Last stop Boston – and Reflections on US Cycling

It’s been a week now since I got back from my trip to the US. My last destination was Boston, Massachusetts, on the NE coast (and I’m so glad I got out of there before this week’s fun…). Boston might not be as well known for cycling endeavours, but it was the only place on this trip where I actually got to ride around; quite a lot as it turned out (did I mention that the maximum temperature was -1 deg?).

Unusual to see a bike lane on the lefthand side for once, Commonwealth Ave

Greater Boston has a population similar to NZ, governed by about 100 separate cities and other municipalities. Not surprisingly, this makes it tricky to coordinate providing for cycling, and so it seems to vary across the urban area. The City of Boston itself (pop. 640,000) has a cycle commuting rate of only 1.9% (rather similar to Auckland). However, the two adjacent cities of Somerville and Cambridge, home to the major universities of Harvard and MIT are amongst the 12 highest cycle commuting cities in the country, with about 7% of commuters cycling each.

Separated bikeway running through MIT campus, Vassar St

So what is Boston like for cycling? Well, as a reasonably confident rider I found it generally OK to get myself around, especially where there were cycling facilities. But if you were trying to attract the “interested but concerned”, you’d have a long way to go for many to be happy with their bike trip options.

Signage near Harvard Uni for turning traffic

There’s a reasonable number of painted bike lanes and off-road paths, including some nice facilities along the many river-fronts and some great recreational trails like the Minuteman Bikeway.

Pretty impressive bridges near the Charles River, for both biking and motoring

At present though, there are only a handful of separated bike facilities; I think I just about managed to see all of them. There are also imminent plans to develop “neighborways” (rather like our planned neighbourhood greenways); for now there are just a few sharrows around the place.

Separated pathways near Northeastern Univ.

I’m told that in the past Boston’s bike planning was looked after by someone who was a bit of a “vehicular cycling” fan. As a result, he was more likely to recommend sharrow markings on the road than an actual bike lane (let alone a separated one!).

A bike parking corral and bike lane, in Somerville MA

Like the rest of the US though, there is starting to be a push for separated bike facilities, and so a few interesting ones are popping up around Boston.

Separated bikeway along Western Ave, Cambridge MA

Generally it looked like they made a reasonable effort of coming up with designs that minimised conflicts with other users, whilst minimising inconvenience for bike users.

The start of a separated bikeway on Vassar St, Cambridge MA

So what take-away lessons have I drawn from my recent travels to the US (and my other “watching from afar”)?

  • There have been some impressive developments in biking facilities across the US over the past few years. In some cases, the rate of facilities being churned out has been very impressive, e.g. since 2006, New York added over 600km of bike lanes, including over 50km of protected bikeways. This is where common US governance has an advantage; typically many cities appoint a Transportation Commissioner whose job it is to dictate what transport projects happen (contrast with trying to get prompt direction and agreement from our Councillors).
Buffered bike lane in downtown Boston
  • In many cases, that pace has also been because they’ve opted for “low-tech” treatments (even if only as an interim), rather than a more “solid” construction look. So you see a lot more use of simple separator posts and paint markings rather than necessarily kerbing, islands, and the like. Some people may baulk at the supposedly tacky/temporary look of such treatments, but it seems that bike riders are pretty happy with their perceived effectiveness, judging by the effect on numbers. Municipalities are probably pretty happy with the cheaper costs too. In terms of getting stuff on the ground, are we simply aiming too high; do we simply need more of this?
Bikeway behind parking, Ames St, Cambridge MA
  • The US also like their sharrow markings for shared biking routes; I saw some in every town I visited, big or small. Sometimes they also got used to help denote intersection or side-road crossings. I suspect that in many cases they were a bit of a sop to acknowledge cycling on a busier road where it was just politically too difficult (or too expensive) to put in a proper separate cycle lane or track. They have a useful place; I’m not always sure that I saw it.
The ubiquitous sharrow
The ubiquitous sharrow
  • Another thing that cities in the US seem to be skimping on however is maintenance of transport facilities. This is something that NZ has traditionally done quite well from a world standard (although present-day Christchurch is obviously a challenge to that record), so it can be quite a shock to visit “first world” places like the US and note just how bad it can be there. It’s not hard to find pieces of road or footpath (whether concrete or asphalt) falling apart, and markings are often well overdue for redoing. As you would have seen in many photos, what might have looked like quite a fancy bike facility only a couple of years ago is suddenly looking very old and faded if not looked after. Ensuring that your maintenance budget includes a sensible amount for looking after your newly acquired bike network is an important thing to remember.
Most people rode on the footpath on the right because it was straighter and smoother
  • What they don’t seem to skimp on is signage – there were a huge number of signs, invariably all written out rather than much use of symbols (which seems strange for a country with a high non-English-speaking population). Bikeways haven’t escaped this habit, and it seems that both motorists and cyclists are informed about every aspect of what they should do and how they should interact. Helpful or overkill?
Signals separate bikes from turning traffic – but do we need all the signs too?
  • One thing that the US does seem to be doing very well is in rolling out public bike share schemes – everywhere I went there was a fancy-looking system in place (although I suspect the winter weather was keeping usage down a bit). At present, very few of the major US cities don’t have a public bike scheme in place now; interestingly bike-friendly Portland is one of them. In many cases it seems that they are not yet being used to a high level.
Yet another public bike scheme, this time in Cambridge MA
  • Has it worked? Well, some of the growth figures are staggering; places are seeing their cycling numbers double in a relatively short time. However, it has to be remembered that these figures are coming off a very low base, e.g. typical cycle commuting rates in major cities were around 1-2%. So it could be argued that it doesn’t take much to get a big jump in cycle numbers. The real challenge may well be as they try to get into double figures… This is where much more consistent use of separated bikeways and quiet streets may be the key.
Some pretty impressive biking growth stats (c/ Momentum magazine)
  • The other hurdle that the US faces is simply the continuing “business as usual” push for more motor vehicle facilities, and the car culture that has been a part of the US for decades. Changing habits of a lifetime doesn’t happen overnight and there are also some strong institutional pressures (e.g. car and oil companies) to maintain the status quo. Hence, for now, the expenditure on cycling in the US remains just a drop in the ocean compared to the billions spent on roading there (sound familiar?)
Still business as usual in the US...
Still business as usual in the US…

As a fellow country still struggling to get from motor-centric to cycle-centric, it is useful to see what the US is doing to get more people biking. But the pace of change needs to be a lot quicker than what is happening to seriously alter American travel habits, and the same applies here.

Where is this leading to?

What do you think about cycling in the US? Can we learn from them?

1 thought on “Last stop Boston – and Reflections on US Cycling”

  1. Random thought – big temporary sharrows in the car lanes at road works? Marshlands Road near QE2 drive would be a prime example of “extreme care cyclists merging” where sharrows might help……

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