One day, many places to go...how to get around?
One August Friday afternoon I had several places to go. On these kinds of days, a question I often ask myself is, "How can I best get around to these various places?"
When making the decision about how to get around, I take into account various factors such as:
- environmental impact,
- joy, and
- alignment with my values.
This isn't just about me
We might think of these factors as fitting into two main categories: my well-being and my community's well-being. When we think about transportation choices in this way, it makes it seem like the way we decide to get around is actually an ethical decision. It's not just about me and my wants and needs. It's actually also about community and the impact we have on those around us - people breathing the air around us and sharing space within a community.
Because of the factors I take into consideration, bicycling usually wins as the best way to get around. So, then it's easy -- decision made! Right? Wrong!
What should be an appealing option, isn't always
Unfortunately, greater Boston is not yet a bike-friendly place to be. (See what the Boston Cyclists Union has to say about the shortcomings and needs.) I have had many friends get doored or injured in another way while riding in Boston. It can be downright stressful and dangerous trying to maneuver around the myriad obstacles that are in one's way when biking in and around Boston. So why bike? See above list of factors. Therefore, while I usually want bicycling to be the transportation option I choose, many times it is not. That means I'm either driving (taking up space on a road and polluting) or taking the train (taking up space that could go to someone else).
What I've been coming to realize is that for me and many others, multi-modal transportation is actually the best option for most days. This might include like mixing walking, biking, and transit within one day so that the trips are as efficient and convenient as possible. However, when you live in a place where the transit system isn't designed to encourage multi-modal transportation, that can be a real challenge.
Here are some of the barriers to multi-modal transportation in greater Boston:
- The buses are frequently late (although they do have bike racks on the front, so that's helpful)
- The commuter trains from south of the city don't connect to the commuter trains north of the city (but thanks to leaders like former Governor Michael Dukakis, a mentor of mine, there is a push to fix that)
- There is little to no bike parking at many major train stations (i.e. South Station, North Station, etc.)
- Most of the commuter trains aren't set up to accommodate more than a couple bicycles at a time
- The train stations have few to no features that support biking (i.e. railings to wheel your bike up as you walk up the stairs)
- Local trains limit bike access during peak periods, and
- If you have a problem with your bike, you are out of luck because there are no bike repair provisions at train stations.
If you are determined enough, you can get around those challenges and do multi-modal transportation. But, it shouldn't require that.
My Decisions on this Day
So, on this particular Friday I needed to go from lower Dorchester to Beacon Hill for work. Then I needed to get to a doctor's appointment in Washington Square, Brookline in the afternoon. Then I was going to go to my parents' house a few minutes from there, also in Brookline. Then I wanted to go to an evening outdoor dance event at Assembly Row in Somerville, followed by another outdoor dance event in Allston. Then I needed to get back home to lower Dorchester at night. The weather looked promising and I decided I would bike.
I biked from Dorchester to Beacon Hill after rush hour, and that was a much better ride than going during rush hour.
In the afternoon, I biked from Beacon Hill to Washington Square to get to the doctor's appointment and that was fine, except that Huntington Avenue would benefit from a cycletrack and protected intersections so people can bike there separated from the vehicular traffic. It is not comfortable for many people, myself included, to ride in the gutter, where you're trying to avoid any number of obstacles (broken glass, potholes, dead animals) while working to avoid people crossing the street at unexpected times and cars, trucks, and buses that are traveling maybe a foot away from you.
Then I biked from the appointment to my parents' house outside Brookline Village. That ride was alright, but Washington Street could really use some re-paving. It currently makes for a very bumpy ride. It would be great to see a cycletrack there as well.
I decided to skip the Somerville event, as that just felt like too much to deal with without having a network of connected bikeways.
When Towns Upgrade Their Streets
Leaving my parents' house along the Emerald Necklace, I was grateful for the new crossing at Route 9. For most of my life, there was no good place in the area for people with bikes to get across the multi-lane road. At one point, someone poured some concrete at the traffic island so people could roll their bikes onto the traffic island between the eastbound lanes and westbound lanes, and wait for a chance to cross. After that, there was a cut-through in the traffic island, but it was totally insufficient because it put pedestrians and people on bikes in a vulnerable position straddling travel lanes. But now, after years of advocacy, the Town of Brookline installed a traffic signal and crossing that is geared toward people walking and biking, as road crossings should be! What a difference this makes. Kudos to the Town of Brookline! Accompanied by some newly planted trees, this area down the street from where I grew up is much safer, more attractive and inviting. Before the changes, it was harrowing to go anywhere on a bike in the neighborhood where I grew up, aside from going toward Jamaica Plain.
Biking on Route 9 however, to get to Washington Street, is still a challenge. The road is bumpy, the drivers tend to go fast if they aren't sitting in gridlock, and there is no bike lane (and certainly no separated bike lane). But once I got to Washington Street and made my way through Brookline Village, things were better. I traveled along Harvard Street for a couple miles to my destination. As I entered Boston, there were many more cars and the area felt less safe and comfortable for biking. Perhaps that was partly due to some road work that was causing road closures and increased volume on Harvard Street.
When Bike Lanes Aren't Protected
When I had almost arrived at my destination, I was admiring a new development called Continuum, just down the street from Harvard Stadium, which had bicycles on the promotional images in the large windows. I was excited to see there was a two-way bike lane on the side street next to it. But then I saw a UPS truck blocking the bike lane and my heart sank. I pulled over to take a photo of the illegal activity (it's illegal in Massachusetts to block a bike lane, but it's very common nonetheless). As I watched two UPS drivers chat, I thought about what a dangerous situation it created for the driver to park his truck there. If a person on a bike was trying to come down the street toward me, he/she would have to bike in the middle of the narrow street toward oncoming vehicular traffic because the bike lane was blocked. When you see this, I encourage you to report the date, time, location, and license plate number to the company. It is best if you have a photo as well. (Click here to contact UPS if you see one of its trucks blocking a bike lane or somehow causing a dangerous situation.)
In addition to reporting the issue to the company, I contacted the City of Boston using the Boston 311 app (use it if you're in Boston, or find out if your community has a similar 24-hour hotline for reporting issues like potholes that need filling, areas that need street sweeping, and broken streetlights that need fixing). I asked the City of Boston to install flex posts so that the bike lane is protected.
When Venues Don't Plan for Lots of Bikes
Unfortunately, when I arrived at the event on Western Avenue, there was a bike rack that fit only a handful of bikes and was in a location that hindered pedestrian access due to the narrow sidewalk (not cool). The street posts and fences nearby were also full of bikes. Not having sufficient bike parking near an event is discouraging for people coming by bike, and if we want to encourage people to travel by bike because it is carbon-free and has a number of other societal benefits, we need to do a better job of having conveniently located bike parking for buildings and parks. I almost decided to skip the event and just go home. But instead, I found the nearest tree and locked my bike to that, which was not ideal. (When I came back later, there was another bike locked to the other side of the tree. When I was removing my bike, the other bike fell over, in part because the bikes were on top of mulch and not something firm. So, I maneuvered to try to put the person's bike upright. This could have been avoided if there had been adequate bike parking.)
Playing Bike Light Fairy
At this point it was around 10pm and I'd been out for 12 hours and didn't feel like biking all the way home, which would have taken 45 minutes to an hour. Had there been a well-lit, well-maintained protected bike lane or cycletrack, I probably would have ridden all the way home. However, I knew my route would be full of obstacles and having to ride alongside vehicles, so I opted not to ride home. Instead, I biked about 15 minutes to a train station and took the T home from Kendall. Along the way, I saw some people biking without lights, making them hard to see. I called out to them to offer them bike lights and a few of them accepted. One guy recently moved here from Chicago and was excited to learn that there's an active bike advocacy community in Boston and this monthly event called Boston Bike Party. I gave him information to help him connect.
Asking government to make our streets safer
My ride from Allston to Kendall Square was alright except for that:
- River Street Bridge had streetlights out, making for a dangerous and uncomfortable situation. (I reported the issue to MassDOT and encourage others to do the same - contact the government authority you think is responsible and ask them to get streetlights fixed to create a safer location.) In addition to the lights out, there is construction taking place and the condition of the sidewalk is poor.
- There is no cycletrack on River Street in Cambridge, so people on bikes have to ride right alongside cars, trucks, and buses. Many of the drivers speed there, as I noticed, and so riding there is not a safe, comfortable experience. Also, many sections of the road were very dark, which is a problem when you're on a bike because you want to be able to see what's around you and be able to avoid broken glass and potholes in the road, which the greater Boston area has plenty of. If I had had my more powerful bike light with me, it would have helped.
Bringing my bicycle on the train
When I arrived at the train station, I was delighted that I didn't have a long wait. The Ashmont train I needed to get home was approaching and because it was after peak hours, I was able to bring my bike on the train. (See the MBTA's policy on bikes.) I do not find it easy or comfortable to bring a full-size bicycle on a train, because the trains are not set up to accommodate bikes, so it is necessary to have your hands on the bike the entire time to make sure it says still. I am hopeful that the new trains the MBTA is procuring will be designed to accommodate bicycles, making it easier for people to engage in multi-modal transportation.
When I got off the train approximately 30 minutes later in lower Dorchester, I wished there had been a bike railing so I could have simply wheeled my bike up the stairs with me. Because I had my heavy bike, I wasn't going to try to carry it up the staircase, so I headed to the elevator. There was not a line, unlike during busier times of day, however the elevator did smell of urine. I wish the MBTA would made bathrooms at or near its stations available to the public to help cut down on the elevators being used as toilets.
A thoughtful young man pushed open the heavy door for me to exit the station onto the sidewalk. Otherwise, it would have been cumbersome to get out with my bike, especially because there is not much space between the elevator and the door.
In the end...
Over the course of the day, I biked about 18 miles. I have a Copenhagen Wheel on my bike, which enables me to get up hills, but it also adds about 17 pounds to the bike. I road at a leisurely pace and didn't even turn on the e-assist for most of the day because my routes were mostly flat.
Benefits of my decisions:
- I didn't have to do much standing around and waiting for buses or trains
- I didn't spend any money on transportation (because I already have an MBTA pass I pay about $90 per month for).
- Aside from some poorly lit areas and some bumpy roads, the riding was not too bad, which I largely attribute to the fact that I was not riding during rush hour.
- I enjoyed being outside and getting some physical activity on a beautiful summer day and night.
- I got to meet some new people and be helpful.
- I contributed to cleaner air!
As I travel through my neighborhood and beyond, a central question for me is "how can I help this place become better for myself or others who come through this place?" This could mean safer, more beautiful, more welcoming, etc.
In the comments section, I'd love to hear from you: how have you been able to improve a place for yourself or others?