The City of Boston has committed itself to becoming more bicycle friendly. Many areas have seen an increase in the number of bike lanes, sharrows and other bicycle accommodations. Boston also has a bike share program to encourage the use of bicycles for transportation.
As a result of these pro-bicycle changes, Boston has been mentioned in a number of news sources as an increasingly bike friendly city. While these changes are quite encouraging, they do not reflect the bigger picture of what is going on in Massachusetts.
Emphasis on the triumphs of one city masks the growing anti-bicycle problems throughout the state. These problems may end up isolating Boston and making it the only place in the state where people can effectively use bikes for transportation.
One example of this phenomenon can be seen in Newton, Massachusetts. A section of the city has been under rapid development. Redevelopment of a shopping center is underway. A short distance up the street, a new office/shopping development is under construction. And not too far from there, a former shopping mall is being renovated to accommodate medical offices.
All of these projects run along the same road, Route 9. As a result of all of this new construction, and in anticipation of the additional traffic it will bring to the area, parts of Route 9 will be redesigned.
Initially, there was a lot of talk about accommodating pedestrians and bicycles. Everyone involved in the planning agreed that these new and revitalized shopping areas should be friendly to bicycle and foot traffic. This would help to reduce traffic on what is already a busy road.
As someone who rides in that area and who also likes to keep abreast of the latest developments in cycling news, I was appalled to read the following in the Newton Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force meeting minutes:
“The Route 9-Hammond Pond Parkway interchange is being rebuilt and the design has reduced bike accommodations, despite numerous individuals and groups pleading with the state agencies to correct this, and contrary to their own charters and design rules.”
The above-mentioned interchange lies halfway between the two new developments. This interchange was supposed to be redesigned to accommodate an expected increase in traffic.
Anyone who has ever driven or ridden there has run into significant traffic jams during rush hour. And anyone who has ever tried to cross the street at that interchange knows that cars don’t stop at the red light on Hammond Pond Parkway even when the cross light is lit with a pedestrian in the crosswalk.
Crossing Route 9 is even more difficult because there is no official crosswalk and no light to stop the traffic. For years, pedestrians have dodged traffic to cross Route 9 at that junction.
Encouraging more cars in that area by reducing bicycle accommodations will make things worse for both cyclists and pedestrians. Neither group will be able to safely pass through the interchange.
In Massachusetts, rules were established some time ago for the purpose of requiring planners to include bicycle accommodations when building new roads or redesigning existing roads. The state agencies who are responsible for Route 9 were supposed to follow these rules. Apparently, they didn’t feel obligated to follow the rules even when individuals and groups brought the matter to their attention.
Route 9 has not been improved in any way for many years. All of the recent construction provided a perfect opportunity to update the road and make it more useful for the people who live in and visit the area.
At this point, it’s unclear what motivated the state to reduce the bike accommodations. Money is the most likely explanation. Whenever money is tight, accommodating cars becomes a priority. Bicycles are considered to be expendable.
Someone should have told the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that Boston is trying to become a bicycle friendly city, but it can’t do so if no one can ride a bicycle outside of the city. Are all of the cyclists supposed to stop riding at the city line? How can anyone commute to work if the only bicycle accommodations are inside the city itself?
This is a case where the city and state are working in opposition to one another. The city is increasing bicycle accommodations while the state is reducing them. Does this seem like a good plan to anyone?
Most people would agree that such a piecemeal approach is short-sighted. Bicycle accommodations shouldn’t be created in one area at a time without consideration of the surrounding areas.
Advocacy didn’t work in this case. The state agencies were unmoved when approached. When their short-sightedness results in horrendous traffic jams at the newly redesigned interchange, complaints will fall on deaf ears.
What this tells us is that change must occur in a more comprehensive way. Fighting one small battle at a time is a good start, but it will not effect much change. Bicycle advocates must learn to think big. Their proposals must become more far reaching with sweeping, possibly lofty goals for a statewide network of bicycle accommodations. They must present each case as related to the whole, rather than as a separate project.
The Route 9 – Hammond Pond Parkway interchange must be chalked up as a battle lost. Cyclists will survive this loss and live to fight another day. But they must rise to the challenge of getting city and state agencies to work together on creating bicycle friendly states. They can start by bringing the two groups together so that the left hand will know what the right hand is doing.