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Finding friendly roadways and motorists

Posted by Matt Byrne  August 8, 2011 10:04 AM

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Matt Byrne

The author's trusty Huffy leans against the Somerville-Cambridge line, where bike lanes suddenly end, before they continue several yards into Cambridge.

First, a confession: a hardcore bicyclist I am not.

But last week this reporter gleefully accepted an assignment to pedal the streets of Somerville, tasked to navigate and review the lattice-work of bike lanes, signage, and paving that the city touts.

With an open mind and a sturdy helmet, I set out to answer whether the dozens of miles of lanes, "sharrows," and markings add up to the grand prix for bike enthusiasts: a cohesive network of bike-friendly byways that make pedaling safer and more accessible to the masses.

This, of course, follows the biggest bicycle news in town July 27, when Boston officials opened the much-discussed New Balance Hubway system that has placed more than 600 low-cost rental bikes at dozens of curbside stations across the city.

In the future, the program is set to expand to Somerville and Cambridge, and at full capacity could support 5,000 of the sleek, sturdy-looking cycles.

Somerville says that it is making every effort to go head-over-handlebars to boost bike friendliness, and counts 11 miles of bikeways added this year. Major projects, such as the Somerville Avenue revamp, now natively incorporate bike lanes in streetscape design, a process that can yield a more equitable division of real estate.

Biking toward the Porter Square area, lanes leading from Union toward the Cambridge city line are easy to follow, roomy, and bend safely around street parking areas.

When total repaving is not an option, sharrows - arrows that request sharing - mark key thoroughfares. Until American cities build lavish bike-only paths paralleling city streets (the Dutch spring to mind), motorists and cyclists will always be at odds. Both depend on the same strips of public asphalt. Both will on occasion careen recklessly in traffic; both are trying to get from A to B. Neither wants to crack up their ride in the process.

But saturate the city with enough bike-friendly infrastructure and road markings, and eventually driving mentality must evolve to accommodate the new users.

So heading out of Davis Square on College Avenue, emboldened by the string of the symbols painted about every 60 yards, I more than once demanded an entire lane from motorists, a basic test of bike receptivity: How comfortable will a novice commuter feel pulling his or her Huffy into traffic?

For their part, Somerville drivers mostly held up their end of the "share the road" bargain. Many responded to hand signals, most gave a wide berth when passing, and in general acted unthreatening and civilized.

City layout is another variable with huge impact on bike-ability. Somerville's compact and tangled streets and leafy one-way residential blocks feel different from behind handlebars, more appreciable, and gave an organic understanding of the city’s layout.  

As a driver, I was often baffled by traffic patterns in the city, especially near Union Square, where an errant lane choice could mean an extra 15 minutes of frustrated rerouting.

But biking is ideal for such a densely populated place. On a bike, there is virtually no such thing as a wrong turn. Meandering to my destination was never as easy, or as enjoyable. I will definitely return.

All, too, without fear of a parking ticket.

Matt Byrne can be reached at somerville@boston.com.

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