The Boston Phoenix
July 27 - August 3, 2000

[Features]

Spokes persons

Advocates say that cars and bicycles can coexist in Boston traffic. And they have a plan.

by Laura A. Siegel

As traffic snarls throughout downtown Boston, as we sit in gridlock breathing smog, as our taxes pour into a massive project to bury a clogged highway, it's clear that more of us have to get out of our cars and find some other way to get around. And that means we have to improve conditions for alternative means of transportation, such as rail, buses, ferries -- and bicycles.

Happy trails

Here are some of the bike paths that will soon be built in Boston -- and a few that are just being dreamed about.

* The Neponset River Greenway. Now largely abandoned rail yards, this trail will run along the Neponset River, eventually connecting the Blue Hills Reservation with Castle Island. Construction may begin as early as this fall.

* The East Boston Greenway. This strip of land, which includes more rail yards, is being transformed by the Boston Natural Areas Fund into a bike path through East Boston. It will connect neighborhoods to beaches, Logan airport, and T stops.

* The Boston Harbortrail. This trail would extend from Melnea Cass Boulevard along the Fort Point Channel to the Fan Pier, connecting many Boston neighborhoods with the waterfront. Right now a feasibility study is under way. "It's a trail that makes a lot of sense -- parts of it are already in place or moving forward or planned," says the Bicycle Advisory Committee's Erin Gorden. The Metropolitan District Commission is already working on a path from Castle Island to Dorchester that would connect to the Boston Redevelopment Authority's Boston Harbor Walk.

* The Emerald Necklace Greenway. Once, you could walk the length of the Emerald Necklace parks through Boston. But now busy traffic arteries cut through. "The goal is to restore thinking about the Emerald Necklace as a five-mile connected park," says Jeffrey Ferris, owner of the Ferris Wheel Bicycle Shop in Jamaica Plain. He's part of a group advocating to reconnect the Necklace's bike paths, but so far no agencies have plans to do so.

* Connecting the Corridors. The Boston Parks Department recently received a federal grant to create a bike path in the Back Bay Fens that would connect to the Southwest Corridor bike path, eventually to meet up with the Boston Harbortrail. But the Mass Highway Department, which handles the funding, hasn't released the money to the parks department yet.

* Fenway Park. "There's an abandoned rail corridor that could be used to connect the northern end of the Riverway, where the Landmark Center is, to Kenmore Square," says Aldo Ghirin, who is responsible for bicycle planning for the Boston Parks Department. "It looks like that would be part of the Red Sox' effort to reduce vehicular traffic."

* East Coast Greenway. This proposed bike path would run from Florida to Maine, and the Esplanade would become a part of it. "It would connect urban areas, as opposed to a more rural Appalachian Trail," explains Bill Reyelt, a Bicycle Advisory Committee member who works for the state Department of Housing and Urban Development.

-- Laura A. Siegel

Bicycling is clean, healthy, fun, and cheap, but Boston is notoriously unfriendly to cyclists. Boston streets are even harder on bikes than they are on cars, and Boston drivers are infamous for their aggressiveness. In early 1999, Bicycling magazine ranked Boston the worst city for bikers in the US and Canada. One local bike-store owner put it bluntly: "Boston is a bad place to bike."

Still, urban biking is up in Greater Boston. Between 1976 and 1997, the number of cyclists at four area locations at rush hour rose 96 percent, according to the state's Central Transportation Planning Staff. More recently, bike stores have been reporting rising sales of on-road bikes, and regular bike commuters say they've been seeing more bikers on the streets in the past five years.

Anything Boston does to make conditions better for bikers would be good for the rest of us, and improvements might even encourage more of us to travel on two wheels. There are plenty of good reasons to do so. Bicycling is fast -- often faster than the T or driving at rush hour. It saves money -- not only does it use no gas, but some bikers can give up their cars and all the related costs. It's healthy -- bike commuters can stay in shape without having to go to the gym. And it's fun.

"Cycling just gets under your skin," says Maria Saiz, a technical professional who bikes between Watertown and downtown almost every day. "As you're riding along the river and you're watching the sun come up, you've got a nice wind at your back -- it just fills your days with possibilities."

Boston's Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC), which Mayor Tom Menino re-established last winter after a two-year gap, will release a Boston Bicycle Plan this fall. That plan will eventually become part of the city's Access Boston 2000-2010 transportation plan. "We have pretty good support pretty high up," says Doug Mink, a long-time bicycle activist and former president of the bike-advocacy group MassBike. Now advocates hope their plans will actually be put into action.

The worst part of biking in Boston, cyclists agree, isn't the pothole-ridden roads or the narrow lanes or the double-parked cars -- though those are bad. It's the people.

"People have a tendency not to obey the laws, or not to know what the laws are," says Mink. Drivers' ed doesn't usually explain how to pass bikers safely or when to yield to them.

And some drivers can be nasty. Many bikers have stories about drivers who forced them off the road, or deliberately cut in front of them and stopped short. Chris Erdman, a PR consultant who has biked for 10 years in both Boston and New York City, thinks drivers are far worse in Boston. "Here, people are really aggressive, and they take out bikers," he says.

Boston's tangled, narrow roads are partly to blame. "It is already so frustrating to ride around downtown Boston that people's tolerance levels are low," says John Kenda, a former Boston bike messenger. "Everybody's competing for space."

Bikers pay the price. "In 20 years," Mink says, "I've been hit by a car door once, ran into somebody who opened his car door and got out without looking once, been turned into at corners two or three times, been broadsided once. There's the time I ran into the back of a van that stopped suddenly, and fell and broke my wrist."

Many drivers don't realize that bikes have the same legal right to the road as cars do. "Roads are the transportation network for bicycles as much as they are for cars," says MassBike president-elect Paul Schimeck, who's a member of the Bicycle Advisory Committee and a researcher for the US Department of Transportation, as well as a bike commuter. "Every road is a bicycle road, and every lane is a bicycle lane as much as it's a car lane or a truck lane."

But in the turf war between bikers and drivers, bikers are far from innocent. According to 1998 data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, half of all car-bike crashes nationwide are caused by bikers' failure to follow driving rules. Drivers who disobey the rules cause just 28 percent of the accidents.

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Laura A. Siegel can be reached at lsiegel@phx.com.