Derrick Z. Jackson

Making biking in city safer

The European-style bike lane on Western Avenue separates bikes from traffic. The European-style bike lane on Western Avenue separates bikes from traffic. (John Dempsey)
By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / February 1, 2011

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THE RECENT death in Boston of a 74-year-old bicyclist came just three days before Mayor Thomas Menino released a report proclaiming that Boston is now “one of the leading bike-friendly cities in the country,’’ with the 10th highest urban ridership in the United States. City bike director Nicole Freedman said the death is a sober reminder of how much more the city has to do to make cycling safe.

“Copenhagen was in the 1970s like Boston, with the same kind of car congestion,’’ Freedman said. “Look where they are today. I believe times are different and it won’t take 30 years to have people riding bikes as a normal way of life. Given how we’ve turned things around in the last three years, we can do it.’’

It is indeed promising that the city added miles of bike lanes and hundreds of bike racks and cycle parking spaces, including at public schools and public housing. The city has widened lanes in some spots, painted some bright green and eliminated 70 parking spots where it could to make better room for bicycles. Trying to adopt lessons from cities that have made cycling safe for ordinary citizens, the city laid down a half-mile of a European-style protected lane on a portion of Western Avenue.

Instead of the more common urban lanes that sandwich cyclists between parked cars on the right (from which drivers often open doors into the lane) and moving traffic on the left, the Western Avenue lane is between the sidewalk on the right and parked cars on the left. “We’re trying to use all the tools we can in our toolbox, living in a compact city, with a lot of competition for space,’’ Freedman said.

The Western Avenue lane is a critical tool toward increasing ridership. For all that American cities have encouraged cycling, its real and perceived dangers render it a disproportionately young male activity. While women are roughly half the bike riders in Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, according to Rutgers urban planning researcher John Pucher, women make up only 23 percent of those who ride to work in US urban areas, according to the national Alliance for Biking and Walking. That number is only slightly better in Boston, 28 percent by Freedman’s 2010 data.

In Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, bike riding actually increases after the age of 40, up to a point where 15 percent of all trips done by those 60 and above in Denmark and 23 percent of trips done by people 65 and above in the Netherlands are done by bike. In the United States, only one half of one percent of trips by seniors 65 and above are by bike. What’s more, Pucher, in a study to be published later this year in the American Journal of Public Health, is finding that increases in male ridership nationally are being countered by a decrease in women’s ridership and youth ridership ages 5 to 15.

That is despite Boston’s efforts that have doubled bike ridership since 2007 and the protected bike lanes in New York City that have nearly quadrupled ridership since 2000. “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.’’

If the cost of less space for cars was the sight of women, children, and seniors pedaling up and down the streets of Boston, that is a price worth paying.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at