Building Bicycle Infrastructure Must Be Either Temporary Feel Good Politics Or Permanent Change

Road Wear

Riding a bicycle in the Boston area is precarious business. Boston’s horrendous traffic and legendary reckless drivers are only part of the problem. The other part is the roads themselves.

After a long, snowy winter, many of the roads look like a mine field. Fissures and gargantuan potholes abound.

No matter how careful a cyclist is, at some point a car will be too close for comfort and he will have no choice but to ride over a pothole. With any luck, a cyclist might have the time and the room to hop over the pothole. But doing so requires a fair amount of athleticism, and even if one is capable of it, it isn’t always possible.

Potholes seem to be particularly prevalent towards the side of the road where bike lanes or sharrows are located. This makes staying in the bike lane extremely difficult. And swerving out of the bike lane into the traffic lane makes drivers furious. They can’t understand why cyclists don’t stay in their own lane.

As if this weren’t enough, either due to severe weather or natural wear and tear, many bike lanes that were installed within the past few years are fading away. The painted lines have deteriorated to the point of appearing intermittent or have faded to the point of near invisibility. All of their former glory has evaporated. Only people who are familiar with these streets would ever be aware of the presence of bike lanes. Others would have few visual clues to enlighten them.

This raises an important issue. Are American cities and towns installing bicycle infrastructure simply as feel good politics or do they intend to make the infrastructure a permanent part of the roads?

Judging from the condition of many roads with bike lanes, it’s hard not to conclude that they were installed as a one-time gesture, with no intention of maintaining them. Plans were made to create the bike lanes, but such plans omitted a maintenance schedule. Or if there was one, it hasn’t been adhered to.

The crumbling bike lanes aren’t unique. Massachusetts has many roads which are in terrible condition. Extreme decrepitude makes them horrible to use. And no one does anything about it. Road maintenance clearly isn’t a priority in Massachusetts; it seems to be at the bottom of the list when budgets are being created and cut.

What will this mean a few years down the road? At the rate we’re going much of the bicycle infrastructure that has been installed in recent years will no longer be functional. Roads will remain unpaved and bike lane lines will remain unpainted.

Road patching methods present another problem. Crews come along and fill any holes with asphalt or other road patching compounds. Patching roads in this manner leaves bumps and unevenness on the road’s surface. Naturally, such unevenness makes it harder for cyclists to comfortably ride on these roads.

A lot of time and effort has gone into fighting for bicycle infrastructure. Less time and effort has been devoted to ensuring adequate funds exist for maintaining this bicycle infrastructure.

If Massachusetts roads are any indication of what’s going on with bicycle infrastructure nationwide, then we’re in serious trouble. The idea of a network of bike lanes to accommodate cyclists who want to use bikes for transportation will not become a reality because, unless we make some changes, existing bike lanes will vanish as quickly as new ones are installed.

One could make the argument that once a bike lane has been installed, it exists, whether the paint can be seen or not. This is true. Yet, it will be difficult to make an invisible bike lane a functional and safe part of the road.

Spring is definitely here, and like many cyclists, I’ve started to increase my cycling mileage. Riding with fewer layers of clothing feels great. Additional hours of daylight in the early evening is also a plus. However, such things are overshadowed by constant braking, swerving and pothole jumping, not to mention getting out of the saddle to absorb the shock of bumpy roads.

Due to such conditions, I sprained my wrist. I couldn’t completely clear a giant pothole and my front wheel landed partially on the far edge of the crater. An unbelievable jolt rippled through my hands and into my arms.

Later, I felt it in my wrist. The pain was a reminder of how bad the roads have become and how far cyclists have left to go to obtain parity with drivers.

It may be an uphill battle, but it is one worth fighting. This specific battle may be easier to win than some others because it benefits drivers as well as cyclists. Better quality roads are easier to drive on and cause less damage to cars.

Here is an opportunity for cyclists to reach out to drivers to partake in a mutually beneficial effort to improve road maintenance while at the same time designing those roads to accommodate all vehicle types. Let’s not pass it up.

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2 Responses to Building Bicycle Infrastructure Must Be Either Temporary Feel Good Politics Or Permanent Change

  1. Charlie says:

    To some extent, it’s not just the bike lanes that often don’t get repainted. I can think of a few roads in Boston where the lane lines have been gone for years. Whether this is lack of money or lack of priority given to roadway restriping, I don’t really know. I do know that Nicole Freedman at Boston Bikes has been trying to stay on top of which bike lanes and sharrows are in need of repainting. So if you see anything, please let her know!

  2. Kate says:

    Sorry to hear about your wrist, it is pretty awful to fall off ones bike. I just wanted to make you aware of the Citizens Connect app for your phone. I’ve used it a number of times this year already – for potholes, trees across bike paths, unshoveled bike paths etc. and in each case the issue was resolved in less than 24 hrs. I couldn’t believe how effective it was. If you stop once along your route each morning to take one pic and upload it with the location (uses GPS to pinpoint your location so that you don’t need to know an address) you may find yourself with a very nice commute soon 🙂

    Like most cities, Boston is under a lot of budget pressures and so their maintenance has sadly become more reactive than proactive, but since we’ve got this tool available to us, we might as well use the heck out of it!

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