A Tale of Two Cities

Are We Getting Bikes to Everybody? 

By Richard Fries, Executive Director

I'm going to make a hideous assumption here that many of you readers actually drive through the Boston metro area on occasion. So the next time you are stuck in traffic on the Zakim Bridge, itself an architectural accent to the Boston skyline, look down towards the Science Bridge. There you may notice an equally attractive, albeit more modest, bridge.

Behold the North Bank Pedestrian Bridge which connects Paul Revere Park in Charlestown to Cambridge.

I first noticed this bridge only recently after attending a meeting at the Department of Conservation and Recreation. The entire East Cambridge landscape has unfolded for me as of late. The streetscape and infrastructure is a honeycomb of bike paths, lanes, cycle tracks and signals for bikes and pedestrians.

Victory has a thousand mothers. Boston and Cambridge have been blessed with a great network of government and non-government organizations all working to improve access and intermodality.

This shock to my senses came not from the plethora of innovative infrastructure. The shock came from my re-entry to Cambridge after a day spent in Brockton on a bicycle.

In Brockton there is not a single inch of bike infrastructure. My inspection of the MBTA Commuter Rail station, where I had hoped to find some semblance of accommodation for bikes proved deflating. One lonely bike stood locked to the fence. And on the way out of the lot a misaligned, tire-eating storm drain grate awaited that ride.

Physically everything about Brockton is currently designed to make a cyclist feel un-welcome.

Since taking this job I have discovered similar environments in Pittsfield, North Adams, Worcester, Fall River and Springfield.

My company in Brockton also struck me. While our tour was led by Paul Chenard of the Old Colony Planning Commission, we were joined by some local cyclists. Aboard a fixed-gear rode Ryan.

With a sinewy body, Ryan had been riding for about four years. A native of Brockton, he got into cycling while living in Jamaica Plain, one of Boston's most progressive neighborhoods. When he lost his job in Boston, however, he moved back to Brockton.  Whereas in J.P. he felt aboard his bike as if he belonged. But in Brockton one feels as if they simply do not matter.

All the bike-ped stuff happening in Boston, Brookline, Cambridge and Newton is working to improve the streetscape and the quality of life there. And more and more people wish to live closer to this fountain of convenience and health. Neighborhoods once avoided by the well-to-do - from the South End to the Seaport, East Cambridge to Savin Hill are being transformed. Some call this gentrification; others call it displacement.

But what is tragic is that folks like Ryan, who can least afford the expense of a car, are being shoveled into communities that have engineered them into an automotive corner. Here is a city with inexpensive housing where the largest employer is the city itself. Folks in the city are there often to take advantage of the affordable housing. But to get around they then have to annually carry a $9,000 bag of financial cement in the form of a car.

There are buses and the commuter rail but those are extremely restrictive to one's schedule. Simple access to supermarkets, drug stores and schools via such transit requires a rather complicated logistical process. And heaven forbid one misses that last bus at 9 p.m.

There is hope. MassBike is targeting these communities with the support of the Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Health to identify simple low-cost solutions to make cycling a safer and healthier option in places such as Brockton. And folks like Paul Chenard, who showcased to me the wide plains of Brockton's geography which could easily accommodate bike lanes and cycle tracks with minimal impact on motorists, see nothing but hope.

Communities such as these have been orphaned by bike advocacy. Perhaps the time has come to create a cycling lifestyle for folks who most need the benefits.

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