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Editorial Notebook

Dreams of a bikeable Boston

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April 19, 2008

I CYCLED Dorchester Avenue, and I survived. Sure, it was a Sunday morning, and, sure, I had Shane Jordan of the advocacy group MassBike blazing my trail, but I made it - 10 miles roundtrip - in one piece.

Potholes gaped, vehicles swerved, and car doors were flung open in our paths. With eyes peeled and my head on a swivel, it was easy to see why some cyclists shun "Dot Ave." It's not for the faint of heart, or the weak of leg.

But it was also apparent why Dorchester's bikers and businesses are clamoring for bicycle accommodation as the city plans a $12 million renovation of Dorchester Avenue. It's flat, straight, and, at 5 miles long, easily traversable in 45 minutes on a bike. We zoomed by backed-up traffic. The avenue is already the most biked north-south corridor through Dorchester, according to Bike Boston, the city agency headed by Nicole Freedman, Boston's new cycling czarina.

And if Boston can make even hectic Dot Ave. more hospitable to cyclists, bikes can play a larger role in transportation citywide.

The renovation plan calls for a streamlining of vehicular and pedestrian traffic at Fields Corner, Andrew Square, and Glover's Corner, with its chaotic blinking traffic lights. It's the first opportunity for Freedman, whose official title is director of bicycle programs, and Mayor Menino to make manifest their pledge for a bike-friendly Boston. Precious little real estate was devoted to biking in the Boston Redevelopment Authority's draft plan for the avenue. The omission alarmed cycling advocates, who recall the fecklessness of bike czars past. They're waiting to see if things have really changed since the mayor proclaimed himself a cyclist and began riding his silver Trek for exercise last summer. The recent hiring of a contractor to install 250 bike racks the mayor pledged last fall is an encouraging sign.

While the BRA is vetting consultants who will finalize the Dot Ave. plan, Freedman and the mayor should urge the authority to find a firm with the expertise to integrate bicycles into the blueprint.

Re-routing traffic will help, but bike lanes should be a priority. Continuous lanes along Dorchester Avenue are unlikely, but they should be drawn wherever possible, particularly as the street widens north of Savin Hill. "Share the Road" signs would help where the street narrows.

Bike lanes make the roads safer. When Cambridge ran a survey on Hampshire Street, it found that motorists became more conscious of cyclists, and everyone rode the road more predictably, as bike lanes were drawn. Over time, bike lanes increase ridership, which provides safety in numbers and actually reduces total accidents, according to the US Department of Transportation.

Driver awareness is critical to cyclist safety. "As you can see," Jordan called over his shoulder as we rode south past Andrew Square, "there's nothing you can do to make people not drive crazy. But you can teach them to look twice." I had just watched a car nearly sideswipe my unflappable guide as it careered into a parking spot, and then opened its door in his path. The driver didn't seem to notice: She was chatting on her cellphone.

More bikes and fewer cars would help decongest the avenue. And ample bicycle parking would encourage bikers to stop and shop, which is why Dorchester businesses flooded Freedman's office when she solicited bike rack requests after taking the job. Some of the 250 new bike racks would be welcome on the sidewalk extensions planned for the targeted intersections.

Promoting cycling as the weather warms furthers the broader civic goals of being fitter and greener. It discourages obesity and reduces asthma-causing pollution. It eases the sting of rising gas prices and helps in the fight against global warming. This dovetailing of "opportunism and strategy" is what sound bike planning requires, Freedman says. If City Hall is serious about creating a bike-friendly Boston, the Dorchester Avenue renovation is the kind of immediate, if imperfect, opportunity it needs to seize. Finding consultants who will support cycling is an important first step.

PADRAIG SHEA

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