Boston From Worst to Among Best Bike Cities

By LESLIE FRIDAY/ecoRI News contributor

BOSTON — Not so long ago, Boston was one of the most unfriendly bike cities in the country and even earned that unflattering distinction three times from Bicycling magazine.

David Watson remembers those days. Even though he says Boston has historically had a strong community of bicyclists, the city never had the infrastructure or political leadership to support them. That is, until 2007, when Mayor Thomas Menino appointed former Olympic cyclist Nicole Freedman as director of his new Boston Bikes program.

Freedman has “been amazing and has gotten really an incredible amount done in just a few years,” says Watson, executive director of the bicycling education and advocacy group MassBike. “We’ve legitimately moved more toward the forefront of bicycle friendliness in the U.S.”

Even Bicycling magazine recognized the change, ranking Boston 16th among America’s top 50 bike-friendly cities in 2012. League of American Bicyclists recently awarded the city a silver for the same reason. Bike Score just ranked it fifth among its top 10 most bikeable large U.S. cities.

Menino founded Boston Bikes, Freedman says, to “transform Boston into a world-class cycling city.” She has moved the city in that direction during the past five years by following what she calls the “6 E’s” — engineering, education, enforcement, evaluation, encouragement and equity.

On the engineering end, Freedman pushed for the installation of 62 miles of bike lanes throughout the city — compared to zero when she started —  1,370 bike racks and the nation’s first regional bike share program, Hubway, which will have 1,300 bikes available for short-term rental at 135 stations throughout Boston, Brookline, Cambridge and Somerville by the end of this year.

Since its launch in 2011, Hubway has amassed more than 8,000 active annual members and attracted another 150,000 casual riders, according to general manager Scott Mullen. The service provides a quick and relatively cheap way for people to bike around the city from early spring through late fall. Hubway stations are removed from city streets from December through February due to the harsh New England winter.

Short-term customers can choose either a $6 24-hour pass or a $12 3-day pass at a Hubway kiosk, punch an unlocking code into a bike dock, remove a bike and ride to another dock near their destination. Long-term customers can sign up for a $20 monthly pass or an $85 annual pass online and receive a Hubway key in the mail. Both options allow for unlimited free rides less than 30 minutes; anything longer incurs additional fees.

Infrastructure improvements and the introduction of Hubway have boosted ridership citywide by 82 percent, according to Freedman. The American Community Survey estimates that at least 56,000 cycling trips were made around Boston in 2012 alone.

Learning to get along
An increase in cycling means less traffic, better air quality and improved overall public health, but the news isn’t all good. From 2010 to 2012, the Boston Police Department and Boston Emergency Medical Services recorded more than 1,400 crashes, including three Hubway bicyclists, and nine deaths — five last year alone.

Freedman notes that crash rates have increased 9 percent during that time period, while overall cycling has spiked 28 percent. She says that proves the “safety in numbers effect;” as more cyclists populate the streets, drivers become more cautious and the crash rate decreases.

Menino hopes to slash the crash rate in half by 2020, and Freedman has launched several initiatives to get the city there. Boston drivers now receive a flyer along with their excise bill that provides tips for driving safely among cyclists. Boston Bikes provides bicycling training to 4,000 youth annually. The city plans to install the nation’s first helmet machines at Hubway terminals. Riders currently must bring their own or risk it, although those younger than 17 are required by state law to ride with a  helmet.

More than 1,800 taxis will be issued window stickers advising passengers to watch for cyclists before opening doors. This month, the city will install side guards on 19 large Public Works vehicles to prevent cyclists from getting sucked underneath in an accident.

While Watson applauds Freedman and the city for their efforts, he says more needs to be done to teach motorists and cyclists “how to get along.”

“While almost every bicyclist is a motorist, a pretty small percentage of motorists are bicyclists,” Watson says. “It’s much more difficult for the motorist to put themselves in the cyclist’s position. Many haven’t been on a bike since they were kids.”

MassBike is pushing for legislation that will make it illegal statewide for cars to park in bike lanes, reduce speed limits from 30 to 25 mph and require cities to adopt “complete streets policies” that take into account the needs of motorists, cyclists, pedestrians and those traveling by public transportation.

“The key is the idea of balance,” Watson says. “Right now we don’t have that. We’ve got a clear preponderance of road space devoted to cars. If we’re lucky, bicyclists and pedestrians are squeezed in at the margins.”

Slow traffic down
Pete Stidman, executive director of Boston Cyclists Union, also thinks the city should install traffic signals specifically designed for bike lanes and create more cycle tracks, which are separated from roads by a physical barrier. His advocacy group helped create a cycle track along Western Avenue in Allston and is pushing for more along Somerville’s Beacon Street and Roxbury’s Cedar Street.

He likes to compare crash statistics in Boston, with its less than a mile’s worth of cycle tracks, to Copenhagen’s 217 miles of tracks. The European city has 25 times more people riding bikes, but has half the number of injuries as Boston, he says.

“There’s something going on there,” Stidman says. “The only infrastructure difference is cycle tracks.”

Freedman agrees that adding more cycle tracks increases safety for bicyclists, and names at least four sites around the city that will develop them this year.

“We’re still at the tip of the iceberg though,” she says. “Every year we want to make people more confident of biking on our streets.”