Boston's Bicycle Commuters Have Their Reasons
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Professor Jim Ross begins his morning routine just like most people. After slamming the alarm clock a few times, he throws on sweats, eats a wholesome breakfast, and brushes his teeth. As a bicycle commuter in Boston, he is almost ready to go. Ross straps on a helmet, puts his work suit in his backpack, and begins his short commute. Fifteen minutes after he leaves his Brookline home, the Northeastern University journalism professor locks up his bike in front of the gym, where he showers and gets dressed before walking a few blocks to his office.
The same commute would take 45 minutes on the T.
Bicycle commuters are a common sight on the streets of Boston. With the environmental, health, and monetary benefits, many bicycle commuters wonder why only .4 percent of the Massachusetts workforce ride their bike to work.
Riding a bike to work can be faster than taking your car or riding the T. On a bike, a person is able to bypass heavy morning traffic jams, eliminate the time it takes to find a parking spot, and arrive to work refreshed. A bike commuter is multitasking by getting from point A to point B and getting some exercise in at the same time.
"I bike because it's faster than the T and, in the city, less frustrating than a car," said Mike Burns, a computer science middler at Northeastern University who commutes 15 miles to campus everyday from his home in Wakefield, Mass. "Basically, I bike because I don't have the patience to commute in any other way."
Like other forms of exercise, bicycling can help with weight problems. It lowers cholesterol and the heart rate. It is a mood enhancer, as well, proving it's physical and mental benefits.
"You don't have to wait for anything, you don't have to pay for anything," said Travis Farrenkopf, a music industry middler at Northeastern University, who is also a bicycle messenger. "You can go anywhere –- straight to where you want to be. You can't do that on the T."
Many people don't consider a cycle commute to work because they are worried about their safety on the road.
"I am constantly worried about running into cars, pedestrians, etc." said Ali Gallant, a criminal justice middler at Northeastern University. "I am especially nervous because even if I am biking safely, the actions of others can have an impact on my safety and health.
I prefer to use public transportation." Gallant owns a bike, but rides rarely.
Some people ride their bike to their night jobs to bypass the dangers of walking alone through rough neighborhoods.
"I have to commute at night, and I don't want to walk alone," said Carolyn Alesbury, a sophomore at Boston College who works at the Starbucks in Brighton Village. "I just feel safer on my bike."
Automobile traffic usually view and treat a cyclist as a nuisance. In reality, cyclists have the same rights as automobile drivers. To increase respect on the road, the Governor's Highway Safety Bureau has published pamphlets such as, "Don't be a Road Hog."
According to the editors of Bicycle Magazine in their book "Bicycle Commuting Made Easy," the fear of riding in traffic is disproportionate to the actual danger. Only 12 percent of cycling accidents are a collision between a bike and a car.
Other dangers cyclists face on the road include pedestrians not paying attention, cars turning without a signal, potholes, sewer drains, poor road conditions, and debris.
"I've had about ten flat tires just because of broken truck parts on the side of the road – not to mention the extra maintenance needed to clean the cigarette butts and Dunkin' Doughnuts wrappers from my gears," said Burns. "The road conditions in Boston are fun if you want to practice jumping potholes and dodging trash."
A commuter can bypass busy and potentially dangerous roads by rerouting the trip. Boston has many side streets, making rerouting easy. The old streets of Boston are narrow, and carry relatively slow traffic, which makes the city very suitable for bicycles of all skill levels.
"In Boston, cyclists can get anywhere with any reasonable level of skill," said John Allen, author of "The Complete Book of Bicycle Commuting." Allen is also on Boston's MassBike's board of directors, as well as a member of the board of directors of the League of American Cyclists.
For 30 years, Allen commuted from his house in Waltham to downtown Boston. Now, he is retired, but his wife still commutes on her bike everyday. Allen says that this allows their family to only need one car. Every year, this saves him and his wife around $5,000 per year, which would have gone to car installments, maintenance, insurance, tickets, and parking fees.
Cycling also saves you from expensive T fares. Twelve months of T passes can cost over $400, which is enough to buy a very nice bicycle.
For some people who commute into Boston from surrounding areas, cycling is just too far. Recently, the MBTA has extended it's "bikes on the T" program to allow bikes more access on commuter rails and subway systems. It may be possible to bring your bike on the commuter rail to work, and then bike from North Station to your final destination spot. However, the hours in which bikes are prohibited on the commuter rail make this option difficult on many lines.
Other commuters choose to drive halfway to work, park, and bike the rest. Others are turned off to bicycle commuting because they do not wish to arrive sweaty and dirty to work. Many commuters will drive to work one day and leave a week's worth of clothes there to change into on days they ride into work on a bike. Others carry their clothes with them, and bring along soap and a towel and tidy up in the company bathroom.
According to an article from the Patriot Ledger, MassBike has been working with companies to make it easier for people to bike to work. They have pushed for various accommodations such as more bike racks, a place to shower, and changing rooms.
Weather is another disincentive for bicycle commuting. In Boston, local weather can be nasty, leaving the roads covered in wet foliage in the fall, and ice and snow in the winter.
Just a few weeks ago, Professor Ross slipped on leaves while riding his bike along Longwood Ave., coming home from work. He took a hard fall which resulted in a cracked helmet.
"I just got a new helmet. You gotta get back on that horse," Ross said.
Recently, bike shops in Boston have started to carry Nocon tires, which are studded and meant to tackle snow. Snow and ice can impair the shoulder width of the streets when plows fail to clear the snow off all of the road.
Bicycle paths in Boston are all but ignored, and cycling on them would be impossible after an ice storm. Bike paths are a controversial issue in the bicycle community. They call attention to cyclists and the need to recognize their presence on the road. However, the paths are engineered by non-serious cyclists who view biking as casual recreation.
"Their idea of paths are, ‘Oh it's a nice warm day in spring and I'm going to go ride on the trail,' and not, ‘It's cold day in January – I have to get to work and that piece of trail has not been cleared'," said Allen. "Bike trails are a supplement – not a substitute – for a road network."
The city of Cambridge received a lot of criticism from cyclists and bike organizations for bike paths installed along the road. One problem is the paths are in the "door zone," the area next to parked cars where cyclists can be hit if a door is swung open. There have been local deaths due to this problem. During heavy traffic (such as rush hour), cars have no problem double parking in bike lanes, which pose an inconvenience and safety hazzard to cyclist commuters.
"Riding on [bike paths] makes me feel dirty. The only way bicycles will be respected as an alternative to a car is to ride along with the cars," Burns said.
Carolyn Alesbury had a different view of bike paths.
"I would like a designated area [for bikers]. I know the city can't build bike paths everywhere, but it would be nice if they acknowledged that there are bikers and make space for them," she said.
As well as extending the MBTA guidelines to accommodate bicycle commuters and installing bike trails, the Boston has installed a few other programs that cater to cyclists. The city as well as the cycling club MassBike have sponsored Boston Bike Week every year, which encourages cycle commuting. They also sponsor the Boston Bike to Work Corporate Challenge, which is a competition between companies to see who can get the most employees to take their bike, not their cars, into work. Programs like these separate the gap between automobiles and bicycles by demonstrating that cycle commuters are not as out of the norm as they may seem.
Although some local governments have taken steps to accommodate bicycle commuters, the bicycle community believes that there are still a lot of things they could do to get more cyclists on the street. The lack of adequate bicycle parking is one of the biggest complaints. Bicycle racks are scarce in the downtown area. Allen wants to see more enforcement of bicycle rules and regulations, "in hopes that bicyclists will be treated with more respect by car drivers." The Boston Bicycle Advisory Committee advises and works with the Boston Transportation Department (BTA) to "develop, prioritize and implement the bicycling recommendations" they establish every few years, according to the BTA's "Boston Bicycle Plan: 2000-2010". These recommendations include increasing Bike Week activities, promote cycling among city staff (including providing lockers and showers), encourage employers and businesses to be bike-friendly, and improve bike storage. Improvements on road conditions and motorist discretion would make cycle commuting more attractive to the general public.
"I don't know what they could do but there is a lot of discrimination from cars and the police force," said Travis Farrenkopf. "Cars will turn into you when they don't put on their signal, and cabbies have tried to run me off the road."
Some people feel their best when they ride into work instead of driving, knowing that they are reducing fuel emissions and eliminating pollution altogether. The bicycle is the most efficient form of transportation; the average car motor uses 50-80 times more energy than a cyclist, according to MassBike's commuting guide.
"I feel good riding my bike – I don't driving my car," said Allen. "However, I know it's not a great contribution because I am just one person among millions of cars. You would have to cut down on car use by a substantial percentage to cut the use of fossil fuel."
Cycling is only one solution to the larger problem of fossil fuel usage. The 2000 census showed that 15,980 people in Massachusetts bike to work. That is a 38 percent increase since 1990. Although some may feel that they alone do not make a difference, if enough people follow this pattern, it will. In the U.S., 77 million people own a bike and use it "occasionally". Out of this, only 2.6 million people use their bike for daily transportation.
Getting back into the habit of using your bike daily is the first step. Short outings are key. Instead of driving a few blocks to get pick up milk and bread at the convenience store, try hoping on your bike with a backpack. When it is time to consider cycling to work, you must think ahead: plan out a route and try it out on a weekend. Know in advance where you are going to store your bike, and remember to always wear a helmet.