UMass Boston's independent, student-run newspaper

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Examining the state of biking in Boston

Has progress been made to make biking safe in the city? The current city government has been vocally supportive of biking in the past. In fact, Mayor Michelle Wu has made affirmative statements about biking—even publicly biking to work from her Roslindale home during the Orange Line shut down. This was an uplifting event to see as a resident, but how does that translate into actual policy? If you walk out of a house onto any street in Boston, you’d be shocked if the sound of a car engine isn’t in your ear. Bike lanes have been promised, and that’s better than no change at all, but it still falls short of what we, as residents of Boston, should expect from our representatives.

What strikes me most, whether commuting on foot or by car through the city, is how empty the bike lanes are. Obviously, winter weather will drive many bikers away during this time of year. That’s only natural. But even during times of good weather, I’ve made the same observation. Cars violate bike lanes frequently; it’s just too easy to do. Legally speaking, bike lanes are not separate from the road.

Drivers have to abide by what’s called “safe passing distance,” but there isn’t a clear explanation of what that really means. A motorist can claim they were passing someone at a safe distance and bicyclists are stuck trying to refute something that is already legally vague. Mass Bikes, a local advocacy group for bikers, promoted a bill at the beginning of this year to create a three-foot passing limit which would make it legally clear when a motorist violates a biker’s safety. That bill, as far as I can tell, was tabled and has been in limbo for months. Another notable law, which was passed at the 192nd legislative session and supported by Mass Bike, was one which allowed for rebates on the purchases of electric bicycles. Another one, which is still pending, but seems very promising, is directed at reducing traffic fatalities.

Veteran bikers know about the “right hook,” a common way motorists hit bikers because they forget to signal. When you’re trying out biking for the first time in the city, it’s easy to be put off and abandon it. People on the street defer to motorists—how can you not when you’re facing a ten ton block of steel coming your way? Boston is an old city that has all the foundations necessary to make transit fast, safe and reliable. Boston is also home to roughly 150,00 students, a third of whom live in on-campus housing. College can be very demoralizing, especially if you are a first generation student, and nothing will make you more miserable than commuting two hours by bus to your school.

Consider also the impact increased biking access might have on raising economic mobility in the city. In spite of what car companies might say, a car is a discriminatory form of transportation. But don’t most working people own cars? Yes, a majority of households in the Boston area own cars. But why? Well, housing is the number one reason, since people need to work in the city—because that is where the majority of employers in the state are—but they can’t live in the city because it’s not affordable for them.

UMass Boston students, especially, are faced with an impossible choice. They can scrape the money together to live near campus, where housing is both competitive and expensive. This means any student living near campus with an entry-level salary would either need family support to work full-time or indebt themselves in addition to being a student. On the other hand, students can live off-campus, though they should expect to need a car to get around, whether they live in Roxbury, Dorchester or any other neighborhood. There are bus routes, but—depending on where you live—you will need to walk miles just to get to a bus stop and start your commute.

Commutes on public transportation are notoriously long. Trying to get to campus from within a five-mile radius can easily take over an hour one-way. Currently, cars have better commute times than public transit in most instances. From an intuitive perspective, this implies efficiency, but since we disproportionately favor the car in funding, the efficiency of public transit is far lower than what it could be. Car infrastructure is initially cheap, since it is subsidized by the federal government and state governments. The catch is that maintenance falls on local governments—and thus, taxpayers—to maintain them. Boston roads are completely dilapidated, pock-marked and in desperate need of resurfacing in many areas. Roads are expensive to repair, which is why so many lie in disrepair making driving hazardous.

If there is one concept that should be agreed upon about city building, it’s this: nobody should have to own a car to work, live or participate in society. Designing cities around cars is indefensible. Yet, there is still a fight over who gets the right of way in this city, and pedestrians are a secondary concern when it comes to traffic policy.

As Massachusetts citizens, we pay for roads whether we use them or not. Even if you don’t own a car, you’re paying for that infrastructure through taxes. That entitles you to a say in how our streets are run.

Boston should be a city for robust public transit. Our cultural imagination of transportation needs to change. We’re stuck with car culture because of despondency and a fear of innovation. Our day-to-day life is defined by resignation about poorly implemented public transit, and it can feel hopeless. If you take away anything from this article, it is that you shouldn’t just wait on conditions changing, because change is not simply inevitable. We could be here for a while. Try reaching out to your local representative and make them know that, as a constituent, you care about bikes and public transit. If you are really interested in change, start organizing.

A common argument states that cars are a source of freedom from other forms of transit. This argument is used to stretch over the truth that our transit infrastructure is inadequate, and doesn’t consider why it fails in a city that is labeled dubiously as one of America’s most walkable cities. It’s a maddening situation, because, with the way city living works right now, car ownership is basically compulsory. Looking into or supporting those who do work on this subject is a great way to start looking at this issue.

If you agree with the project of multi-use travel and the infrastructure to support it, you should know the obstacles are not impossible to overcome. Looking at sustainable alternatives for transportation will create stronger communities to live in in the long run—and safe biking infrastructure is a part of that.