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Biking in Boston: A local’s guide on how to get there routinely and safely

Though not necessarily fast

Eric Kilby/Flickr

Doug Johnson is the community organizer for the Boston Cyclists Union. The group’s mission is pretty much in its name: Making the Boston region a better place for bicycling year-round.

Johnson allowed Curbed Boston to pick his brain regarding bicycling in the area, including tips for safer riding and for creating better bike lanes.

Describe a typical bike commute for you.

My typical commute is from my apartment in Medford near Tufts University to my office on Dudley Street in Roxbury. I ride through Somerville, Cambridge, Back Bay, and the South End between destinations.

Most of the ride is on Mass. Ave., but, with a commute approximately 8 miles long, I have a lot of options in terms of which streets I take.

When I don’t have any meetings to go to, and therefore I won’t mind getting sweaty (or if I’m in a rush), I’ll take a more direct route that’s hillier and involves riding in traffic.

When I’m not in a rush or I don’t want to break a sweat, I’ll stick to streets that are more flat and have less traffic on them.

What are some of the pitfalls and dangers to that commute? And to bike-commuting in the Boston area in general?

Because cities design their streets in a piecemeal fashion and conditions can vary from block to block, my commute can range from quiet and safe streets to busy arterials and chaotic intersections.

Riding in the wide bike lanes of Somerville Ave. is pleasant and feels relatively safe, but riding in the narrow bike lanes on the Mass. Ave. bridge, or on Mass. Ave. in the South End is harrowing and anxiety-inducing. Nothing reminds you of your mortality like a dump truck passing inches away from you at 30-plus mph.

How do you address those dangers?

The best way to avoid dangerous conditions is to pick a route that includes quiet residential streets and main streets that have already been redesigned to be safer for people riding bikes.

I mentioned Somerville Ave., which has a smooth, wide bike lane and relatively slow-moving traffic.

Western Ave. in Cambridge is another example of a great street to bike on. The City of Cambridge recently redesigned Western Ave. with a sidewalk-level bike lane, which allows people to ride down Western Ave. without having to ride in traffic.

The cities of Cambridge and Boston have also recently redesigned some stretches of Mass. Ave. to separate bike traffic from car traffic.

Unfortunately, not all of our residential streets are quiet with low traffic, and not all of our main streets have been redesigned with safety in mind. This is why route planning is so important.

People who are familiar with the Boston area will know which streets are safer and more pleasant to bike on, but new residents can easily find themselves in chaotic intersections or on streets with very fast-moving car traffic and large trucks.

Thankfully, Google Maps does a great job of recommending routes that will be safe and pleasant to bike on.

How are the powers that be addressing those dangers? Are (more) dedicated and guarded bike lanes the answer?

Thanks to a groundswell of support for safer streets from local residents, many municipalities are redesigning their streets to be safer for all users, whether they’re walking, biking, or driving.

Unfortunately, there is still a lot of work to do, as the process of redesigning streets can be very time-consuming. Between the public process and construction, it can take months or even years to redesign a street.

Moreover, many streets are not redesigned for years—or sometimes decades—unless an opportunity like repaving comes along that gives engineers the chance to update the streets’ design. Other issues like the fear of the loss of a few on-street parking spaces can also hold up a street redesign process.

Cities in the Boston area, and across the country, have been addressing these issues by implementing pop-up techniques like using paint and flexible posts to quickly change street designs without going through the lengthy process of digging up a street or moving curbs. Pop-up protected bike lanes have been installed in Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, and Somerville over the past two years, and with great results.

The City of Boston is also implementing the Neighborhood Slow Streets Program, which is aimed at slowing down traffic in residential areas using pop-up techniques as well as features like speed humps.

Of course, design is just one solution to addressing street safety. Cities can also implement policies and education campaigns to change people’s behavior. Many cities in Massachusetts have begun reducing their default speed limits to 25 mph from 30 mph, since the state authorized them to do so last year.

That said, street design is the most effective way to improve safety on our streets. If we truly want to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries, we need to design our streets in ways that encourage people to drive more slowly in residential areas, and we need to separate walking, biking, and motor vehicle traffic on higher-speed arterial roads using things like protected bike lanes.

Someone just moved to the Boston area. They want to start biking to and from work. Your one piece of advice?

Plan out your route to work, and then test it on a day off when you aren’t pressed for time. You’ll likely find shortcuts and side streets that allow you to avoid some chaotic streets and intersections.

The most direct route is not always the safest or most comfortable route. Prioritize your comfort and safety over distance. An extra mile is often worth it to ride on a bike path or a quiet street.