JP Observer: Bikes are nice, but there are limits

I like bicycles. I think it’s great we got a bike-share program in Boston, and bicycle rental stations came to Jamaica Plain last month. I am in favor of the tidy bike lanes and of drivers watching out for riders. But there are limits on what bikes can do for Boston.

Bicycle use, at about 2 percent right now in Boston, is good for our environment and, in many ways, the health of riders and the community—especially in conjunction with use of other environmentally friendly transportation.

Boston’s Director of Bicycle Programs Nicole Freedman lives in JP. We have Bikes Not Bombs, Ferris Wheels and Revolution Bicycle Repair. That’s very cool. The six or so new stations for the bicycle-share program are cool, too, even if they popped up by surprise to most people. They can be put elsewhere in JP next spring.

Bikes are inexpensive and good for us, but it is important not to (pardon the pun) get carried away. Bicycle riding has too many drawbacks to be a panacea.

JP’s bike riders face more dangers than getting “doored” or hit by a car. Inhaling automobile fumes isn’t good for riders’ hearts, at least short term, studies have shown. An experiment in London found that bike riders had 2.3 times as much carbon in their lungs as pedestrians who walked the same route at the same time. Riders are advised to travel when and where traffic is less dense. Good luck with that here. According to the federal Air Quality Index, Boston in general had 128 days of “moderate” air pollution, mostly from particles, so far this year.

Advocates have said their goal is to see 10 percent of Boston trips be on bikes in the next few years. With one-third of us between 20 and 34, that might be possible. But those who don’t ride routinely shouldn’t feel guilty if they don’t want to make big concessions for the minority who do.

Living in Southeast Asia in the late 1960s, most travelers, including me, crowded the streets on bikes, not in cars. We do not have those favorable conditions here and never will. Winter sees ice and snow on the streets, and we also get rain in all seasons—not mostly one.

Quite a few people are not obviously disabled, but cannot ride bikes for physical reasons. We don’t have bicycle cabs for them or for shoppers who need to buy three cans of paint—yet. And many of us couldn’t pedal fast enough to meet the demands of our 21st century daily schedules.

I heard a new term recently. I described to an environmentalist how Hubway stations suddenly appeared in a few landmark locations in JP, taking away popular parking spaces. The large, metal bike kiosk at historic Monument Square seems especially intrusive, unattractive and unnecessary. Across the street, Curtis Hall offers better locations. Another Hubway station suddenly grabbed spaces in front of the post office, which has no parking lot.

My friend said that making a prominent—but awkward—display of commitment to the environment like that is called “greenwashing.”

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