(2010 Globe photo/David L. Ryan)
The recent surge of cycling enthusiasm has spurred the spread of bike lanes throughout most of Boston -- but not on Beacon Hill.
Four years after the launch of the Boston Bikes initiative, plans for a bike path in the heavily travelled, tourist-saturated maze of Beacon Hill remain stalled because of geography and other neighborhood dynamics.
“This is a very complex area,” said Nicole Freedman, leader of the city's bike initiative. “We have done well in adding bike lanes on fairly straightforward streets. Now in our fourth year of the program, we are progressing to look at more complex roadways and will start looking more into Beacon Hill.”
Freedman, an experienced cyclist who rode in the Olympics in 2000, was hired by Mayor Thomas Menino in 2007 to launch and run the Boston Bikes Project. So far, she said, the program has added 35 miles of bike lanes -- up from essentially zero.
“We always want good geographic distribution, and I think we have achieved that goal,” she said. “We focused on Dorchester, East Boston, Allston, Brighton, West Roxbury -- trying to hit all of the surrounding neighborhoods, not just downtown.”
Commonwealth Avenue has a 2.8- mile bike lane from Arlington Street to Packard’s Corner.
But then there’s Beacon Hill, still pathless.
“Each neighborhood has unique characteristics—Beacon Hill has a few,” Freedman said. “You’ve got a major destination on one end, the Longfellow Bridge, which sees some of the highest bike commuter traffic in the city. You’ve got narrow streets.”
Freedman said residents of Beacon Hill view their neighborhood as a very pedestrian-friendly part of the city, implying that mixing bicycles with walkers will not be easy.
“Residents have the convenient option to walk,” she said.
“This is an emotional issue,” explained Stephen Young, a member of the board of directors of the Beacon Hill Civic Association and chairman of the Traffic and Parking Committee. "There are people who feel that to bring bicycles to the city, it is necessary to impose a solution. There are others who feel that, though bicycles are good, they need to be introduced gradually and allow people to adjust slowly to the idea. There is a learning process for pedestrians, automobiles, truck drivers and bicyclists.”
The focus of the Beacon Hill bike effort – and controversy -- is Charles Street, the heavily commercial strip that bisects the primarily residential area. The street has to service pedestrians going to and from stores; children coming to and from school; and a large elderly population. It is one-way, and since it is the only street that goes from Cambridge Street to Beacon Street, it accommodates a busy flow of cars.
But the same qualities that make Charles problematic also make it ideal for a bike path, some say.
“There are many residents of Beacon Hill who are strongly in favor of an accommodation, so bicyclists can travel with vehicles in a safe way from Cambridge to Beacon Street,” Young said. “Many others have concerns about dedicating a full lane of Charles to bicyclists, mainly due to possible danger for bicyclists, as well as concerns expressed about continuing to use the street for getting to and from the shops if you are driving.”
There’s also the one-way issue to consider. “There are those who are very strongly opposed to having bicyclists travel against traffic,” said Young.
One possible solution that has been proposed is to repurpose Mugar Way, so that bikes can go from Beacon Street towards Cambridge Street.
But so far, this is all just conversation. Young has seen no specific plan, tentative or otherwise, for a bike lane through Beacon Hill. And local bicycle enthusiasts, who bemoan Boston’s former rating in Bicycling Magazine as the worst city for cyclists, wait eagerly for a resolution.
“I absolutely think Beacon Hill would be improved if there was a bike lane,” said Jackie Douglas, an avid bicyclist who also directs the Livable Streets Alliance in Cambridge. “Charles Street is a huge gateway to downtown, Mass General Hospital, and the T station. It is a very valuable route.”
Freedman acknowledged the difficulties, but said she remains hopeful.
“We need to really look at [Beacon Hill] carefully. It’s a very complicated area. The most important thing to do is to do it right,” she said.
This article was reported and written by Northeastern University journalism student Jake Rozin, under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (firstname.lastname@example.org), as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.