I never thought of the bridges over the Charles River as more than a fixed, but dangerous way to get to the other side. They’re survivable, but barely ride-able. Nobody I know goes out of their way to cross one. And the bike paths? They’re crowded and the pavement’s cracked and bumpy.
Jackie Douglas wants to change all this. Three years ago she began to volunteer for LivableStreets, a group dedicated to the idea of better transportation for all. “I first got involved as a concerned citizen,” she says. “A year later I was hired as a Transportation Advocate.” Jackie is still a concerned citizen, but she’s also now the Director of LivableStreets.
Long before she moved to Boston, Jackie was passionate about alternatives to our auto-centric culture. “I lived in the Netherlands from age five to eight. We biked to school every day, and home again for lunch. I still bike every day and I’ve never owned a car.”
One of LivableStreets’ current projects is the Better Bridges Campaign, which hopes to improve the redesign of the paths and bridges along the Charles River Basin. “The dollars are available and the city, the region, the state and the federal government all have a chance to come together and make this work. We can make a design that will work for the people. And the people,” Jackie adds, “want a design that works for everyone, not just for those who drive motor vehicles.”
I was interested in learning first-hand what the people really want. Which is why I agreed to join Jackie one recent Thursday evening on the Cambridge side of the River Street Bridge. We planted ourselves beneath the shade of a tree on this hot summer day. Our wish? That commuters would interrupt their trip home to talk with us about riding along this stretch of the Charles River.
Robert Fine seemed glad to interrupt his bike ride home to chat with us. “I’ve been riding for 12-years, from my home in Arlington to the ER at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where I work as a nurse.” Robert smiled and added, “the old way of functioning, of driving everywhere: that’s a luxury, not a right. Eventually we’re going to have to use human power or public transportation.” And with that, Robert rode off into the sunset.
Jackie smiled and said: “See, this is what the people want.”
John Briggs commutes by bicycle from his home in Lexington to his job as an engineer at Boston University. He, too, interrupted his ride home to talk with us. “My daughter is 18 and needs a car for the summer. I thought, do I really want to buy a car for the three months that she’s home for college, or do I give it a shot and commute on my bike? I decided to bike and I love it: I get two hours of exercise a day and (he points to the cars stuck in traffic) that’s slow and not very pleasant. It’s just as quick for me to bike home as it is to drive home.”
This all sounds great, but Robert and John are not your average commuter and they’re not thinking too much about the bridges. “What about the 99% of the greater Boston population who don’t bike to work because they don’t feel safe?” I ask. Jackie is quick to point out, “If we improve the design of the bridges and the bikepaths more people will feel comfortable and safe using them. That way, we can meet their needs.”
“Okay, but what about people who can’t or won’t bike or walk to work?” I wonder. “LivableStreets is not about getting rid of cars. We are,” Jackie says, “about creating safe streets and intersections so we can rebalance our use of the road. That means creating better approaches for getting on and off the bridges, widening the sidewalk so there’s more room for pedestrians, timing the lights so walkers and cyclists can get across safely, and creating bike lanes on each bridge.”
“If we do this right,” Jackie says, “we’ll be helping the environment and improving everyone’s health. People want change, and we need leaders who will support this kind of change.” The problem, as Jackie sees it, is a lack of vision. “The dollars are available to support a better design and yet there’s a disconnect. The state is saying we’ll plan for cars and if there’s space left over we’ll include bikers and pedestrians. We at LivableStreets want the first step to be designing for people, not to fit them in if there’s room left over afterwards.”
Perhaps one day crossing the bridge over the Charles River and using the bikepaths alongside won’t have to be so harrowing. Still, in these uncertain and conflict-laden times, it’s going to take a lot to convince the people that this kind of change just might make things better. But as Jackie sees it, “it’s now or never. We’re fighting for something that’s important: our health, our environment, our future.”
Jonathan Simmons is a Brookline psychologist and avid cyclist.
Walkers, bikers, motorists: share your thoughts about the future of the Charles River basin. You can also contact LivableStreets to learn more and get updates on the next public hearing on the redesign project.