February 19 2014

Navigating Boston on a Folding Bike

What makes a city bike-friendly? What makes a city a place where bicycles are used by people young and old, for transportation, exercising, leisure riding, and even for transporting two weeks’ worth of groceries plus a lucky curbside find?

Are flat, even streets lined with trees and year-round mild weather a requirement? Not really, since that would make the Boston area, with its many hills and cold, windy winters, an improbable cycling city. Are bicycle lanes the answer? Not really, if they are not well-designed, properly maintained, constantly blocked off, and if there is nowhere safe to park at the end of the trip. Is it important to educate drivers, walkers and bikers? Is it important to have not only bicycle infrastructure, but to integrate it with public transportation, to enable people to use both for travelling and commuting? Is it important that people of all income levels, in all parts of the city, have facilities and infrastructure that would facilitate biking? Yes to all of the above. Making a city bike-friendly follows many of the same principles of not being just a fair-weather city: how can we make biking safe, pleasant and comfortable in all weather, for bikers, pedestrians and drivers?

The 1975 Motobecane folding bike on the Charles River esplanade, Cambridge, MA

Biking along the Charles river in Cambridge, MA

In the last few years, the Boston area has become a more bike-friendly city through a number of initiatives like Boston Bikes and local bicycle committees. Initiatives need to include more bicycle infrastructure (lanes, shared lanes, bike boxes, cycle tracks), especially scenic trails that also serve commuters, like the Minuteman Trail, and the trail along the Charles river esplanade; bike-share programs like the Hubway; and numerous new dedicated parking spots.

Having a folding bike makes it easier to ride and use public transportation at the same time: unlike normal bicycles, which are not allowed on trains during peak hours, on some stations, and on the Green Line, fully folded bicycles are always welcome. However, a crowded train full of weary commuters and a bike still do not mix well. My 1975 blue Motobecane, for instance, is no stranger to buses, the subway, and the commuter rail, thanks to elevators that facilitate movement for the encumbered, those in wheels, and those who cannot use stairs (even when these elevators are often located in the most inconvenient locations, like in South Station). Some people in Boston use their bicycles all year long, and have mastered the art of commuting through snow, slush, ice, darkness, frigid weather, and lanes full of ice and salt.

A bike's worst nightmare: snow in Somerville, MA

The Boston area still has some areas that present challenges: Beacon Street in Somerville is convenient, but notorious for its potholes. Newbury Street in Boston has charming brownstones and great shopping, but the lack of bicycle lanes (and yes, entitled drivers) makes it a dangerous place for riding. It is always necessary to pay attention to buses, which in some streets (Kirkland, Washington and Somerville, for instance) drive almost too close to the bike lane. On snowy days, sidewalks and streets are cleared promptly, but all that snow and salt is often dumped onto the bike lane, and let us not forget what happens when you leave your bike outdoors during a snowstorm!

Is being a cyclist an extreme sport in your city, or a convenient mode of transportation, sport and leisure?

Credits: Images by Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon. Data linked to sources.

Rosabella Alvarez-Calderón

Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon hails from Lima, Peru, a vibrant and noisy city with a rich history, ancient archaeological sites, Colonial churches, old art-deco cinemas, sprawling shanty towns (often decorated with posters in neon colours advertising a chicha or cumbia concert), glass skyscrapers, and a colorful public transportation systems that requires a sense of adventure, an instinct for navigation, and very short limbs to use successfully. She is a professional archaeologist who spent several years working in prehispanic and historical sites both in Lima and in northern Peru before coming to the United States, where she obtained a Master in Design Studies degree, with a focus on Critical Conservation, from Harvard University´s Graduate School of Design. She is currently based in the Boston area, where she combines her background and interest in archaeology with the study of how cities are formed and transformed, the nature and use of public spaces, adaptive and transformative reuse, and how can a city´s historical footprint, buildings and open spaces contribute to creating a sense of place and to inspire new urban design. Rosabella also enjoys exploring Boston and nearby towns on her beautiful 1975 blue folding bike and thinks of herself as “an archaeologist of the modern city”

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 19th, 2014 at 9:45 am and is filed under Infrastructure, Transportation. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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3 Responses to “Navigating Boston on a Folding Bike”

  1. Jepranshu Aganivanshi Says:

    A nice post especially the questions put up in the second paragraph. It’s really very important to integrate biking with other public transport which certainly lacks in the countries of South Asia and many countries across the Globe. It will not only support the ecology of the urban ecosystem but also will increase the quality of life quotient of urbanites in many senses.

  2. Dinar Ramadhani Says:

    Wow nice post! Actually in the city I live now, Bandung (Indonesia), is still trying to initiate Bike-Sharing concept. It had started since about two years ago, but it dindn’t work well enough. Now we can find bike shelters and the bikes as well, though they often just lied there in vain. Bandung hasn’t had the proper bike lane, due to the narrow street and the ups-and-down roads it has.

    Do you have any idea to develop the bike lane and bike-sharing concept? I’d love to know your reply :)

  3. Rosabella Alvarez-Calderón Says:

    Thanks for the comments! In Lima, Peru (where I come from…a place with chaotic transit!) there are places with fairly successful segregated bike lanes. In these cases, the bike lanes are not near the sidewalks, but in the centre of the road, buffered by grass on either side (of course, on at least one occasion I have seen a very small taxi use the bike lane….). Pedestrians also use these bike lanes, to the point that even in them bikers have had to learn to “keep right”. In these cases, the challenge is for different towns and municipalities to coordinate their bike lane-building efforts, so that all these disconnected bike lanes add to a comprehensive network.
    Bike-sharing is interesting because it meets different challenges in every city. I have read that even in NY it met a LOT of resistance; in Washington DC (which seems mostly flat, but it has killer traffic and some steep hills) I have read about “bike-sharing wars” (the system became so popular that there were not enough bikes to go around!). However, one of the important issues that I did not address in the article is in many places bike-sharing has benefited mostly the affluent and privileged people who live in dense, mixed-use areas (which is wonderful – less cars in the streets!), and now the challenge is how to get the bike-sharing concept easily available to the people who would potentially benefit from it the most – the poor, the less privileged, the suburban poor, those with little access to public transportation?

    Finally, a small detail: I have worked in small towns and in rural northern Peru for many years and I realized that in many of these places, people use bikes extensively.

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