Matthew Onorato, a 26-year-old international travel consultant in the Seaport section, rides 200 to 500 miles a week on his bike, for commuting and recreation. He chooses to commute by bike whenever weather allows; it’s inexpensive, healthy, and a better alternative to public transportation or a car, he says.
Onorato is among thousands of residents who have boosted the numbers of bike commuters in Boston. In 2005, .4 percent of commuters were using a bike to get to work, according to commuting characteristics in the US Census. By 2011, the same survey reported about 1.7 percent of Boston commuters 16 and older using a bicycle to get to work.
While the commuting increase has given rise to new concerns about safety, as the city has seen several recent fatal accidents, bike advocates say they are continuing to step up efforts to encourage new commuters, as well as to help those already on the road.
While the public focus has been on adding more miles of bike lanes, most recently in Fenway and Longwood, grassroots efforts to encourage more commuters to bike – safely – have been accelerating.
The city’s newest proposal, in October, would add bike lanes on Brookline Ave from the Fenway to the Riverway, along with shared lanes – lanes that are shared by both cars and bikes – from Longwood Avenue to the Fenway. While Boston Bikes and the Boston Cyclists Union (BCU) are the engines behind the physical improvements, both organizations recognize the rising need for community-based groups to promote safe bike commuting.
They have stepped up efforts to educate and equip bike commuters, especially in neighborhoods that lack bike shops and other bicycling support networks.
“Cycling makes the city a healthier place to live. It improves the quality of the city for everyone, lowers the cost of transportation and makes for a healthier life,” said BCU’s Executive Director Peter Stidman.
When the city initiative Boston Bikes was launched in the fall of 2007, Boston was considered one of the worst cities for bicycling in the country. With only 60 yards of bike lanes, Boston Bikes pushed a physical overhaul that now boasts 2,500 bicycle parking spaces, 50 miles of bike lanes, and 600 Hubway bikes.
Boston’s bike commuter rate is now higher than the national average of .6 percent, as well as New York City’s average of .8 percent. The city still lags behind other bike-friendly cities, such as San Francisco, where 3.4 percent of commuters use bicycles to get to work, and Seattle, with 3.5 percent. Explanations for the lag range from the seasonal weather to an uneasiness among bikers to ride on mixed-use roads.
Onorato, for one, said the shared lanes worry him.
“Drivers don't know how to handle the influx of cyclists in the city over the past few years, and they aren't very good at sharing the road,” he said. “There really isn’t any extra room for cyclists.”
Small networks of bicyclists have formed in many Boston neighborhoods, bringing together avid cyclers and occasional riders. BCU, formed in 2010, works in areas without a strong cycling community to increase commuting awareness. While Jamaica Plain has two bike paths, bike shops and several non-profit community groups, for example, Roxbury has no bike shops or other bike-related facilities.
“The ability of social norming isn’t there,” said Stidman. BCU tries to have regular summer events in Roxbury to help educate and foster a biking community. One such program, Bike to Market, fixes bikes in neighborhoods that do not have bike shops and allows BCU to promote the benefits of bike commuting. Half the bikes fixed in the program need new brakes; helmets are offered for free or at a steep discount.
BCU also reaches out to neighborhoods that are unreceptive to Boston Bikes’ proposals for bike lanes or parking. “It’s difficult to persuade people to get rid of parking spaces for bike parking,” said Stidman, “but it’s essential to continue trying.”
Stidman also proposes cycling education in schools to foster commuters. “A lot of money goes into driver education,” said Stidman, and yet there is a rising culture of cyclists in Boston with little to no formal education. If schools implement cycling education in schools at a young age, more people would be comfortable with getting on a bike for their commute, he said.
Other efforts to engage with commuters have been initiated by Boston Bikes. In early November, the group started the “Be Bright” campaign to target commuters now riding home in the dark because of daylight savings. Boston Bikes Interim Director Kristopher Carter said the Boston Police Department is joining efforts to get cyclists to comply with state laws that require front and rear reflectors. Officers in Brighton and Allston are handing out “Be Bright” flyers that have discount coupons to local bike shops for lights.
“Every program we work on is to get more people on bicycles,” said Carter. Boston is continuing to look to other cities, such as Portland, for ideas on how to improve cycling awareness, he said.
This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.