Bike Sharing Coming to Boston: What Infrastructure Is Needed?

Boston has been slow to join the urban bicycling renaissance. In this very strong-mayor city, Mayor Menino had a public about-face in 2007. After long neglecting bicyclists in the city, he hired a “bike czar” and the city began implementing bike racks and lanes. The mayor himself even bought a bike for neighborhood rides.

HubwayWith the introduction of a new bike sharing system (called Hubway) at a noon press conference next week at city hall on Tuesday, July 26th, Boston joins other innovative U.S. cities like Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. which have followed the lead of Paris and Montréal in rolling out large-scale lending systems.

However, the cantankerous response in the local press illustrates the forces resisting progressive transportation planning here. Instead of encouraging bikes, one columnist writes, the city should ban them, focusing on the roads that were “built for cars.” An equally exaggerated rejoinder suggested banning cars instead. An article in this week’s paper contains critiques of the initial station locations, as well as the patient explanations that the company has had more success with a measured roll-out of a dense network centered on active downtown neighborhoods.

Ironically, surrounding cities like Cambridge may very well be better biking cities, with flatter terrain and more extensive bike lane networks. Since the system was procured through a regional planning agency (note: where I have worked and still consult for), adding new institutions or cities will be seamless process, theoretically expanding to any of the 101 cities and towns surrounding Boston where sharing might make sense.

However what’s missing is a broader discussion about what a 21st century bike infrastructure the city — and region — could use. These changes include some of the policy issues and off-road trails discussed by the 2007 MAPC Regional Bicycle Plan, but others will include detailed changes to our streets. Ironically these could include both more and less lines and signals on the streets. It’s a well-known finding that some streets that seem dangerous are not, so long as certain conditions are met. In other cases, separated infrastructure is safer, or required to encourage cycling. However these changes cost money, and an even scarcer commodity on many city streets. The city’s bike director Freedman explained the dilemma in the Globe:

“Every study and survey of cyclists points to the fact that the only way you are going to have women, children, and seniors cycling in any mass numbers is by providing cycle facilities completely segregated from traffic, with timed lights at intersections that let riders cross without being worried by being hit,’’ Pucher said in a telephone interview.

Freedman, a former Olympic cyclist, said establishing truly protected lanes is not a matter of technology. “It is a question of space. The real issue is a public process of communities deciding what we want. Do we keep the priority for cars or do we start making compromises that integrate bikes? We’ve made tremendous strides, but there is a price and the price is space.’’

I’m not a cycling specialist, so I will leave it to others to discuss what exact changes are needed in Boston. During a trip to the Netherlands last year, like many American visitors I was amazed by the highly developed cycling infrastructure. It led to me ask, if we follow some of the steps taken there, what changes are possible? These photos were taken in The Hague, Delft, and Rotterdam in July 2010.

1. Bike Parking


The most basic amenity is a place to park your bike when in the office or running errands. Bicycle racks are expanding in Boston, but this also involves well-designed, convenient storage spaces inside buildings and at transit hubs.

2. Cycle Tracks

Bikeway and bus station

In many European cities, busy streets have separated bicycle and walking areas, both separated from the vehicle lanes. In the case above, special accommodation is made for the bus stop. MIT has installed a cycle track on Vassar Street.

3. Bike Signals


Where a crossing is inevitable, a signaled intersection may be needed. If you look closely above, you can see the red light is in the shape of a bike.

4. Smart Intersections

Bike paths

Good intersections have carefully thought out interactions which balance demands between modes, take into account desire lines, and provide subtle guides to encourage safety and efficiency. This corner gracefully accommodates left turning bicycles onto the street cycle track. The best example of this in the Boston area is a special bike crosswalk at Harvard, allow cyclists to safely cross a busy street.

5. Multimodal Connections

Train Station and Bikeway

The pyramid structure is above the entrance to a train station. In the foreground, a bicycle track linked to the broader neighborhood system. The Southwest Corridor Park is a start in this area in Boston.

6. Bike Freeways

Bike freeway!

To the right is the entrance ramp to a limit-access freeway. To the left is the accompanying bicycle freeway.

As the number of cyclists continues to expand in Boston and other U.S. cities, more and more of these European-style interventions may be needed to ensure safety and promote the expansion of the ultimate green transportation mode.

> Hubway
> Boston Bikes
> MAPC Bicycling Projects

Author: Rob Goodspeed