A whole lot of Greater Bostonians choose bikes over motor vehicles. So over the past couple of months, our reporters at DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism have found no shortage of advocates, municipal planners, and residents to interview about the fight for cycle safety and improved infrastructure.
For a recent episode of the BINJ television show “Beyond Boston,” we used our interview segment to focus on biking in Somerville in particular. And on the recommendation of several cyclists whose lives depend on the safety of roads in that city, we invited Tom Lamar, vice chair of the Somerville Bicycle Advisory Committee, to bring us up to speed.
What’s your daily biking routine?
I live right at the top of Winter Hill, and my office is right near Lechmere. So there are a couple of different routes, mostly going through Union Square, and honestly all of them are not quite safe enough. Every couple of months I mix it up and try something new that I think is safer, but oftentimes I’ll come through Union, go down Webster [Street] and then Cambridge Street the rest of the way to Lechmere.
What’s a nightmare intersection that you have to pass through?
I’d say Prospect Street, right off Somerville Ave. It’s three lanes, one way for cars, no bike infrastructure at all. Most of the people biking are turning left to go to Union [Square]; a lot of the people driving are turning right to get to the highway. So you have a lot of conflict between people just trying to find safe space anywhere and just not knowing what to do when there’s no infrastructure to guide them.
What do advocates talk about amongst themselves when it comes to these issues?
For example, our encouragement team does the Rush House Challenge, which is a kind of multi-modal challenge where people in the morning will go from Davis Square to Faneuil Hall with their mode of choice—be that taking the T, walking, biking, driving, Hubway—and then in the evening go from Faneuil Hall to Davis Square. It will kind of spark a conversation around what’s difficult and what works well, what intersections are scary to bike through, and so on.
It’s important to connect all of the infrastructure between the various cities on routes like that. Where does the roundtable take place to make things like that happen?
We work closely with a lot of other groups such as Cambridge Bike Safety, Boston Cyclists Union, WalkBoston, LivableStreets Alliance, and so on. Usually just coming together to find some common ground.
Among a lot of friends of mine who ride bikes, Beacon Street in Somerville has [a pretty negative] reputation. I’ve written about this stretch and how it is a cyclist’s nightmare twice—four years ago, and again two years ago, at which point it had not gotten any better. Can you speak about what’s going on there now? It seems there are some positive developments for a change.
The Beacon-Hampshire corridor is the single busiest bike corridor in Massachusetts, and that’s why Somerville is building a protected bike like along a stretch of Beacon Street. That’s where the bike lane is raised a few inches off the street and separated from vehicles by a curb. Much of Beacon Street will be much safer once that’s implemented. Unfortunately, the project took far longer to get off the ground than we would have hoped—I’ve heard people joking that they need their mountain bike just to get down Beacon Street.
When people see things like protected bike lanes—even motorists who may at first be upset about losing a couple of parking spaces—do people start believing that it really is the best thing for everybody to have that kind of infrastructure in place?
I think so, and that’s what a lot of other cities [have seen]. New York City, for example, is building a lot of protected bike lanes, and often studying them very rigorously afterwards—whether people are safer, whether they feel safer—and looking at sales tax receipts from businesses along [such corridors]—and consistently they find that it makes it much safer for biking, and you get a significant increase in the number of people biking. It approximately doubles, but what they didn’t expect is that it’s safer for everybody as well, and more predictable. The traditional bike lane which is just paint is easy to misuse. So for example, if you’re parked next to it, it’s easy to open your door into a bike lane. We encourage people to do a Dutch reach to avoid that, but we know it’s far too easy for someone to just not think about that, and a protected bike lane makes it practically impossible for somebody to get doored. And even if someone did get doored, they wouldn’t be next to moving vehicles, so it would be a much more minor injury. We also see people double-parking in bike lanes, and obviously when it’s a painted bike lane you can understand how it just feels natural. But with that protected bike lane it’s much harder to misuse it.
A lot of people bike all the time, but there’s always extra advocacy and activism after a tragedy. What do you do as a full-time advocate to keep people in the mix? And where can people find out about your programs?
You can find out more about us by following the Somerville Bike Committee on Facebook or by going to our website. And there is often more of a focus after a crash or a fatality. Vision Zero efforts, which look toward eliminating fatalities, are often very reactive. Sometimes they make promising changes afterwards, but I think we need to be looking at how we can build a safe bike network around the city, and into giving people options to get around safely before another fatal crash happens.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its ongoing Vicious Cycle series. Learn more about the project and how you can contribute at binjonline.org, and share your stories about cycling in Greater Boston at facebook.com/binjnetwork
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.