Rattling the cage
At Alewife Station on a gorgeous September morning, the railings along the walkways resembled giant charm bracelets with bicycles dangling from every link, and the bike racks were full. A commuter who arrives at the T station in Cambridge daily at 10 a.m. has watched the line of cycles along the rails and fences increase all summer at a rate of about 10 per day.
On Sept. 18, MBTA officials unveiled two new parking cages, each with space for 112 bikes, soon to be expanded with a second level of racks and increasing the station's capacity from 200 to 500. Commuters access the locked cages with a special free Charlie Card depicting the MBTA cartoon spokesman on a bicycle, red tie flying in the slipstream.
The new cages address a growing challenge for Boston-area cyclists. On top of riding in the midst of uncooperative motorists on narrow, congested roads with few bike lanes, they face increasing competition for bike parking spaces as high gas prices and environmentalism inspire more people to hit the bicycle shop or oil up the old machine for alternative transportation.
"There are times when you're not going to find a legal spot, and it's not safe. If you're locking your bike to a yield sign or something, it's not in a good place. It's hanging out in the street," said Gregory Ralich, who rides from his home in Cambridge to Suffolk University in downtown Boston every day.
The only hard data on increased bicycle traffic come from Cambridge, which measured a growth of 70 percent between 2001 and 2006, according to Cara Siederman of the Cambridge Community Development Department. Boston's Hub on Wheels event Sept. 21 had 60 percent more preregistered participants this year than last. And all those new bikes have to go somewhere.
"The parking problem has gotten worse. We have no solid numbers, but you can just see it if you ride a lot. There are a lot more cyclists on the road, and a lot more bikes chained up to trees and parking meters," said David Watson, spokesman for MassBike.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council's guidelines for bike parking advise providing one space for every four students at colleges and universities, and one for every 10 automobile spaces at factories, entertainment venues, and commercial districts. The council's bicycle parking program reimburses the cost for new racks in the 101 cities and towns that it serves.
The City of Boston has bought 250 racks through the program this year. About half have been installed, and Nicole Freedman, the mayor's bike czar, hopes to have them all in place by November. The racks are going in throughout the city, mostly near shopping areas, schools, and community centers, responding to requests from cyclists. The city will add another 250 each year for the next two years if needed.
Even without cyclist feedback, the best locations are self-evident.
"When bicycles are parked to parking meters, fences, and railings, it's clear that not enough bicycle parking is provided within that area," council spokesman David Loutzenheiser, who also chairs the MBTA Bicycle Transit Committee, said in an e-mail.
The council launched the program in 2006, and so far, 27 of the 101 eligible communities have purchased enough racks to park 1,880 bikes. "By establishing the bike parking program, we are providing the communities the incentive to provide this needed parking and of course to encourage alternative forms of transportation to driving," Loutzenheiser said.
MassBike's Watson says bike parking has to be treated like car parking, installed in safe places and included in construction plans. And it needs to happen quickly.
In Brighton Center, restaurant employees and patrons chain up in improvised locations at night, while a rack in front of a bank stands empty.
"It's not lit there at night, and it's just not a safe place to leave your bike," said Chris Ditunno, who rides to her evening job and created the group Allston-Brighton Bikes in May to organize cyclists in the neighborhood.
The Alewife bike cages opened just five months after the MBTA Bicycle Transit Committee identified parking as its top priority to improve multi-modalism on the T. "Parking is definitely improving, but we'd like to see it improve at a faster pace," Watson said.
A week after the new cages opened at Alewife, the west cage was full, but even though the east cage had 100 empty slots, 18 bikes were chained to railings. A Bertucci's employee locking up his wheels to a railing did not know he could get a free card to use the cages.
"This is great information. Now I won't have to worry about my bike being stripped while I'm at work," he said as he headed into the station to get his Charlie Card.