Is Boston cycle infrastructure getting better faster than congestion gets worse?
Matt bikes daily.
He says that one of those days last summer, while biking past the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, he saw a car with an Uber sign parked in the bike lane.
When he began to steer around the Uber, the car almost drove into him and another cyclist.
“So I knocked on their window and yelled ‘bike lane.’ They were going to drive right into us. She threw a water bottle at me and then tried to drive off, but there’s too much traffic. So I caught up, and now I’m next to her. Now I’m angry and I yelled, ‘What the hell, you threw a water bottle at me.’ I smacked her rearview mirror, which I’m not proud of. I started to ride away then she drove her car pedal to the metal as if she was going to run me over.”
Crowded roads, cars obstructing bike lanes, and road rage are all challenges cyclists deal with in Greater Boston. While the city of Boston plans to increase biking as a form of daily transportation by four times by 2030, problems like road congestion, inadequate infrastructure, and negative driver-cyclist interactions can impede further adoption of biking and make biking more hazardous for current cyclists.
Are things getting better? Could they possibly get worse?
The number of people living in Boston proper alone is projected to increase from 656,000 in 2014 to 724,000 in 2030. According to transportation analytics company INRIX, Boston is the seventh most congested city in the United States. Residents already feel the strain of the population growth in housing and transportation. With a notorious lack of investment in public transportation and an increasing number of cars on the road, cyclists can run into physical as well as figurative roadblocks.
“Right now, our transit system can’t handle the number of people,” said Becca Wolfson, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union. According to Wolfson, Boston’s public transportation system is at capacity, forcing commuters to seek alternatives. She continued: “We need massive investment in public transit. More trains and buses with better frequency on our streets that would allow people to not rely on cars and ridesharing services that maybe are more convenient for people and the cost isn’t that high, but it is actually making the congestion on our streets and travel times much worse.”
According to a study by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, more people are turning to ridesharing services to get from one place to another. Their survey found that 42 percent of passengers would have used public transportation if ridesharing services did not exist, while 12 percent would have walked or biked. Fifty-nine percent of ridesharing trips add additional cars to the roads.
“Biking is a great way to get people out of cars and provide alternatives,” said Wolfson, adding that the greater road congestion due to ridesharing increases threats for bikers. “But there’s a significant number of people in the population that just won’t try it because they don’t think they’re safe.”
Amanda Rychel, a cyclist who bikes daily to and from work and to pick up her son after school, said that the frustration from drivers being stuck in traffic worsens their attitude toward cyclists. “I think the thing that probably gets people most worked up, from being behind the wheel sometimes myself, is being stuck in traffic and being really frustrated by that,” Rychel said. “I think people take their frustrations out on you when they’re feeling like they can’t get where they need to go.”
Experts say that better cycling infrastructure can help alleviate problems cyclists face on congested roads. Wolfson’s group specifically points to Boston thoroughfares like Mass Ave, Comm Ave, Tremont Street, Malcolm X Boulevard, and Cambridge Street as some of the most dangerous areas to bike.
“By not having safer infrastructure, we’re missing out on a significant number of people who could start riding bikes and relieve congestion from cars and the T,” Wolfson said.
“Comm Ave had the highest rate and number of dooring crashes, more than anywhere else in the city,” Wolfson said. “That’s when someone … getting out of a parked car opens the door and hits a cyclist. Those are really dangerous because you can be thrown under a vehicle immediately.”
Stacey Thompson, coalition member of Vision Zero Boston, said that bike lanes benefit all commuters, not just those cycling.
“You put in a really great bike lane, it often makes it safer for people walking because people are trying to bike on sidewalks where young people and older people can be injured by someone cycling,” Thompson said. “It makes it much safer for the cyclist who doesn’t want to be on the street with a fast-moving motor vehicle and also helps slow down people in motor vehicles. We know that speed is a major factor in crashes that kill people. Putting in good cycling infrastructure is better for everyone on our streets.”
Go Boston 2030, the city of Boston’s transportation plan, includes installing safer bike lanes. Vineet Gupta, director of policy and planning at Boston Transportation Department, said that the city has substantially increased the number of bike lanes in Boston, including protected bike lanes.
“We recently completed the installation of a protected bike lane on Beacon Street [and are] maintaining efficient traffic flow along the corridor,” Gupta said. “There are examples where we created protected bike lanes. A good example is in the North End. Protected bike facilities continue through Causeway Street through TD Garden. … Working with the community, we are confident we can find the right balance to make it safer for cyclists while maintaining traffic on congested roads.”
Advocates want more. According to Thompson, there is an equity gap in where bike lanes are located. She pointed to the protected bike lane in the Back Bay section of Mass Ave, as compared to the infrastructure on the stretch of Mass Ave in Dorchester.
“While we would say the overall protected infrastructure is lacking in Boston, it’s particularly bad in under-resourced communities [Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester] where many people bike, especially when they have jobs in off hours when the T doesn’t service them, or they’re trying to get to areas of the city that are maybe more difficult to reach,” Thompson said. “There’s certainly work that’s being done at the city, but we are really wanting to look at the communities with [lacking] biking infrastructure and say, ‘There are lots of people in these communities who bike. They might not look like a white guy in spandex, but they deserve to get great protected infrastructure.’
“I think you’re seeing an overall street safety deficit in some of these under-resourced communities and communities of color.”
Wolfson said that despite certain improvements to bolster cycling safety, the pace of change is sluggish. “There are a couple signature projects that are great or will be great when they’re done, but they’re happening at a pace that’s just glacial and isn’t going to do anything to encourage enough people to start biking because you have some good projects but they are not networked to other facilities.”
Wolfson is referring to bike lanes along major roads that are not connected to bike lanes on other roads.
“Mass Ave, from the Mass Ave Bridge to Symphony Hall in the South End direction, you’re pretty much separated from traffic, which is great. But whatever street you turn onto, you are not separated from traffic, and that separation ends. What we say is “bike lanes to nowhere.” You can’t just plop down these pieces at a really slow pace that aren’t connected to other things. … The city takes on these projects but doesn’t work more rapidly to connect them to other things. They’re not going to impact people’s safety and actually build on the number of people who choose to bike to get around.”
Rychel said that when she’s biking, she doesn’t feel like drivers see her as a person sharing the road but rather an entity to direct their anger at. Rychel said she has experienced plenty of negative interactions with aggressive drivers.
“I was about to get to my home and I actually was biking up Willow, which is a slightly more busy street but pretty low speed because it’s by a school and only two lanes,” Rychel said. “And I moved over to turn left. A couple cars behind me were honking and agitated that they couldn’t get to that four-way stop sign two seconds faster because of me. I made my left turn, and the person made their left turn after me and aggressively passed me while honking and going very fast on this even smaller two-lane street.”
On Route 28 passing by the Boston Museum of Science, Rychel said she opts to take the sidewalk because of the fast-moving cars that aggressively pass her. She also said that drivers have a perception that cyclists never obey traffic laws, which means they don’t belong on the streets. Cyclists say otherwise, as does a study by the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research that found, among other things, that cyclists obey traffic laws more than drivers.
Matt said drivers simply disregard bike lanes and frequently park in them.
“There’s still a huge problem with people using the bike lane, parking in the bike lane, trucks delivering in the bike lane,” he said. “There’s passive-aggressive drivers from time to time who will drift into the bike lane. Giving a side-eye to a cyclist.
“I don’t see enforcement. And that to me is the biggest issue. The infrastructure that is there doesn’t always matter.”
Despite the challenges, thousands of people bike. For efficiency, cost, convenience, community, enjoyability, and health benefits.
“I realized the amount of time I spent waiting for trains and just packed like a sardine on the Orange Line,” Wolfson said. “I decided it was time to bike all the time. It really felt freeing and empowering.”
Moving forward, Boston Cyclists Union is organizing for a protected bike lane on Longfellow Bridge and has successfully organized for a protected bike lane on Comm Ave, despite initial resistance from the city of Boston and Boston University.
“We’ve really been pushing for a shift in the pace of change,” Thompson said. “The folks taking up the most space right now are people in cars. … From the cyclist’s perspective, it’s a really healthy and great way to move around an urban setting when we have the right cycling conditions.
“I believe the culture around cycling is shifting in Boston and will continue to shift to more positive perceptions [as] we build better and better infrastructure.”