The Boston Globe

‘Who is the street serving?’: Bike lane battle brews on Boylston Street

The Wu administration’s push to get people out of cars is coming to one of the busiest streets in Boston.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Boylston Street is not an easy place to bike, with streams of pedestrians and vehicles. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

After years of skirmishes in outlying neighborhoods, the city’s cycling revolution is coming to what may be among the hardest miles in Boston for a bike lane: Boylston Street in crowded Back Bay.

As part of its plan to create a larger connected bike network across the city and to get people out of cars, the Wu administration plans by year’s end to install a protected bike lane down the prominent thoroughfare, from Massachusetts Avenue to Arlington Street. That would cut down vehicular traffic to two lanes for most of Boylston. On a stretch in front of the Copley MBTA station, however, general traffic would be cut down to one lane to accommodate both the bike lane and an already-installed bus-only lane — though there would be a left-hand turn lane at Dartmouth Street.


The move has sparked pushback from a neighborhood business group, but supporters say it would transform a strip that is home to the Boston Public Library, Copley Square, and the Marathon finish line into a friendlier environment for those traveling by means other than a car.

“When we look at a project like this, we ask ourselves: ‘Who is the street serving?’ We ask: ‘Who is being left behind by the way the street is designed?’ ” said Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s chief of streets. “What changes can provide a better balance of service and safety and convenience and access for all the users of the road, in all of the different, complicated ways that they use it?”

Today, motor vehicle trips vastly outstrip bicyclists on the four-lane road, which is often clogged in places with double-parked delivery couriers. On one Wednesday in September, according to city data, motor vehicles in one section of Boylston outnumbered cyclists by a rate of more than 20 to one.

Several hundred bikers using Boylston daily despite the lack of protected lanes, Franklin-Hodge said, shows demand for such infrastructure.

“I think of it as, if you come to a raging river, and there’s a whole bunch of people swimming across the river, the answer isn’t ‘nobody should cross there.’ The answer is: ‘We should build a bridge,’ ” Franklin-Hodge said. “That’s kind of what we’re doing with Boylston Street.”


While there’s no particular target goal for numbers of cyclists, Franklin-Hodge said there’s potential for “very significant growth in ridership” along Boylston, since that’s happened in other locations where Boston built protected infrastructure.

In September, the Wu administration announced it would expand its bike network so half the city’s residents would be a three-minute walk from a bike route. Many of those expected projects, in neighborhoods including Allston-Brighton, the South End, Roslindale, and Mission Hill, are under development.

“All of us together end up in a much better, easier-to-move-around-in city when there’s fewer of us in cars,” Oliver Sellers-Garcia, the city’s Green New Deal director, said earlier this year. “Our policy goals . . . are not oriented on getting single-occupancy vehicle usage to be more and more and more attractive.”

But coupled with a bus-only lane from Ring Road to Dartmouth Street, some in the neighborhood worry the city is changing Boylston too much, too fast.

The Back Bay Association, which represents businesses and major landlords in the neighborhood, is pushing to keep two lanes of vehicular traffic open to avoid backups along the commercial corridor and gridlock at its major intersections.

A bicyclist rode in the bus lane on Boylston Street between Exeter Street and Dartmouth Street. JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF

Pop-up bike lanes and other traffic changes on nearby Tremont Street and Huntington and Columbus Avenues have resulted in “a major reduction in capacity for vehicular traffic,” wrote Back Bay Association president Meg Mainzer-Cohen in a letter to city officials last week.


“Boston roadways have become less efficient as users are now [experiencing] full-block (queues) and gridlock at intersections that did not experience daily problems before,” Mainzer-Cohen wrote. “Since these conditions are considered a success by the City, we redouble our concern about plans for Back Bay.”

The city expects most of the Boylston corridor to “function similarly to how it does today,” though it does acknowledge “potential delays” between Fairfield Street and Ring Road — a half-block stretch in front of the luxury Mandarin Oriental hotel — during peak traffic hours, a spokesperson for Mayor Michelle Wu said in a statement. With the protected bike lane would also come a change to the timing of traffic signals, so cars aren’t turning left at the same time as pedestrians, often a sticking point at the busy intersection of Dartmouth and Boylston.

In September, Boston said it plans to have most of its new bike lane links, including those along Commonwealth Avenue in the Fenway and Milk Street downtown, completed by December. The installation of the Boylston Street bike lane is expected to cost $400,000 and $25,000 annually to maintain. Boston is hosting a drop-in event at the corner of Beacon and Berkeley streets on Thursday to discuss plans for separated bike lanes on those two streets — which have sparked similar pushback — and Columbus Avenue.

Jonathan Berk, a local bike advocate and urbanist, said cycling on Boylston today is an uncomfortable experience. Some drivers push speed limits. Double-parked cars are notoriously common as delivery people run in and out of the many businesses, restaurants, and hotels that line the street. Without any specific bike lane, it’s unclear which side of Boylston cyclists should use.


“You do see some bikes on Boylston Street, but I don’t think you see most average city bikers,” Berk said. “That is a scary stretch of road for someone not used to city biking.”

Berk pointed to St. Denis Street in Montreal, a busy north-south commercial strip that transitioned from two lanes of travel and one lane of parking in both directions to a single lane of travel in both directions, a center pedestrian island, and protected bike lanes along both sidewalks. The bike lane, which initially faced pushback from businesses, recently topped more than 10,000 daily bike trips. Likewise, he said, making biking safer could bring more cyclists to the heart of the Back Bay.

“There is some truth to, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ ” Berk said.

Mike Damiano of the Globe staff contributed reporting.

A bicyclist traveled in the bus lane on Boylston Street between Exeter and Dartmouth. JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF


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