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Better Bicycle Infrastructure in Massachusetts Will Take Time

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and our bicycle infrastructure won’t be either. Yet with each victory, we are closer to the reality of safe streets. So it was welcome news that the Cambridge City Council voted recently to keep the protected bicycle lane on Cambridge Street, despite some vocal, if not broad-based opposition.bicycle attorney

It is regrettable that this has become such a contentious issue, with some residents and business owners railing against the loss of nearby parking and narrower traffic lanes. They pleaded passionately for officials to have the lanes removed.

As staunch supporters of better bike access and improved safety for all road users, we do believe in the effectiveness of protected bike lanes. However, we also understand that the process of creating new and better road systems will inevitably involve some trial-and-error. It’s important to carefully weigh everyone’s concerns and help find reasonable solutions and compromise where that is possible.

Bikes are Good for Business

Small businesses are Boston’s lifeblood, and we don’t want to see any of them suffer needlessly. But it’s worth considering the strong evidence that better bike access ultimately means more opportunity for businesses. The League of American Bicyclists conducted a study in 2012 on the economic benefits of bicycle infrastructure, and reported investments on this front have proven a cost-effective means to enhance shopping districts and communities, generate tourism and promote business. Regions that have invested in bicycling have seen substantial monetary benefits. IN Iowa, for example, commuter and recreational cycling are estimated to generate more than $400 million in economic benefits annually, on top of an $87 million health savings (people who bike are healthier on the whole requiring fewer health care resources). Similar results have been reported in Wisconsin, Colorado, Vermont and Minnesota. Closer to home, studies show that cyclists are six times more likely to stop at stores they pass than motorists and, on average, spend more money.

We recognize that retrofitting roads in established communities may sometimes have unforeseen impacts, and we can’t ignore that. We must all be willing to make adjustments as necessary. It may not be a pain-free process, but if history teaches us anything about bike infrastructure investment, it’s that there is usually a good payoff.

Amsterdam’s Long Ride to the Top 

Amsterdam, a city in the Netherlands, is well-renowned as a cyclist’s nirvana. It features an elaborate network of bicycle paths and lanes, and so comfortable are bicyclists that it’s not uncommon to see toddlers and the elderly riding on these roads. Many visiting Americans are blown away by Amsterdam’s bicycle infrastructure and culture  – but may not realize it wasn’t always this way, nor did it magically appear over a few months or years.

As The Guardian reports, cycling was marginally popular in Dutch cities prior to the start of the 20th Century, but faltered during the economic boom of post-WWII. More people could afford cars and policy makers began designing urban infrastructure geared primarily toward motor vehicles. Traffic deaths soon spiked. Businesses, parks and residences were torn down to make way for wide roads. By the 1970s, safety activists groups began to rally for improved safety and less polluted neighborhoods – much like the Boston area bicycle activists we see today. One of those groups (focused on child traffic safety) was later subsidized by the Dutch government and went on to help design numerous main streets with various traffic-calming measures like speed bumps, roundabouts and strategic bends.

But it didn’t stop there. Bicycle safety advocacy groups started organizing high-profile rides on dangerous roads, collecting and publishing data on the hazards they faced. They painted illegal bicycle lanes on especially perilous streets. They held rallies and press conferences and wrote editorials.

All this set the stage for change when the world was suddenly gripped by the oil crisis of 1973, which quadrupled oil prices. Dutch officials started heavily promoting bicycling and other means of energy savings – including regular “car-free Sundays.” More bicycles on the road meant many Dutch cities and towns started introducing bike-friendly street plans. Although these efforts were initially modest, they rapidly picked up pace after a city called Delft took the lead and forged a huge network of bicycle paths and lanes – with great success. Residents were happier, traffic deaths were down and tourism spiked. Many others followed suit.

Today, the Netherlands has 22,000 miles of bicycle paths and more than 25 percent of all trips made by bicycle (compared to 2 percent in the UK and 1.2 percent in the U.S.). It’s even higher in Amsterdam, at 39 percent. Bike popularity there continues to grow with the introduction of electric bicycles and the dedication of civil servants solely tasked with maintaining and improving the bicycle network.

The Cambridge Street Bicycle Lane

Here in Boston, we’re probably several decades away from achieving that level of success, though it’s worth continuing to strive for it. In the meantime, conflicts are bound to arise. We should feel encouraged, though, that Amsterdam in the 1970s looked much like Boston today. Amsterdam did not become a bicycle heaven overnight. It took 40 years of struggle.

On Cambridge Street, protected bicycle lanes were installed in August from Antrim Street to Quincy Street with the hope keeping cyclists safer by separating them from other traffic. But critics (mostly a small but vocal group of local business owners) argue the lanes have complicated their deliveries, created problems for elderly and disabled customers who now have to cross the street and leave nowhere for cars to go if police or an ambulance needs to pass.

The city has agreed to expand an existing advisory group that will more carefully study the success and challenges of the protected lanes, and hopefully can help develop a workable compromise for everyone. That group is slated to meet again in spring.

Some possible “tweaks” floated so far include:

  • Installing signals that allow bicyclists to cross intersections ahead of motor vehicles;
  • Removing a sidewalk curve at Trowbridge Street (currently the curb causes cyclists to swoop outward, resulting in some close calls);
  • Creating concrete “refuges” for pedestrians;
  • Adding a vehicle passenger drop-off zone, with short-term and business-hour-only parking spots;
  • Replacing the current plastic bike lane bollards with planters.

Council leaders told Cambridge Day this will be part of a larger, ongoing discussion and debate, but the bike lanes on Cambridge Street are almost certainly going to be a permanent fixture – even if that doesn’t make everyone happy. Mayor Marc McGovern stated, “We may tweak (the bicycle lanes), but they are staying… The stakeholder group is about how do we minimize impact and make sure we’re doing it right, but not about whether we’re going to do it. We’re doing it.”

It may take us 30 more years to finish, but we aren’t turning back!

If you or someone you love has been injured in a Boston bicycle accident (we prefer the term “bike crash”), call for a free and confidential appointment at 1-888-789 BIKE (2453).

Additional Resources:

Cambridge Street bike lane is staying put, not quite defusing resident, official debate, Feb. 14, 2018, By Marc Levy, Cambridge Day

More Blog Entries:

Cyclists Push For Bike Safety Laws and Infrastructure Nationwide, Dec. 24, 2018, Boston Bike Attorney Blog