the replacement of the Casey Overpass with a new bridge, reducing bicycle-car encounters. However, just about every advocacy group in the city has called for an at-grade solution. If Ferris were to be believed, we would have to build bridges all over town to create safe bicycling infrastructure. That is not a serious solution.
Freedman and Miller offered a few suggestions for bicycling advocates. Contact the Mayor’s Hotline to report ill-maintained or unplowed bike lanes. Attend public meetings to support new bicycling infrastructure. And pay close attention to what the mayoral candidates have to say about bicycles in the city.