I was walking to a restaurant recently when I spotted a cyclist riding on the sidewalk alongside a major thoroughfare. Seated on a high end road bike, he was not the type of cyclist I would have expected to find on a sidewalk — unless he was forced to stop riding for some reason, like a flat tire, perhaps.
At one point, he was riding right at me, at a fairly good clip, since the road leaned downhill at that spot. For a moment, I wasn’t sure which way to walk.
The sidewalk was under construction as part of a major redevelopment effort in that area. On one side of the sidewalk was a mound of dirt and gravel — which I hoped to avoid walking in — and on the other side was a road where cars were driving approximately 50 mph. Neither option was appealing, although, naturally, sliding on loose gravel was preferable to walking into the path of a speeding car or two.
The cyclist was riding a road bike with skinny tires which would make riding in the gravel difficult, and certainly the road would be as treacherous for him as it would be for me as a pedestrian. So, as a fellow cyclist, I stepped aside to let him pass.
I was little miffed by his lack of acknowledgement of my gracious gesture. After all, he was the one who was bending the rules by riding a bicycle on a sidewalk in a heavily settled area. Most urban areas prohibit the use of bicycles on sidewalks, primarily to protect pedestrians.
Urban density brings with it a large number of pedestrians. They pack the sidewalks and can barely pass one another, let alone accommodate a moving vehicle like a bicycle.
On this particular sidewalk, there were only a few pedestrians, probably because the area has never been pedestrian friendly. However, the suburban town where it is situated is becoming more urban by the day, hence, walking is becoming more necessary.
For several blocks along that road, new buildings were in the process of being built and old buildings were being renovated. On several side streets, new housing developments were being built as well — as if there weren’t already too many people crammed into that space.
As I thought about this, it suddenly dawned on me that this cyclist was riding down the hill from a large apartment complex which had been built on the site of an old motel in the early 2000s. The motel was torn down due to an increase in crime at that location and, in some people’s minds, because it housed 9/11 terrorists before they boarded a plane at Boston’s Logan Airport.
Whatever the reason, the place was an eyesore, and tearing it down to make way for redevelopment signified the beginning of a decade-long building spree in that vicinity. I stopped for a moment to look at the apartment building, which I had only briefly glanced at in the past.
Sure, I had driven or walked past it on numerous occasions, but it was set back from the road, so it hardly caught my attention. Thinking about the sidewalk-bound cyclist made me realize why he was on the sidewalk. It was due to all of the new construction along the street, which gave the residences along it even less access to the road and nearby stores by bicycle.
It’s hard to describe exactly what went on in this location. Three mixed use developments were approved in a short time, within a quarter of a mile of one another. These buildings will house retail stores, business offices, medical offices and restaurants. Interspersed between these commercial developments are condominiums and single family homes.
For the time being, the single family home owners will be able to exit their homes directly onto the road where they live. But, when a fashionable supermarket opens on one side of their street, they will have as much difficulty exiting onto the road as the sidewalk riding cyclist has by living in a setback apartment building along a major thoroughfare.
This particular thoroughfare is owned and operated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As a state run road, its design is dictated by state, not local, officials. Local officials are usually influenced by local residents’ preferences, but state officials are not.
With all of the development along that road, one would have expected the designers to put more effort into accommodating bicycles and pedestrians. The initial design did consider bicycles. Unfortunately, the more they revised the plans, the less accommodating the developments became for bicycles.
Someone, who will probably remain nameless to all of the cyclists who ride in that vicinity, decided that accommodating pedestrians was sufficient. If people didn’t want to drive, then they could walk on the new sidewalks being installed along the road.
Of course, I don’t know how many pedestrians would feel comfortable walking around a road where cars routinely drive over 50 mph. But, that’s now. When all of the stores and offices are occupied and functional, the traffic will probably crawl along at about 10 mph. So, perhaps things will work out for the pedestrians, but not for the motorists or cyclists.
What a shame, with all the emphasis Boston is putting on making the city bicycle friendly, that the surrounding suburbs put bicycles last when planning new developments and redesigning the roads around them. Even when the projects are finished, cyclists like the one I passed will still be forced to ride on the sidewalk to reach a road where they can safely ride their bikes.
In this case, at the end of the sidewalk this cyclist was riding on, is a cross street where he can enter the road. It’s not exactly a safe street, but at least the cars only drive 40 mph there.
By developing open spaces until the people living and traveling there are packed into each square mile like a can of sardines, we are supposedly creating “livable” spaces where people can walk instead of driving. This is all good in theory. But, when bicycle lanes are left out of the equation, and sidewalks are frighteningly close to cars traveling at high speeds, we must wonder how livable this area is.
Maybe we’re building too many things too close together. And this could ultimately have the opposite effect of creating livable communities, namely, driving people farther away into peaceful suburbs where they have more space to themselves.
Only time will tell how so much over-development will affect this neighborhood. But one thing is clear: any safety conscious cyclist will have to dismount his or her bicycle and walk on the sidewalk to make use of this “livable” city.