Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Boston Bike network Meeting report.

I went to the Boston Bike Network Plan presentation last week and have a bit of reportage, but more editorial comment.  Sorry for the long and wordy post- lots of information and an important topic if you ride in Boston.

There were between 50 and 60 people at the meeting- a lot of latecomers because of the weather and the early start time.  They had big maps of each neighborhood at each of 6 tables.  Toole design (the consultants)  gave a presentation about the process so far and the basic types of facilities they were planning on: sharrow, "priority sharrow (more frequent sharrows- mostly in a bus-bike only type configuration) reg bike lane, buffered bike lane, physically separated bike lane and "neighborway"  (what they're calling bike boulevards). Notably they had a specific category of "spot improvements" which I think is really critical.  There are lots of places in Boston where "you can't get there from here"  due to natural or man-made impediments.   Thus all traffic gets fed into the limited connection points, which tend to be daunting to cycle through (meatgrinder is a term that came up to describe Kenmore sq).   Providing alternatives, or strategic cycle improvements to these nodes can add a lot of value. 

There was a brief Q&A  which degenerated a bit into people making position statements.   There's a guy who has come to a couple of meetings with the same talking points,  one of which is criticizing Central sq as the #1 spot for cycle accidents and claiming that the "complete Streets" approach is to blame for that.  That statistic was refuted by Dave Watson (MassBike) and Pete Stidman (Boston Cyclist's Union) as being the result of a) much higher overall numbers of cyclists,  so the rate of accident isn't higher  and b)  the Cambridge PD being serious about tracking accidents,  while a lot of other towns don't actually track bike collisions separately from pedestrians, or don't really take bike collisions seriously unless there's a fatality.   

At this point, people were asked to break up into small groups around the tables and write comments on the maps, as well as on provided forms in which we were asked to identify our #1 and #2 priority for each neighborhood, with the idea that we'd speed date and cycle through each neighborhood.  I didn't get a chance to go through each map at length, although I had had a peek at them earlier.  Hopefully they will be online soon.  I had to leave before the summary/ comment period,  but I heard it got off topic and wasn't terribly productive.

There's too much there for me to really comment on the meat of the network. The overall count of proposed improvements is as follows:
27 miles of off street paths
28 miles of separated on street paths
73 miles of "neighborways" (bicycle boulevards)  This is great in as much as they're useful if they're truly made low- car streets with blockages to prevent through traffic, but they're less useful if they're just painting sharrows and putting up signs
101 miles of on street bike lanes.
89 miles of sharrows.
A small but significant point was that this "City of Boston" plan includes some percentage of non- city owned roads and parks (Mass DOT/ DCR).

The complete presentation is here

I think that the most valuable place for them to receive feedback from city "users"  is in the area of suggested "neighborways"  and in "spot improvements"  which could be as simple as a curb cut in a median, or a contraflow lane for a block,  or as complicated as bridges over obstacles like the Pike or the Muddy River.  I didn't see an address in the presentation to send comments to, but I'm sure they'd get where they're going if you sent them to Nicole Freedman with the subject "Boston Bike Network Suggestion"  nicole.freedman.bra_at_

My somewhat subjective responses are as follows:
It seems to me that the committee are either being tasked, or being pulled into two contradictory goals.  On one hand they are trying to set up a master plan with a backbone of high quality  (protected or buffered)  spines  which then connect to finer grained, less protected (although theoretically lower trafficked) facilities.  I feel that this is a good basic strategy,  and is a good way to really make the city better to travel though by bike.

On the other hand they are being tasked to identify low hanging fruit- especially sharrows and bike lanes which require minimal public process and few tradeoffs.  While I feel that developing this list is a worthy goal, especially in terms of folding as much of these upgrades as possible into the annual city maintenance cycle, and "pre-planning" connectivity to be folded into any major projects,  I worry that there will be (and maybe has been) a default to the easiest improvements instead of the best improvements in terms of real significance in how the network works. 

Maybe that was a theme of the night because Anne Lusk from Harvard did make a good point about the limits of public process,  in which the public good can be derailed by NIMBYism.  Also troubling was that Nicole mentioned that proposed cycle tracks on Commercial St around the North End were derailed by local opposition. Pete Stidman questioned the transparency of that process, saying that the meetings with opposition must not have been well publicized, because he had attended one meeting and it was both pretty sleepy, and pretty pro-bike, implying that if he (and other advocates) had thought that it was a contentious project, they would have marshaled more support for it.  It does seem that there needs to be better outreach and notification on these meetings.  Even this meeting, where they were really trying to get feedback from users was not (IMO)  well publicized, and was not on the Boston Bikes website (evidently it was somewhere else on the city website- don't know where).

Next steps, Toole Design, the consultant, will continue sifting through comments from stakeholders and from this meeting.  I don't know what the timeline is, but they're supposed to generate a final report and presumably some kind of map. How it actually gets incorporated into the city's mechanisms will be critical, obviously. Vineet, the head of BTD was there as well, which is a good sign of the city being on board.  However, they were vague about timeframe for this plan though,  starting with 5-10 years,  but then talking about 20-30 years for "some" things. 

Maybe it's just me, because my frame of experience is only the last 5 years, but it feels that we're on a cusp of bike mode share really exploding.  If they can point to significant increases, and the increased population can be mobilized to demand better facilities, that could obviously accelerate the timeframe.  It could definitely turn into positive snowball,  so I'm optimistic about the possibilities, although I'll reserve judgement on the process until I see it moving forward.


  1. I have this vague memory of someone from BTD, I think it was Vineet, encouraging people to check out some part of the BTD webpage where you could sign up to be alerted about planning meetings in your neighborhood -- but I couldn't figure out where that was when I checked it out afterwards.

    it might be that getting a lot of new, easy infrastructure in place now would make it easier to get some of the more contentious bits in later? I don't think, for example, that folks would ever have succeeded in getting a bike lane into Mass Ave. if not for the progress made in getting lanes in Comm. Ave or downtown. Getting it to be prevalent and innocuous seems to be one way to workaround NIMBYism.

  2. what are separated on street paths?


    This is a summary of the Turnpike ramp modifications I told you about potentially affecting Copley Square and many streets along the highway corridor.

    Agassiz Road cutting through the Back Bay Fens.

    Site plans showing the modification to the Sears Rotary and the reconnection/recreation/restoration of the "Missing link" in the Emerald Necklace.

  4. Cris, I must have still really been out of it- I didn't see you thereat all.
    I like your theory about sneaking infrastucure in, I like it better than the alternative of backlash which the Herald is trying to sell

    Vee, separated on street paths have a 2' wide painted barrier between the bike lane and the cars.

    Matthew- thanks for the links I'll check them out after the holiday. Im not sure how I feel about more highway ramps downtown in a heavily pedestrian area, but I understand the problem of cut through traffic.

  5. sorry, C, for clarification the event where I think I saw Vineet mention the planning department reminders was at Nicole's Annual Report earlier in the year. I had wanted to make it out to the planning meeting last Wednesday but, like many of these other meetings, found that it was conflicting with some earlier made plans. (again, with you on getting some of this stuff publicized earlier and more thoroughly!)

  6. Hi there, I'm working on the top 50 best bike cities story for Bicycling magazine, and I'd be interested in learning more about your experiences riding in Boston. Please shoot me an email, Thanks, Ian.