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  • Writer's pictureSteven Banninger

How the "Controversy" around the recently completed Boylston Street Better Bike and Bus Lane Project shows us there’s a Larger Conversation about Bike Lanes We’re Not Having

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Our Future Bostonia: An in depth look into the Evolution of Boston into a Mid-21st Century City, what it means for our communities and competing public interests.

Every Monday & Tuesday; By Steve Banninger, Architecture and Urban Planning Writer for ExploreBoston.com


The debate started last year when the city unveiled the Boylston Street Better Bike & Bus Lanes Project. Which immediately generated a flurry of criticism, when it comes to the growing number of the green bike lanes we see, I myself have been in the interesting position of disagreeing with people who I normally agree with. Even Dylan, my partner has said to me, “Look I’m not against the bike lanes, but they removed a lane and now I’m sitting in traffic looking at a bike lane no one is using.” Having attended grad school for urban planning, I understand how bike lanes provide protection for bikers from distracted drivers. This encourages people to use bicycles, roller blades, or scooters to get around which takes cars off the road. With the rapid adoption of E-Bike and E-Scooters, less exertion is required to go faster and farther increasing adoption again. However, bike lanes work best when they are a part of a large robust network and until that point is reached, criticism can swell especially from business owners who are wary of having their bottom line affected; especially those who lose parking spots directly in front of their shops.

 


So, what is the City of Boston doing with the Bike Lanes?


Besides Mainzer-Cohen who is the President of the Back Bay Association; Martyn Roetter chair of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay and City Councilor of District 2 Ed Flynn also oppose the project. They all have their stated reasons, most of which have straightforward rebuttals, but Meg Mainzer-Cohen’s comment about an increase in traffic being considered a success by the city is an interesting one. It’s not a faithful representation of the city’s aims, but she has point that has been echoed by many other Bostonians.

Mainzer-Cohen and Councilor Fly mention other areas which have had these "multi-modal" or "complete streets" improvements made. Those projects and the Boylston project are a part of the city-wide Better Bike Lanes Project which has been underway since Tomas Menino was Mayor and the plan aimed to create a functioning well used network of bike lanes. The Back Bay project will complement other ongoing initiatives, such as the Connect Downtown Project, the Berkly Street Bike Lane Project, and two different phases of bike lanes on the stretch of Boylston in the Fenway. Those were just the ones that stood out in relation to this project but there are adjacent ones like the under construction green link between the Muddy River Reservation (Fenway) and Lansdowne St Station. I recommend checking out the project page, especially if you enjoy looking at city maps.



Well, how does the city describe the project?


Despite the vocal opposition, there are many people in favor of the project which can be described as two groups: Officials and Bikers. Officials in favor of the project are Mayor Michele Wu and City Councilor of District 8 Sharon Durkan, who shares responsibility for representing Boylston with Councilor Flynn and supports the project. More importantly however are Boston's Chief of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion Segun Idowu, Chief of Streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge, and the City’s Green New Deal Director Oliver Seller-Garcia all who have been working to get the project to its best version.

Idowu’s comments about this 15-mintue city the mayor and her officials wish to create refers to a metric used by architects and planners called a walking radius; commonly diagramed in rings of 5, 10, 15 mins. Over fifteen minutes is usually considered a point where it unreasonable to expect someone to walk in their day-to-day life when not take taking a leisurely stroll; the importance of this metric is further underscored by New England’s unpredictable and temperamental weather patterns. By providing a train, bus or bike lane you’re in effect extending that radius; thus the fifteen minute city. It is also important to note that housing units are priced and marketed as more desirable if they have transit in the five- or ten-minute radius.


Officials list the following on Boston.gov to describe the project goals:



These critiques refer to point 1, 4, and 5 of the project’s goals, are all connected to how the city views this area, as a major commercial and leisure district. “My concern is that they're not giving enough of a study to the impacts that this is going to have," Meg Mainzer-Cohen told WBZ. "Here's what we know: We know there are 30,000 pedestrians who go through this intersection. There are about 13,000 vehicles. There are about 625 bicycles and about 320 buses." She said this in reference to the 90 parking spaces the city will remove with the addition of a bus lane from Dartmouth to Arlington St.

While these criticisms seem damming to the project, there are some important facts to consider. First and easiest to point out, while 90 spaces will be removed, 229 out of 324 will be maintained. The bus lane will also improve access for senior citizens or the handicapped who can’t afford a vehicle, rideshare, or who cannot drive themselves.

It also important to note, there’s already a problem with double parking on Boylston Street so the city will be adding 15 min drop off/pick up zones for regular and commercial deliveries; that’s what the curb regulations are in point 5.


Removing the third lane is a traffic calming measure that will cause traffic to slow down, making it safer for senior citizens to cross especially now that the distance to cross is shorter, stated in point 1. This is because it will make the street seem narrower to drivers causing them to slow down. Also, a lot of traffic is generated by drivers who unnecessarily switch lanes. The shorter timing could be problematic, especially for the visually or mobility impaired if they’re having trouble getting their bearings, but the slower traffic should reduce the potential for collision.


But this leads us to another point Mainzer-Cohen had made to WCVB, "They are showing preference for some users to the detriment of others,"


PC: Boston Transportation Department - Diagrams showing changes to Mass Ave- Mandarin D'way Boylston St and additional new Curb Regulations


Are the Cyclists really being show preference here?


PC: Boston Transportation Department - Diagrams showing changes to Mandarin D'Way to Dartmouth section of Boylston and Curb Regulations


In the WCVB interview Meg Mainzer-Cohen said, "The city seems indifferent to the uses and the needs of this very important artery for the city of Boston. Returning to Boston’s Chief of Streets, “We’ve done the analysis on this,” Franklin-Hodges continues in his interview with GBH, “We’re confident that that lane during those peak hours will be able to feed the intersection and keep cars moving through it. So we’ve really tried to engineer this to minimize any impact on vehicular capacity.” Earlier in the same interview Franklin-Hodges says, “They’re taking transit. They’re walking. They’re using the bus,” he said seeming to refer to points 2 & 3 in the city’s plan. “These are folks who are the lifeblood of the businesses here. And what we’re trying to do is build a corridor that can continue to allow them to come and move, to make it easier and safer and more comfortable for them, while still making sure that the folks who need to drive can do so, that deliveries can happen, and that what the businesses need will be taken care of.”


Many opposed to the project have accused the city of not listening or being open to compromise with local residents however on the project's webpage, there are very prominent posting of office hours to discuss the bike lane improvements in the Back Bay. The project itself was generated from suggestion boxes and feedback from the Go Boston 2030 Plan, while the city has also put on a number of other events and listening sessions both virtual and in person. "The city has worked with local residents and business owners to gather feedback on the plan, which will improve pedestrian safety, update curb regulations, and reduce conflicts," said a spokesperson for the city to WBZ.



What do the Cyclists say?


PC: Boston Transportation Department - Diagrams showing changes to Dartmouth to Berkley section of Boylston and Curb Regulations


PC: Boston Transportation Department - ARC GIS Map of High Cash Corridors, Bike Collisions Highlighted in Yellow Pedestrian Collisions Highlighted in Red


Co-Chair of the group Southie Bikes, Corey Dinopoulus had this to say to Councilor Ed Flynn in the previously mentioned virtual meeting held a week before the start of the project, reported on by the Boston Herald, “Your stance on bike lanes undermines the safety and rights of cyclists, and we all deserve to cycle and commute without the fear of being on the same road with distracted drivers.” This happened when cyclists, the majority of those in attendance, unmuted and interrupted, feeling that Flynn was prioritizing feedback from Back Bay residents and business owners. In response to being accused of this by Southie Bikes on X, formerly Twitter, the city councilor posted, "Although I almost never engage in these discussions on social media, I was respectful to all. It’s also important that we respect others’ opinions. We can disagree without being disrespectful. We need more civility in society. Part of these discussions must also include compromise."


I’m not going to wade into the specifics of a toxic online fight laced with accusations, but I do find it frustrating that some political and business leaders refuse to acknowledge that Boylston Street does not belong just to them but all of us who frequent the shops, restaurants, and bars of Boylston; or those of us simply using Boylston as a corridor to reach other destinations. The first places Dylan took me on our first date to the city are on that very street, which we accessed from the Boylston Green Line Station. The fact that many of these cyclists simply want their safety to be taken as a prime concern, while being met with spurious arguments that they are being unfairly prioritized or that the city is not open to comprise; is simply disappointing in a city that is supposed to be known for our discourse on critical issues of our time, our past, and our future. To be fair Meg Mainzer-Cohen dropped her opposition to the bike lanes, but continued to call for a delay to start the bus lanes while councilor Flynn opposed the whole project up to it's start despite for originally saying he was for safer streets.

PC: Boston Transportation Department - Diagrams showing changes to Berkley to Arlington section of Boylston and Curb Regulations



So, IS this project in the Public Interest, and what exactly is this larger conversation we’re not having?




So yea when Dylan and I drove down Boylston this weekend, there was some congestion. There's no more third lane, the bright green bike lane curved around the Marathon Memeorial, the bus lane still looked like it needed some red paint. "Still no bikers," Dylan quipped with a smile as I shot him a fake glare; we both broke into laughter. Granted it was raining and the project seemed not to be complete yet. Suffice it to say however, I’m still for the project and glad it is almost finished. I will say this however, no one is properly describing just how transformative the project is; nor are they describing how it all relates to what else has already been done or will be done in the city.


PC: Boston Transportation Department - Open Newbury Plan June 30, July 7, July 4, July 21, July 28, August 4, August 11, August 18, August 25, and September 1


Running parallel to Boylston Street is Newbury, a street which the city shuts down to car traffic in the summer on the weekends. Many hope that it will become a permanent feature of the city; as traffic turning towards Newbury looking for parking seemed to be the main cause of traffic when we were there, I think the possibility of this just increased. Parallel to that street is Commonwealth Avenue which forms an important greenway link between the Commons and Chalresgate; the start of The Fens and the Muddy River Reservation. Surrounding all this, is the Harbor Walk, the Charles River parks and bike paths, and Jamica Pond; the journey through all of them can take the better part of a day on foot, with lots of stops for food and shopping along the way.


On the other side Boylston is the Prudential Center, Boston Library, Copley, the Handcock Tower, and a cluster of high-rise hotels. Huntington, Columbus, and Tremont all angle so that they’re directing traffic toward Copley and the Commons.


What the city is trying to do, is in effect create a bike, bus, and pedestrian focused zone stretching from downtown to Fenway. Combined with the Green Line running through this area and the Orange Line running adjacent to it, both of which are getting new trains. With the green line getting extra capacity trains for peak and surge events; the whole area will hopefully soon be able to be covered in much less than 15 minutes in a safer, easier, and much more efficient way. I suspect the businesses in this area will not only see a stable flow of customers, but an increase. I for one would visit the area more if there was a reduction in noisy cars and reckless drivers who can’t wait to leave our great city for their boring suburb while they blare their horns during our attempt to enjoy a nice streetside dinner outside. 


In Conclusion


This isn’t about disrespectful cyclists being shown an unfair preference by an uncompromising city; it's about the fact we have been showing an unfair preference to automobile users and automobiles despite the number of pedestrians and cyclists who transit the area. We have simply pushed our streets past their current traffic capacity which is the main cause of congestion in Boston and especially on Boylston, hence the removal of an extraneous third lane that encourages disruptive passing. While this project is underway and unlikely to be shelved at this point, there is clearly a growing anti-bike lane coalition or possibly an anti-Michel Wu coalition looking for the smallest reason for voters to turn against her in the next election. I was not surprised to recently read in an interview with WBZ News that Ed Flynn is leaving the door open for a future run against Wu or an article from GBH about a fundraiser for Flynn titled "Save our City". Flynn now joins Josh Kraft as a rumored challenger to Wu while North End Restaurantier Jorge Mendoza Iturralde had already announced.


It's far from the election, but the founder of advocacy planning Paul Davidoff argued that planning is inherently adversarial because it involves competing interests and values, making it a political process by nature. The urban planning discipline in the United States has a storied past, similar to Boston and by understanding the influence those schooled under the discipline have on our city, we may yet to come to understand what Our Future Bostonia has in store for us.



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