Cycling in Place

October 19, 2007
By

DAVID TABER


Courtesy PhotoMayor Thomas Menino (left) recently announced the appointment of Jamaica Plain resident Nicole Freedman as Boston’s Bicycle Coordinator.

Can new bike coordinator move improvements past the planning stage?

“I sure as hell hope you are not planning on starting with some planning study.”

Those were local bike advocate and Ferris Wheels bike shop proprietor Jeff Ferris’s first words to Boston’s new bicycle coordinator, Ferris told the Gazette, when they met in early October.

According to Ferris, problem areas have been identified, traffic studies have been conducted, alternatives enumerated extensively over the last few decades in numerous studies, surveys and plans often offering overlapping recommendations.

Overall, little action has resulted, Ferris said.

Boston’s recently hired Bicycle Coordinator Nicole Freedman, herself a JP resident, said she is right on board with that sentiment.

“My sense is there has been a lot of study of problem areas,” she said.

And, she said, she sees her role as one of coordinating efforts and moving plans forward.

Citywide, the coordination of work being done by the Army Corps of Engineers on the Muddy River, combined with the proposed redesign of Sears Rotary on the Fenway and a five-year-old proposal to improve access to the Charles River bike path could create a coherent north-south bike route between JP and Cambridge if someone could pull them together, Ferris said.

In JP, both Ferris and Freedman mentioned a state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) study released in August recommending the redesign of Kelly and Murray circles into signalized intersections as an example of a planning process there is no need to repeat.

And, while it lies just on the far side of the Boston/Brookline border, the Route 9 crossing of the Emerald Necklace bike path has long had an established place on the map of identified bicycle trouble spots, she said.

The crossing is unmarked, and there is only a small cut-out in the raised median separating the eastbound and westbound travel lanes. It has been a concern for bike advocates for over 20 years, Ferris said.

While it is in Brookline’s jurisdiction, the crossing is used by JP cyclists to travel downtown or north of Boston. The Jamaicaway and Riverway, which abut the bike path on the JP and Brookline sides, respectively, and are connected by a bridge running over the state highway, are maintained by the DCR.

Along Route 9 the same bridge marks about where Boston and Brookline meet.

One of the first studies of the crossing conducted in the mid-1990s by the DCR, then known as the Massachusetts Department of Conservation (MDC), Ferris said.

“Back in the mid-’90s the MDC needed to do a reconstruction project,” Ferris said. “The roadway across the bridge was much wider than the Riverway or Jamaicaway approaching it, so I said, ‘Why not make room for a two-way bike lane on the west side of the bridge?’”

Ferris said he organized a number of rallies where he tried to attract enough bicyclists to create a continuous loop of riders cycling across the bridge, back down across Route 9 and back up over the bridge again.

The rallies continued for three months, Ferris said, and the MDC commissioned a study which ended up recommending a signalized crossing at Route 9.

The study went nowhere. “The organized actions stopped and that was the end of it,” Ferris said.

Since then, the City of Boston’s 1999 Emerald Necklace Master Plan called for a signalized crossing, as did BikeBoston’s Emerald Necklace Greenway Improvement Plan. The City of Brookline’s 2005 Gateway East Public Realm Plan also calls for improvements at the Route 9 crossing including narrowing traffic lanes and widening sidewalks, as well as a “new crosswalk added with wide refuge island [median] for Emerald Necklace travelers.”

Ferris, who has been following the fate of the crossing for decades, said one problem is the crossing is flanked to the east by Boston’s traffic light at the corner of Huntington and S. Huntington avenues, and to the west by Brookline’s signal at the corner of Route 9 and Washington Street. Usually, traffic lights are synchronized to maintain traffic flow, but the crossing is “in between two lights that don’t talk to each other,” and the addition of another light would almost certainly create a traffic nightmare, he said.

Another issue is that the parkway bridge over Route 9 blocks sight lines for motorists heading out of Boston, so there is some question whether drivers will be able to see a traffic light in time to stop, Ferris said.

In 2006 the Gazette reported that the City of Brookline was appealing to the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) to “solve the riddles of the complicated intersection” in the course of a larger city streetscape study. According to Levine, the MPO took up the challenge.

The MPO, Levine said, is doing “basic mapping and traffic studies.” It will come back to Brookline with proposals late winter or early spring, he said.

When the Gazette contacted the MPO, project coordinator Kathy Hoffman said she had only just taken over the study from a departing colleague and was not yet able to discuss it.

Temporary setbacks not withstanding, however, Levine said he is hopeful the MPO study will, “bring together a number of government bodies.”

In 2006 representatives from the Boston Transportation Department were quoted as saying they had no knowledge of Brookline’s efforts. It is, however, on Freedman’s radar, she said.

“A lot of the problem intersections across the city are multijurisdictional,” and part of her role will be to make sure the Boston I attentive to what other jurisdictions are up to, she said.

Levine said the MPO study will study the feasibility of a number of options, including signalization and extending the bike path over the bridge, and he hopes other interested parties will come to the table in the spring, but “Boston is not there yet.”

Racing to the Bike Summit

Beyond not undertaking a citywide improvement plan and working to improve interjursidictional communication, Freedman said she is holding off on defining specific goals for her tenure until after the City of Boston’s Bicycle Summit.

Freedman was only hired a month ago and, while local bike advocates had heard stirrings about the upcoming summit, taking place Oct. 22 through 24, some were still receiving invitations as the Gazette reported this story.

The summit will consist of a number of invitation-only round-table sessions as well as three community sessions across the city at 7 p.m., Tues., Oct. 23. The JP/Roxbury/Roslindale session will be held at the Agassiz School at 20 Child St.

Bikes Not Bombs (BNB) staffer Arik Grier said he is hopeful about the City’s recent embrace of bicycle advocacy. “The mayor has said he wants to make Boston the best city in the nation for biking in the nation. There’s a long way to go but it is promising.”

Boston had another bike coordinator, JP resident Paul Shimeck, for a brief period around 2002, but he was hired by the Boston Transportation Department, whereas Freedman was hired directly by the mayor’s Office.

Another BNB staff member, Jasmine Laietmark, said she thinks part of the mayor’s enthusiasm might stem from a sense of competition with other cities. Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago is receiving a lot of attention for his cyclist-friendly initiative, Laietmark said.

Chicago’s plans aim to encourage 5 percent of trips shorter than 5 miles to be taken by bicycle by 2015. In San Franciso, Mayor Gavin Newsome wants 10 percent of all transportation to be of the self-propelled two-wheeled variety by 2010.

Another hopeful sign, Grier said, is that citywide bicycle advocacy has picked up a lot of steam in the last few years.

“There wasn’t [the annual citywide ride] Hub on Wheels last time, which has established biking as a city-sponsored event,” Grier noted.

The summit, Laietmark said, will be an opportunity for advocates to share information with each other, and to begin a dialogue with Freedman.

“I think she needs to know people care and needs to listen to people who ride in the city,” she said. “I also think people should be responsive. I hope they are responsive. In order for this to work, people need to pay attention this time.”

In particular, Laietmark said, cyclists should aid in the city’s bike route mapping initiative. According to a letter penned by Freedman, the initiative allows city cyclists to map the routes they commonly use and “help the city in updating and evaluating cycling routes, lanes, rack disbursements.” Instructions for route mapping are available at www.massbike.org/boston_bike_survey.htm.

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