Bike Month alone, without follow-though, doesn’t get our cities where they need to go
May was Bike Month, the month we celebrate all who crank through the urban landscape reducing traffic, helping save the environment and promoting a healthy lifestyle. But besides some flag waving, what do Bike Months really accomplish? Do more people saddle up the steel steed, do motorists become more sympathetic and aware of cyclists, are the roads somehow suddenly safer? Unfortunately no – it merely underscores the lip service municipalities and agencies put forth when they could better serve the biking community and public safety by putting real dollars into infrastructure, policy and traffic law changes.
For me, the month began with great optimism. I sent letters to transportation heads in Boston and Cambridge outlining 10 unnecessary hazards to bikers in each city where immediate improvement could be had. I ride a 15-mile round trip every day from Porter Square to the very end of the Seaport, and had hoped that, given the month, documenting these persistent areas of peril (unclassifiable on the wonderful, but limited SeeClickFix app) might garner some attention and thought from those with the power to enact change.
What happened was fairly emblematic of bureaucracy, and embosses the truth that we don’t value cycling as much as we say we do. From Boston I got a cricket concerto (though the canyons of potholes I flagged by South Station did get filled within days). Separately, a call to Boston Bikes – a municipal department opened in 2007 – to ask about bike rack policies and safe passage around or through Boston Common turned out to be a frustrating do-nothing back-and-forth. At no time during the conversation did the young rep mention Boston Bikes doing something, anything; she just directed me to take up issues elsewhere at City Hall, or to use an app. It was disappointingly clear that she cared little about cycling and wasn’t in touch with the state of the roads or traffic conditions, let alone the community she served.
From my fair Cambridge I got a boomerang-fast response from one department head that was tagged as shockingly “dismissive and defensive” by friends and fellow cyclists with whom I shared it. Also telling was the response from the facilities management department at the building I work at when I asked for more bike parking structures, as the existing ones were always full. I was told they were “underutilized” and there was no need for more, until I documented that was not the case and that I had to find alternative parking most days. Then the response became that the bike racks were on a “first-come, first-served basis.” Head-scratching and a letter to more senior management ensued.
All these small indignities lead to the sad conclusion that Jeff Jacoby’s polemic in The Boston Globe last year, “Urban Roads Aren’t Meant for Bicycles,” underscores how people really feel, despite biking’s larger communal and environmental benefits. Sure, officials have built out the Hubway rental system and installed a smattering of bike lanes that becomes more beneficial over time. And, to be fair, this work takes money. But for the most part, efforts are piecemeal – and it seems the only time anything gets done is when tragedy strikes. The deadly corner at Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street in Boston where bikers funnel over the bridge and into the city got a complete and instant makeover after the October death of Cambridge’s Anita Kurmann, who was crushed by an 18-wheeler making a right. It took a life to see the light.
Because bike infrastructure projects are often tied to slow-moving road and sewer projects, the infrastructure grows only at the rate of city street improvements – not at the rate rising ridership requires. The repaving and bike lane marking of Beacon Street in Somerville showed there are other options, but they’re a rare exception. Bicyclists also hear that improvements are “coming later” or are in another agency’s court – such as that “It’s DCR’s responsibility.” That may be so, but it’s not a good answer; cities should make an effort toward bringing all elements of a project together to make complete environment within a reasonable timeline.
Adoption of the Vision Zero plan in March – Cambridge is the 17th city in the United States to sign onto this approach to eliminating traffic deaths, and Boston was among the 10 cities that launched the model in January – is a step in the right direction, and having SeeClickFix helps with minor hazards. But until real money and sweat is applied to rebuilding our roadways and revamping traffic laws to encourage more bicycling, more lives will be at stake. Even with sizable investment, our cities won’t become the equal of Copenhagen or Amsterdam without a cultural shift.
Here’s a newsflash for motorists who think it’s “same road, same rules” for cyclists: Existing traffic laws don’t entirely make sense for urban cycling. We can’t maintain the minimum traffic speed, and if we took over a full lane instead of that death trough next to the door zone, you’d be extra outraged. Try hopping on a bike for the first time; cars brushing by in tight quarters at 30 to 40 mph can change a perspective.
For real change, get mopeds and any hot-engined vehicles out of the bike lanes and institute the “Idaho Stop.” (This law allows bikes to proceed mindfully through an intersection on a red if it’s clear, but must defer to all rightful traffic and pedestrians. The intent is to give bicyclists a safe passage before cars blast off on the green light.) Dropping the citywide speed limit to 25 miles per hour from 30 would go far to reducing the number of fatalities. Agencies could rely less on studies and surveys and instead get engineers out on the street to see for themselves what their work means in reality. (For instance, they could stand by the right onto Main Street from Broadway in Kendall Square and watch in horror as broad, boxy buses make unchecked turns across the bike lane).
Making cycling an integral and safe part of city life is desirable for all. We’ve peddled platitudes about it for some time and made some progress, but it’s not enough. It’s time to break the cycle, stop the spin and make roads for all.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Film Threat and Open Windows. Tom is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow Tom on Twitter @TBMeek3 and read more at TBMeek3.wordpress.com.