Bike Czar Creates Buzz Just Gearing Up

By Maggie Cassidy
Globe Correspondent

It’s time to connect the dots.

Or, rather, connect the bike lanes, say local bike activists who say 2009 should be about expanding Boston’s burgeoning biking infrastructure and start to connect its disjointed bicycling hot spots.

Led by Nicole Freedman, director of Boston Bikes and the city’s “bike czar,” Boston established about 5 miles of new bike lanes in the agency’s first year. She has big plans for coming years, including a bike-share program. 

Last year, the city installed 250 new bike racks and hosted events like Hub on Wheels, an annual citywide bike festival that saw its ridership jump 60 percent from 2007 to 4,000 riders in 2008, and Bike Week, a week of biking events that drew 3,000 riders last year, a 50 percent increase from 2007, according to an annual summary released by Freedman last month.

But while local bikers say the bike czar’s office produced a solid first year – working to create a bike-friendly atmosphere in a city three times named to Bicycling magazine’s worst US cities for bicyclists – they’re hoping the progress gets kicked into high gear in 2009.

“In terms of people feeling like Boston welcomes bicyclists, the fact that Nicole has been working on projects and getting things done has made an impact. People understand that these things take time,” said David Watson, executive director of MassBike, a statewide biking coalition based in Boston. “I think we’re all hoping that the pace of change accelerates, and I think it will. I think the city is starting to put its money where its mouth is.”

Watson is one of several biking advocates calling for more bike lanes – particularly connections between popular biking areas. Installing more bike lanes that increase accessibility between areas such as the Arnold Arboretum, South Bay Harbor Trail, and Southwest Corridor, he said, would encourage more people to trade four wheels for two.

As would making it easier to commute downtown, said Charlie Denison, advocacy director of Livable Streets Alliance. And Debbie Munson, who sits on the advisory board to Boston Bikes and is an organizer of Dorchester biking group DotBike, pointed out that closing a three-quarter-mile gap between the Neponset River Greenway and the Boston Harbor Walk would create a waterfront path about 10 miles long.

“There’s a lot of great off-road paths in Boston, and those of us who use those know that the gaps between them make a lot of people think it’s too dangerous to ride,” Munson said, “because it’s too dangerous just to get to one of these paths.”

Freedman said she hears them loud and clear. While “really simple roads” can foster construction of a new bike lane in as little as 12 months, she said, many take two years. Still, she aims to install about 5 more miles of bike paths this year, including new lanes on Commonwealth Avenue, with the purpose of networking Kenmore Square, the Southwest Corridor, the Esplanade, the Emerald Necklace, and the Boston Common.

She’s also looking to add new lanes to Dartmouth Avenue and Allston’s Harvard Street and is sifting through proposals from network consultants in the upcoming weeks.

In addition to more lanes and continued events, her 2009 to-do list includes 250 more bike racks, publishing a bike map (the draft is available for feedback at http://www.cityofboston.gov/bikes/) and submitting a request for proposal for a bike-share program, which, when potentially launched in 2010, would include 1,500 public bikes to be used for 20,000 daily trips.

MassBike’s Watson said 2008 was, overall, a successful year for biking in Boston – especially in creating a “buzz” in the city – but that in 2009, he wants to see more.

“It would have been nice if there were even more bike racks that were installed, more bike lanes, more educating the public, more enforcement [of bike laws],” he said. “We saw parts of all of that, and I’m really hoping and expecting that we’re going to see much more of that in the future.”

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