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Boston’s Urban Bike Culture

Boston's urban bicyclist: friend or foe? (AP)

Boston's urban bicyclist: friend or foe? (AP)

Walking or driving around the streets of Boston, you may have spotted the native, two-wheeled creature, known as Duos Rota Bostonia.

Yes, OK. Of course I made it up. But Duos Rota Bostonia has a kinder ring, don’t you think, than what others would call Boston’s urban cyclists. Brian McGrory calls them “the scourge of the city.”

In a recent column in the Boston Globe, McGrory went farther, expressing not only his particular distaste for those two-wheeled, lycra-clad, take-no-prisoners, traffic-darting cyclists, but suggesting the city ban street cyclists outright.

“Riding around downtown Boston, the Kenmore square area, the Boston University area, typically going as fast as cars are out there, except for they don’t bother with stop signs, they don’t bother with red lights, they don’t stop for pedestrians and crosswalks,” McGrory tells me in a recent phone conversation.

He arguest that Boston’s bicyclists don’t follow the rules of the road and some of them act as if they don’t have to follow the laws of physics, either.

And, wait- what about Boston’s drivers and pedestrians? They aren’t following all the rules of the road either. Step foot on the streets of Boston, look both ways and you will find that you are in the middle of a low-grade, three-way urban turf war.

Boston's urban cyclists set off. Whose's roads are these? (AP)

Boston's urban cyclists set off. Whose's roads are these? (AP)

McGrory agrees: “You have this stew on our city streets of drivers who may typically be in a rush, and may not be the most polite people,” he says. “And what you do have is bedlam, and it’s only going to get worse when we start this new bike sharing program.”

McGrory’s being deliberately inflammatory. (It is the columnist’s wont to inject a little melodrama to make a point.) Here’s a man, after all, who owns a bike, rides it in the suburbs, even has fond memories of delivering the Globe by bike around his neighborhood as a young paperboy.

Still, what irks McGrory is that there is something peculiar going on in the Boston version of this transportation war. Boston is not New York, or Copenhagen, or Paris, or Vancouver, he says. It’s old Beantown. It’s paved over cowpaths and narrow streets. It’s squares that aren’t square. It’s historic buildings and crumbling sidewalks. It’s a city that may not be suited for all modes of transportation.

And yet Boston is launching a new bike-share program. Hubway, a novel low-cost rental program that’s been very successful in several other cities. Residents and tourists will be able to rent 600 bikes located in 60 kiosks in select areas of the city.

For a man like McGrory, the bike-share program is like living in an imaginary Boston utopia. “People grabbing bikes for very little money, happily peddling to an outdoor café across town and you know, everybody living in perfect harmony with bunnies skipping across the meadows,” he says.

But here’s the thing. Even McGrory admits that we might see him on the back of a Hubway bike. “I’ll be honest,” he says, “If these bikes are convenient and I need to get up to Fenway Park, I would think nothing of jumping on one. But, I’ll tell you what. I guarantee you I’d stop for stop signs and traffic lights.”

What do you think?

Do you agree with Brian McGrory? Are urban cyclists as the two-wheeled miscreants of the metropolis? (“Miscreant” – that’s McGrory’s word, not mine.) Or if you are one of the fast growing numbers of city cyclists, do you think the real problem is drivers? Do you think the streets of Boston can handle 600 more bikes in the hands of potentially inexperienced riders? How would you describe the city’s biking culture, and how would you make it better?

We discuss Boston’s bike culture with David Watson, executive director of MassBike, a state-wide bicycle advocacy group, and Vice Mayor of Cambridge Henrietta Davis, formerly the chair of Cambridge City Council Traffic and Transportation Committee.



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  • Anonymous

    Stay off the sidewalks and don’t go the wrong way on the street.

  • http://twitter.com/TheReoWorld A. Reovan

     I look forward to hearing the guests’ thoughts! I’d be interested to hear how different cities react to this issue, e.g. LA (where speed limits on downtown streets often exceed 40mph) vs Boston vs New York (which both have slower downtown driving speeds). Is there something to be said for the challenges of these interacting modes of transportation increasing our alertness and our caution when navigating the street by any mode?

    But as a regular bicycle commuter myself, I am often shocked at the number of lights run and the number of near-misses with cars and pedestrians I see from my fellow cyclists. Sharing the road goes both ways!

  • SMK

    As a pedestrian, I would like the cyclists to observe the rules of the road. I have had more near misses with cyclists running red lights in cross walks than with cars.

  • Dan

    I disagree with McGrory.  The more bikes on the road the safer it is for everyone.  Look at Netherlands. 

    • Gall

      Studies show that the more bikes on the road the safer it is.  Car slow down and are more aware of of bikers.  And there are less cars on the road. 

  • Markus

    What is interesting is how simplistic are McGrory’s generalizations. I think there are some pretty arrogant cyclists, but the majority are as afraid of cars and defensive as they should be. But you have to wonder about the analytic skills of a columnist who sees things so black and white.  Reading his other articles, I’m not surprised.

  • Walrus

    Here is a great link to a blogger from Somerville!


  • CBS

    I agree with SMK.  I thought they were supposed to follow the road rulles not use them as suggestions!!  Can’t tell you how many times I have stepped, in the crosswalk, on Brattle Street, which is one way, and nearly had my arm or leg taken with them because they are going the wrong way and do not give any warning when they see me!!!  I know that is Cambridge but I have been thrown to the street in Post Office Square years ago by messengers going through the lights at break neck speed.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IBAPVTH222H2GW3LG7RVD46JHY L Dudani


  • Anonymous

    I don’t mind sharing the street with cyclists but I will not share the sidewalk.

  • Bpaine

    Kyoto – scary bicyclists with little regard for pedestrians sharing the sidewalk. 

  • Nathaniel J Fink

    Wish I could call in but am at work. Cyclists come in all shapes and sizes and it is absolutely wrong to make generalizations about all of them. When I hear motorists complaining about cyclists I have to roll my eyes- just remember that you’re in several ton potentially lethal machine and you are one of many modes of transportation in the city. Cyclists are often driven to desperate measures and extreme defensiveness by their treatment by motorists. Our cycling facilities in Boston need major improvement- more bike lanes, protected bike lanes and traffic signals that favor cyclists and pedestrians. We ought to educated all citizens on the actual laws around cycling since many people don’t even know.

  • SMK

    Improving bike infrastructure does not address the problem of cyclists not observing the rules of the road. Unless police ticket cyclists, the “culture” will not change.

  • John

    I bike year round in Boston and I have never seen or even heard of police stopping a biker.   I agree Police need to start cracking down on reckless bikers.   

  • Ryan

    I have to agree that enforcement of traffic laws is a huge issue in the city of Boston. More importantly, I think knowledge of rights of a cyclist is severely lacking. While not to go as far as a license, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to have classes, or a level of accountability tied to cyclists.

    Also, as a “Lycra clad cyclist” I take offense that we are always the aggressors. I am an avid Lycra-clad and try to always follow the rules of the road. It’s a cultural issue of all cyclists, not just the more experienced cyclists.

  • Anne

    I bike everyday to and from work. Boston and Cambridge streets don’t offer consistent bike lanes, making it near impossible for me to 100% obey the laws. I bike in  jeans and skirts; I’m not a crazy biker. But I have doored and near run-over by drivers not noticing that there is a bike lane or that a road is a “bike-share” road. Drivers are not aware of bikers in Boston.

    • Tim Pierce

      Anne, keep in mind that you’re not obligated to use a bike lane anywhere in Boston or Cambridge. The law allows you to take the lane, and often it’s the safer choice to do so. You can be a 100% law-abiding cyclist even despite the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t bike lanes in the city. :-)

  • Kaufmann

    AS a biker, I just have two words CELL PHONES.  I have a close call nearly once a week and almost always, the driver of the car (or the careless pedestrian) is on their cell phone either talking (legal) or texting (illegal).  Solution #1 no use of cell phones, in any way shape or form when driving

  • Slow the #@*% down!

    I think the comments about aggressive drivers in Boston actually stretches throughout much of MA.  I think some additional police enforcement of aggressive driving and speeding in residential areas would go a long way to changing the “me first” mentality of the state’s drivers toward other cars, bikes, and pedestrians.

  • Hill

    I think it all comes down to respect.  Drivers have no respect for other drivers so why would you expect them to show respect to bikers.   

  • Britt

    If the Greenway had decent bike paths, a lot of bike traffic – at least from North Station to South Station – could be diverted from downtown.

  • Bostonsenior

    I am in my 70′s and bike often around Downtown Crossing and in the Financial District, wearing street clothes and trying to obey all of the traffic rules.  And I have seen cyclists who are reckless and endangering (and they are stopped by police).

    But my biggest gripe are the pedestrians, many of whom will step off the curb, at corners or between parked cars, without looking for either cars or bikes.  I have sat on my bike at red lights and watched pedestrians walk across the street against the lights even when cars are coming into the intersection.   Check out the corner of Franklin and Federal, for example.  I don’t have nearly as many complaints about cars or even taxis, but those downtown walkers are close to suicidal!

  • Frustrated

    I just caught the tail-end of the show. Did I just hear the Cambridge Vice Mayor say that people need to be more aware of the risks cyclists pose to pedestrians?!?   I stopped commuting by bike because Cambridge police target cyclists while doing nothing about jaywalking pedestrians, including queuing up in the bike lane to jaywalk.  Why are pedestrians free from responsibility and accountability when they break the law?  It wasn’t long ago in Central Square that a woman holding a baby stepped between parked cars into the bike lane about 10 feet in front of me.  I had to make a quick decision to move into traffic. I slipped between her and an SUV coming up from behind. I looked back and she never moved. Who posed the  risk there?

    • Clint

      Cyclists ride on sidewalks in Central Square all the time–so WHO’S endangering WHO?

    • Tim Pierce

      If someone moves in front of you in the middle of traffic, the first thing to do is slow down or even stop if necessary. You had an option there that didn’t include swerving in front of a passing vehicle.

      This is actually why I avoid the bike lane most of the time. Cyclists aren’t as visible there to pedestrians or to other drivers.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_CGKOVZJAQEA3TFSXEJSMSAU4BU Frank

    Enforce laws for cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians.  When the Boston traffic department budget was gutted, we used to get articles about the race to the bottom between drivers and pedestrians.  Now we pretend that is just the way things are.  Adding bike lanes won’t change a thing.  Aggressive enforcement or handguns are our only hope, and I’m praying that enforcement comes before the guns do.

  • Circusmcgurkus

    I was a very good, law abiding cyclist going the correct way down a one-way street when I got hit by a car going the wrong way down a one-way street at 6:00 a.m. in 2009.  My injuries have so far prevented me from getting back on a bike but I am hopeful that one day I will be able to ride again.  I think part of the problem is that people, generally, are distracted.  Drivers are on their phones, like many cyclists, pedestrians ignore lights and traffic, cyclists – some professional messengers, some hot rods, do not want to slow down for city traffic because it is not as much fun as zipping through.
    As a practical matter, Boston’s streets are crowded and confusing and our population is not always as attentive as it could be.  To be fair, we also have MORE pedestrians and MORE cyclists than a lot of other towns (and also fewer obese people…)  It is hard to share the road, but all compromises are hard.  It’s kind of amusing that the quintessential, if seemingly dated, Boston children’s book, Make Way for Ducklings, is about this very issue.  We need more police officers like Michael who helped the darlings ducklings stay safe.  The police today are otherwise occupied…as is everyone else.

  • “Look both ways before…”

    While I do think cyclist need to obey the rules of the road.  What pedestrian walks into the road without looking!?  I never cross the street without checking even if I have a walk signal. 

    • Frustrated

      Well then, you’d be surprised. When I biked to work, I saw it each trip to and from work. It is quite amazing.  Now, if you think about how many people don’t put the shopping cart away or leave it perpendicular to an aisle in the store, you’ll realize that most people are generally not aware of their surroundings.

    • Tim Pierce

      It’s kind of nuts but I often see pedestrians step right out in front of oncoming traffic without turning a hair. Sometimes I see someone *start* to cross a street just as the cross traffic gets their green signal. Crazy stuff.

  • Anonymous

    I saw two cyclists crash into each other recently.  I think one blamed the pedestrians and the other blamed the cars. 

  • kswebster

    The only times I’ve run red lights is when the weight of my bike + me did not trigger the light to change, at intersections where a trigger is necessary. I also have to swerve for potholes frequently. I can’t obey laws that are impossible or dangerous to follow. Improve the infrastructure and everyone will be safer.

  • Chris

    in a car, on a bike, on foot…it’s people, people…. I am not-as-abled and a pedestrian. I obey the rules of the streets as I’m not physically agile enough to remove myself from harm’s way if I’d get in a pickle…hence: pretty strict about that…back when I was more abled I was always on the alert anyway. Cos I didn’t want to be hit….I was struck by a bicycle as a kid so I know what sort of damage can happen…

    I see something in Cambridge everyday with autos. you all see it, I don’t need to tell you. My favorite story of the day was when I saw a cyclist on Cambridge Street sidewalk on a busy weekend day. He was a father actually, NO helmet, with his not-quite toddler on the back(at least the baby had a helmet), talking on a cell phone essentially WITHOUT hands. even if he had actually been in the street he would have been going the ‘wrong way’, against the flow. He got NOTHING right. …

    Just like people on the bus, or in a car, evidently phone conversations are more important than the safety of others or encroaching on their personal space(noise pollution). I’m eco-minded but I am safety-minded & courtesy-minded. 600 more bikes? I don’t think so.  I’ve known too many people injured on bikes & the cowboys & oblivious in all contingents here, there are just too many here.

    Enforce the rules of the road first, change behavior, then think about adding more wheels on the streets. People have to prove themselves worthy.

    everyday in harv sq it’s a free-for-all with the speed at which some
    cyclists descend on pedestrians or just ppl standing waiting for buses—on the Sidewalk. They approach, with the waiting bus passengers NOT facing them, turning to look at the time on the public clock perhaps—
    so they don’t know they’re even there. The riders come within an INCH of someone’s body.
    If the person shifted
    his/her weight, they’d be a gonner.

    I say beef up traffic enforcement and whip everyone into shape. That includes car, bike & foot traffic. No idea where the money will come for this, but it’s truly the only remedy. I think enforcement is an issue. Give some people an inch, they’ll take a mile. then someone has a terrible experience and pays the hostility forward esp when on the road day-in-and-day-out. Creating the commuting culture we have. Throw in some tourists who don’t know where they’re going, or students, it’s a blast. Chicago evidently doesn’t allow Honking one’s car horn unless it is an actual situation that warrants it. Transgress: ticket.

    If ppl can’t abide then they are gonna have to be made to slow down or deal with the consequences. it comes down to money and if the cities care, really. the only way to do it is to enforce laws and make people accountable. Accountability.

    I’m sorry, the stress of commuting as a not-as-abled individual contributes to my health concerns and creates an issue of well-being for that matter. Being ill is unpleasant enough and all this creates an environment of unpleasantness & I now have an attitude toward people. I struggle with it but try. but when the bulk of other people don’t even try….I’ve lived here all my life, have been courteous, helped strangers…

    I can say with confidence there is NOTHING and NOWHERE that you are going that you need to get there THAT FAST and recklessly to endanger other people or yourself. We used to say “where’s the fire?” Or “the hospital is that way”(gesturing opposite direction). I am historically anti-authority, but slap on those tickets, pull everyone over, enforce, and people will snap into shape. Treat them like children or treat them like children were treated in previous generations. until they act like responsible citizens. and human beings. Sadly if people don’t do it of their own accord, this is the result.

    Slow down for pete’s sake! be aware of your surroundings. would it kill? It might just kill you or someone else Not to.

  • Justin

    Too many cyclists (a LOT of them) in Boston (Cambridge/Somerville, too) simply do as they please while cycling, and public safety be damned…whizzing thru red lights, wrong-way on one-way streets, speeding in congested urban areas, cutting pedestrians off in cross-walks–they are operating MOVING VEHICLES in an urban area, but could care less about endangering public safety…

    As long as city government kow-tows to the bike lobby, there will be NO public safety for pedestrians!

  • amv5000

    i’m an  urban biker, but  i agree that some bikers are really obnoxious, but i don’t think the majority of us are.  while the traffic situation isn’t ideal, i think there need to be structural changes, such as additional signs for pedestrians, protected bike lanes (i.e. with a physical barrier),  and separate traffic signals for bikers before things become truly safe; right now bikes have a status of not quite cars, not quite pedestrians which makes things confusing and it’s never clear what rules a bikers is going to follow.  until that happens, i’ve learned to be really defensive, and assume that no one ever sees you–traffic, pedestrians, even other bikers sometimes, and just bike really carefully.  personally, i’m most scared of being hit by a someone opening a car door, being ricocheted into traffic, and then being run over.  i do, however, get really annoyed with people who think biking should be banned all together, or give me dirty looks because i’m a biker–it’s the most efficient way a travel (both in terms of time, and in terms of amount of energy expended), gas is really expensive,we’ve got a climate change problem, and  we’ve got an obesity epidemic in this country!  maybe if more people tried biking they’d see the benefits. plus, it’s fun! and infinitely less frustrating than waiting in traffic, or being in a crowded T. 

  • Get out of the way McGrory!

    Who is Brian McGrory?  Never heard of him, and why should I care about his opinion?  He sounds like a small-minded ignoramous who should go out and see the rest of the world where a bicycle is an extremely common means of transportation.  My opinion: we’d be better off without all the cars and McGrory too!

  • Moiracee

    Bikes are great, but there are rules of the road and it is imperative that everyone, including bikers, follow them for the safety of ALL concenred.

  • Tim Pierce

    I’m disappointed that McGrory’s column has received so much attention. On the Internet, we call this sort of person a “troll” — someone who makes a habit of saying absurd and outrageous things for the sole reason of drawing attention to themselves. I’m grateful that WBUR found a path to making a productive discussion out of it, but I’d prefer to see McGrory ignored as he should be.

  • Berminghamheart

    Give us an infrastructure that supports bicycling and educate drivers about sharing. I got hit coming out a a bike path at Ruggles Station because there was no clear indication of which light I should follow as a biker. Biking rules, and it’s scary but efficient. The journalist didn’t complain about the hoards of pedestrians blocking not only bike lanes, sidewalks and street traffic in Kenmore Square. Be fair.

  • Oscartist

    The old cow paths and narrow streets are inappropriate for automobiles, not bicycles.

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