BOSTON BY BICYCLE
Boston area transit advocates are livid over the state’s attempts to weasel its way out of commitments made two decades ago to expand public transit as a requirement for building the $15 billion dollar central artery highway. Fred Salvucci, the former state transportation chief who championed the Big Dig, recently told the Boston Globe, “We always knew that this thing would create a very brief improvement and things would recongest if we did not improve public transportation.” Bicycling and pedestrian advocates, too, are disappointed that little money and attention has been allocated to their modes.
Advocates for safer road conditions for cyclists and the creation of off-road bicycle paths in Boston feel they have had limited success over the past several decades. “Bicyclists are a tiny minority of transportation mode users. We cannot rely on our numbers alone, rather on having the public and decision-makers realize that the entire community benefits when other modes of transportation receive necessary funding,” says Doug Mink, long time Boston bicycle advocate and MassBike Board member. In rethinking a strategy toward making Boston a more bicycle-friendly city, Mink believes that, “success requires proven coalitions with other groups, such as health and parks advocates, and acting opportunistically on as broad a field of issues as possible.”
Contemporary bicycle advocacy was born with the oil crisis and surge of environmentalist activity in the 1970s. Concerns were over the reliance on oil from governments we would rather not support, automobile pollution, and urban sprawl. Also touted were the positive benefits bicycling brings to health and community noting that a significant number of trips in Boston are under 5 miles. Early on, cyclists were simply fighting for their right to share the road. In 1990, an average of only $2 million out of an approximate $400 billion in Federal transportation funds were spent each year nationwide on bicycle and pedestrian projects, and only a handful of states and cities had bicycle coordinators.
Today, cycling has entered the mainstream of transportation planning concepts, at least as far as words and potential funding are concerned. After decades of highway-only federal spending, in 1990 the Federal Highway Administrator described bicycling and walking as “the forgotten modes” of transportation. For the first time, U.S. Department of Transportation adopted a national transportation policy to “increase use of bicycling, and encourage planners and engineers to accommodate bicycle and pedestrian needs in designing transportation facilities for urban and suburban areas.” 1998’s Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) allows states to apply for federal transportation dollars for a variety of modes, including biking, public transit and pedestrian facilities. By 2003, Federal spending on bicycle and pedestrian improvements reached over 400 million dollars per year. Tim Blumenthal, Executive Director of Bikes Belong, a bicycle industry group, is optimistic. “The past two years of strategic advocacy may result in the next Federal Transportation Authorization bill including twice the funding for bicycle facilities and programs,” he asserts.
At the local level, several cities such as London, Bogotá, and Chicago have emerged as visionary leaders in integrating bicycling into transportation policy, in partnership with hard-working bike advocate organizations. Chicago’s ambitious, multi-million dollar program with a staff of six has established 100 miles of new bike lanes, installed 10,000 bike racks, and will be installing 100 miles of signed bike routes in 2005. “My goal is to make the City of Chicago the most bicycle-friendly city in the U.S.” asserts Richard Daley, Mayor of Chicago. Their new Millennium Park Bicycle Station offers free indoor secure bike parking, showers, lockers, bike rentals, tours, snack bar, and repair shop. “We’re not telling people to get out of the car, but we’re trying to provide incentives and encouragement to make the city more bicycle-friendly,” says Ben Gomberg, the city’s bicycle program coordinator.
Bostonians want more opportunities to bicycle. According to a January 2005 report, part of MetroFuture: Making a Greater Boston Region, a project of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), support for bicycle commuting was identified in a list of most critical issue facing Metropolitan Boston today. “We found that in nearly every community, people see a need for more sidewalks and bike paths to get around safely without a car,” says Tim Reardon, a Regional Planner at MAPC. “And when people talk about dealing with the region’s transportation problems, they don’t talk about new highways and wider roads–they talk about transit, bike paths, and walkable communities.” And with its compact nature and existing greenway bike paths, Boston is ripe for increased bicycling for transportation and recreation.
Founded in 1977, the Boston Area Bicycle Coalition became a statewide advocacy group in 1993 and changed its name to MassBike in 1998. Dorie Clark, MassBike’s executive director, says they are working on state-wide issues that have an impact on local bicycling advocacy. “We are actively involved in the State Highway Manual redesign which will bring modern standards into the document, last updated in the 1960s, that guides every new and reconstructed roadway in the Commonwealth,” Clark says.
“However,” says Jeffrey Ferris, Boston bicycle shop owner and activist, “MassBike’s focus on statewide bicycle issues has left a noticeable void in organized local Boston-area bicycle advocacy.” In 2001, the Boston Transportation Department, in collaboration with the Mayor-appointed Boston Bicycle Advisory Committee, published the “Boston Bicycle Plan” as part of the city 2000-2010 transportation plan. Sadly, four years later, few of the plan’s key recommendations have been implemented. There is currently no Bicycle Program Manager and no Interdepartmental Bicycle Task Force. To its credit, the City has adopted a bicycle parking ordinance to ensure adequate bicycle parking facilities in new buildings, but without adequate enforcement provisions.
In late January, Mayor Thomas Menino convened a high-level meeting to announce his support for the upcoming Boston Bicycle Festival, planned for Sunday October 2, 2005. This suggests a “renewed effort in giving bicycling legitimacy within City government,” says Steve Miller, Festival Director. Boston City Councilor Hennigan held a public hearing in November 2004 on the importance of reinstituting a Bicycle Program Manager. A newly formed organization called the Boston Bicycle Planning Initiative (BBPI) gave a coordinated formal testimony to a packed audience at the hearing, and is spearheading follow-up advocacy in collaboration with MassBike, Bikes Not Bombs, and WalkBoston.
But what can this new bike advocacy attempt do differently to get city officials to take bicycling seriously? New York’s advocacy group Transportation Alternatives appeals to a wider car-alternative audience by working toward “better bicycling, walking and public transit, and fewer cars; safer, calmer neighborhood streets and car-free parks.” “But Bike advocates don’t win by themselves,” says Noah Budnick, Projects Director of Transportation Alternatives and Board Member of Thunderhead Alliance, a national coalition of bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organizations. “Bike advocates and parents and health professionals and park users and businesses and block associations win when they work together.”
Bikes Not Bombs helped create and is on the steering committee of “On the Move: Greater Boston Transportation Justice Coalition,” a two-year old group consisting of 50 community organizations focusing on improved transportation services in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. The advocacy group BBPI has been pushing the message of “Complete Streets,” arguing that all road users must accommodated, including handicapped, transit users, pedestrians, bicyclists, and automobiles. “The incremental costs of bike, pedestrian, and traffic calming measures are very low when considered during routine road redesign,” says Larry Slotnick, BBPI board member.
Groundwork Somerville, a group working toward healthier, greener neighborhoods, leads the Somerville Active Living by Design Partnership. With a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Partnership supports the completion of the Somerville Community Path to Boston and sponsors urban cycling skills workshops in collaboration with MassBike. “People are more likely to be physically active if the exercise happens naturally in daily routines, for example walking up stairs or bicycling to work,” says their Executive Director Jennifer Hill. “That’s why the Partnership includes bike advocates, City planning agencies, and social service and public health agencies, to bring together the people who can make those changes happen.” With funding from the Center for Disease Control, Boston Public Health Commission’s new “Boston STEPS” program aims to reduce the burden of diabetes, asthma, and obesity for residents in seven Boston neighborhoods, and “bike advocates are urging them to develop programs to increase bicycling among their target populations,” says Mink.
BNB’s former Transportation Organizer, Mira Brown, says the challenges before bike advocates are formidable, but exciting. “We cyclists, have to get the entire community to realize that everyone benefits from improved cycling facilities, in combination with more walkable streets and better public transportation. To do this, cyclists have to listen a lot more to our natural allies – transit users and people stuck in cars they really can’t afford or don’t want. Then we have to work together in a diverse movement to force the city, state and federal governments to allocate transportation dollars wisely.”
History of Boston Area Bicycle Coalition
City of Boston Bicycle Plan
Boston Phoenix Article (May 2004) on loss of Boston’s Bicycle Program Manager
Boston Bicycle Festival
Boston Bicycle Planning Initiative (BBPI)