Mayor rolls out new bicycle coordinator: Will Dorchester feel the difference?

As Mayor Thomas Menino's quadriceps have grown from riding his new silver Trek bike around Hyde Park over the past six weeks, so has his administration's resolve in making the city a friendlier place all cyclists.

His first act of bicycle-friendliness is scheduled for today, the introduction of a new bike coordinator, a long-vacant position in the city. Nicole Freedman, a one-time Olympian and long-time advocate who already works for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, will take the job. Her first initiatives include new bike racks across the city and a data-gathering effort geared toward mapping safe routes for beginning riders and targeting problem areas for improvements.

"I think Boston is a unique place," said Freedman. "Bicycling is the fastest form of transportation in the city, and the city has all the natural advantages to be one of the best bike cities in the country."

For decades, bicycle advocates in Dorchester and across the city have voiced the same opinion. Other cities, such as Chicago, Washington D.C., and nearby Cambridge, have invested in bike lanes and other amenities while Boston has leaned on the 14-foot wide outer lane on new roads as a bicycle accommodation. The reconstruction of Massachusetts Avenue from Everett Circle to Symphony Hall could include such a lane.

It isn't the first time the city has made a pro-biking move. Paul Schimek was the city's pedestrian and bicycle coordinator circa 2002, but was laid off. His principal act was installing bike racks around town. Bike advocates also took heart on Sept. 3, 2006 when a letter from Tom Timlin, then acting commissioner of the Boston Transportation Department, appeared in the Boston Globe.

"Bicycle lanes will be built on Commonwealth Avenue, between Kenmore Square and the BU Bridge," it read. But, even though construction has already begun on the project, the Mayor's press office was not able to confirm whether or not the lanes will be built by press time.

"The whole plan is: We realize we're not very good at this, but the city can be very good at this if we work on it," said spokesperson for the mayor Jennifer Mehigan. "We have a lot of long term plans and a lot of ideas, and that's where we're at."

"The best thing that is happening is that the Mayor and his administration really want to see bicycle access improve in the city," said Freedman. "We talked to a number of other cities and the number one key to success is the support of the mayor. We're planning a bicycle summit for late October, bringing in consultants, key advocates, City Hall and others. A lot of what comes out of that summit will guide our plans. I want to make sure that everything we do is well thought out."

Freedman's mapping project has two aspects. One will collect safe routes to create a map similar to Boston Bikemap, produced by Rubel's Bikemaps, but with more detail. And a second will attempt to measure through anecdote and actual bike counts which routes in the city are actually used. Freedman admitted that the feedback she has so far is somewhat skewed.

"You certainly see a trend of riders in Jamaica Plain, Cambridge and Somerville," she said. "When we saw that originally, a flag went up. Is this just a trend or did we not reach out to enough people?"

Since then, Freedman has used the Hub on Wheels registration lists to reach out to more people, and a soon to be built website will use mapping technology to gather even more. But until that time, riders can still give her input via e-mail at nicole.freedman.bra@cityofboston.gov or by phone: 617-918-4456.

The city has also hired a contractor to conduct bike counts in the city. In Dorchester, counts are in the works for intersections at Dot Avenue and Columbia Road, Blue Hill Avenue and Columbia, and the Neponset Bike Path.

"I've definitely seen a lot more riding than I used to," said Hung Le of Codman Cycles on Adams Street. "A lot of families are moving in."

Le said the youth that come in to his store often come in without helmets, riding cheap Wal-Mart style bikes that are hard to maintain and often complain about their bikes getting stolen. Most of his repair customers though, are adults.

"Bicycle lanes. That would help," said Le. "These streets are pretty wide, it doesn't hurt to paint some lines and put up some signs like I see in Cambridge."

Bike lanes are definitely in Freedmans lexicon, but she cautions that it may be some time before her office begins advocating for particular improvements, even on current projects like Massachusetts and Commonwealth Avenues. Still, local riders seem to mention bike lanes or paths as their first priority.

"In lots of parts of Cambridge there are bike lanes and it just feels safer and easier," said Kate Rome, who regularly rides to school at UMass-Boston from North Cambridge with her sister Emma.

Other riders focus on more recreational routes, such as the missing links along the waterfront, particularly in Port Norfolk along Morrissey Boulevard near the I-93 underpass.

"For instance, they've got a sign there that says no bicycles, but you definitely got to go through there," said Daniel Suarez who's been riding bikes in Dorchester for decades. "The drivers are telling me to get off the road, and that's not good."

Vivian Girard, a bike commuter and member of the Five Streets Neighborhood Association, prioritizes Dorchester Avenue, a route popular with bike commuters.

"Several busy intersections along Dorchester Avenue are being redesigned to ease traffic," wrote Girard in an e-mail. "To my understanding, the new designs offer little improvement for bicyclists. If the people of Dorchester and their elected officials embraced bicycling in the same way they cherish the automobile, many personal and communal issues could be dramatically diminished. Poor access to transportation, poor health, money matters, etc. are all problems that can be tempered when people switch from car to bike."

More immediately, Freedman is also seeking input on where to put new bike racks. Most of them will be placed near institutions and MBTA stations, she said.

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