Boston Strong: Why Beantown Can Soon Be America's Best Bike Town


[caption id="attachment_23813" align="alignleft" width="225"] Tracks from the local wildlife - the Boston cyclist[/caption]

Folks in Portland, Boulder, and San Francisco would be well-served to keep an eye in the rear view mirror. For I predict one city, with help from People for Bikes and MassBike, will soon be spoken of as THE shining example of a great cycling city.

As my hometown, there is undoubtedly some bias. But Boston also possesses unique attributes that will distinguish it from those other municipalities that boast relatively high bike mode share.

One key element of my rationale is that the godly line used in the film Field of Dreams of "Build it and they will come" is pretty much bad advice for marketing and public works. With just 1 percent of all trips in America taken by bike, any massive spending - justified or not - for such projects will spark a bonfire of an anti-tax, anti-government furor. We cyclists can ill afford to squander any hard-fought political capital on white elephants that go unused.

I firmly believe that demand must precede supply.

And for that primary reason, Boston rocks as a bike town.

Here are my 10 distinct reasons Boston is about to become America's best bike city:

  • "IT'S NOT MUCH OF A COLLEGE TOWN." I often cite one of the funniest lines of the film Spinal Tap when I describe why Boston has such a vibrant bike scenes. When mapping out their tour, the bumbling members of this hair band decide to focus on college towns and choose not to include Boston on their tour. "Boston's not much of a college town," is the reason stated. Arguably the world's largest college town, Boston's Suffolk County alone has 24 colleges and universities, almost all of which officially discourage students from using automobiles. Across the Charles River sits Cambridge with Harvard University, Tufts University, Lesley College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and countless other schools. With low incomes and strong bodies, college kids ride bikes and often develop a lasting cycling lifestyle.

  • COMPACT DESIGN. Settled in 1630, Boston was not developed for the automobile but for the pedestrian. The streets are narrow and buildings are clustered closely together. Driving is difficult enough; parking is an entirely different challenge. Traveling a single mile by car can be a 20-minute hassle but a joyful four-minute spin by bike with door-to-door parking.

  • Boston registers in the top 10 of American cycling cities. And Boston registers in the top three of American walking cities. But when one combines both walking and cycling, Boston climbs to number one according to the Alliance for Biking and Walking. Places that are more walkable tend to be more bike-able.

  • SUPERIOR TRANSIT. Having installed the first subway system of any American city, Boston's network of subways, commuter trains, and buses enables residents an affordable and efficient means of getting to and fro. Transit is also important in fostering a bike culture as it creates a back-up plan for bike commuters who may have a mechanical issue, stay out too late with friends, or shy away from some harsh weather.

  • THE NORTHEAST CORRIDOR. All four of the prior reasons are woven together in all the major metro areas of the Northeast Corridor, running from Washington DC to Boston. Only three U.S. cities report more than 50 percent of their population regularly commuting via transit: Washington, New York, and Boston. And Philadelphia is not far behind. What this fosters is a physical, mental, and spiritual car-free transit paradigm that becomes a contagion throughout the entire region. Mayors, cops, and public works administrators develop a shared sense of best practices that normalizes the use of bikes. Should Amtrak ever embrace roll-on access throughout its Northeast trains as it has in California, transportation inter-modality throughout the Northeast could approach that of European cities.

  • NICOLE FREEDMAN. Like other American metro areas, the Boston area has fostered some fantastic bike advocacy through three organizations: the statewide group MassBike, the Boston Cyclists Union, and the Livable Streets Alliance. But Mayor Thomas Menino's installation of former Olympic cyclist Nicole Freedman as the city's "bike czarina" has proven particularly effective. Her personal experience as a cyclist combined with her education in urban planning gives her a unique perspective rarely found in such professionals. But her deft political skill, knowing when to be patient and when to be pushy, has proven most effective. Her continued support (at least verbally) from newly elected Mayor Marty Walsh bodes well for continued improvements.

  • REGIONAL INDUSTRY PRESENCE. Col. Albert Pope, the Bill Gates of the 19th Century bike boom, of Boston spawned the first American bicycle craze. And New England served as an engine of the American bike renaissance, which hit in two successive waves: the early 1970s bike boom in which the tinderbox of an environmental movement and counter-culture was touched off by a match that was the Arab Oil Embargo; and the mountain bike craze of the 1980s. While folks in Colorado and California may have been riding, the folks in New England were tinkering: Richard Sachs, Chris Chance, Rob Vandermark and their contemporaries spawned countless innovative products and companies. Cannondale, Seven Cycles, Fat City, Independent Fabrication, Kryptonite, Firefly, Circle A, Pedro's, and others all came from, and remained in, New England. And with proximity to European time zones, such major brands as Mavic, Thule, Craft, Vittoria, and Selle Italia run their U.S. operations out of this region.

  • Several U.S. cities have launched bike share programs with a variable degrees of integration and adoption. Boston's Hubway system, however, has been rapidly embraced and expanded like none other in America. And don't forget that the successful car sharing company, Zipcar, was founded right here in Cambridge, Mass.

  • GREEN LANE PROJECT. Boston's selection by People For Bikes as one of six cities selected in the second round of support for the Green Lane Project bodes well. All of the above factors will play a key role in ensuring that where and when dedicated and separated bike lanes, cutting edge urban engineering, and supportive programs are created, this could prove to be America's most fertile environments for a revolution in transportation.

  • BOSTON STRONG. OK, this is totally subjective and anecdotal. But nearly anybody from this region will concur that Bostonians have a unique communal character like no other American city. The world witnessed this during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and ensuing manhunt. Locals understand this. To be in this town during a snowstorm gives one true hope for humanity. Whereas most Eastern cities are stalled for days by such storms, Bostonians harden up. Everyone respects a brief but comprehensive parking and driving ban and the entire place is plowed curb-to-curb within hours of the storm ending. Your walk gets shoveled. Then your neighbor's walk gets shoveled. And through that the heartiest of cyclists keep rolling. (This writer missed just one day of commuting last winter due to snowfall.) And Boston, like so many great cities, is a font of progress. What happens in Boston - be it in medicine, bio-tech, high-tech, engineering or even rock 'n' roll - does not stay in Boston, but spreads to the world. Get ready Portland....Game on.


Richard Fries is the newly appointed executive director of MassBike. A passionate cyclist for more than 35 years, he has raced professionally in Europe, toured throughout the world, commuted year round for most of his adult life, and worked as a bicycle advocate. Trained as a journalist, he co-founded The Ride Magazine, which he helped run for 14 years. As an advocate he served for several years as a development adviser for People for Bikes. He also co-founded the Providence Cyclo-cross Festival. But Fries is best known as a race announcer, having provided English commentary for the UCI World Championships in both cyclo-cross and road. He lives in Lexington, Mass., alongside - you guessed it - a bike path with his wife and three children.

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