Mayor's bike plan draws support, and criticism

The first year of real bike planning in the city of Boston has come to a close, and the city's bike coordinator, Nicole Freedman presented the results to a crowd of around 175 people at the Boston Public Library last Thursday. But despite 250 new bike racks, the first bike lanes of any length now painted on Commonwealth Avenue, and even a bike lane in the works for Dorchester Avenue, not all were happy.

A few were downright angry.

"There's a good reason there's a lawsuit," burst out South End community gardener and cyclist Betsy Johnson at the meeting. "It's counter to everything that this [presentation] is saying you're doing."

Three of Johnson's neighbors have brought a lawsuit against the city and the Mass Highway Department for narrowing sidewalks and failing to include a bike lane in a plan to reconstruct Massachusetts Avenue between Albany and St. Botolph streets this year.

The legal challenge, if won, could pave the way for a continuous bike lane from Edward Everett Circle in Dorchester all the way to Arlington as other reconstruction projects come on line in future years. But, regardless of the outcome, it speaks of the future on Dot Ave.

The Mass Ave. intersections at Albany and Melnea Cass Boulevard together form the city's worst area for pedestrian and bicycle accidents, according to Boston Emergency Medical Services ambulance-run records.

In 2005 and 2006, a total of 14 pedestrians and cyclists were hit by cars there and taken away by Boston EMS ambulances. From 2001 to 2006, an average of five people were hit there each year.

One high-ranking employee at Boston EMS told this reporter he personally witnessed two deaths at Mass Ave. and Albany during his career while walking to and from work, one involving a bicyclist and a tractor-trailer rig.

"What it came down to was they could either install the left hand turn lanes to keep traffic flowing or put in a bike lane," said the city's assistant corporation counsel Karen Roache, who is handling the case. "It's a very busy stretch. [The designers and community chose installing the turn lanes.] Unfortunately it was at the expense of the bike lane."

Roache emphasizes that a long community process beginning in 2000 or 2001 was held to design the roadway. But according to members of the community task force, Boston Transportation Department head Tom Timlin and city engineer Para Jayasinghe told them on several different occasions during 2008 and late 2007 that any changes to the project could jeopardize state and federal funding for it. In other words, change it and it may not happen at all.

At around the same time, pedestrian, bicycle and disabled persons' advocates were pressuring the city to change the plan.

"At this point the fear is if you don't go ahead with what's designed we'll get nothing," said Catherine Hunt, a member of the community task force that reviewed the design and vice president of the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association. "I'm not against striped bike lanes. In an ideal world I'd like to get rid of the parking along Mass Ave. Everyone's concern is that this street go back to the quality that it had, which is a residential boulevard."

Hunt and others in the neighborhood hope to slow down and reduce traffic along Mass Ave., but the city's design - though not necessarily creating higher speeds - is specifically designed to add capacity for more traffic on the street with the addition of left hand turn lanes.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Ken Kruckemeyer, a long time transportation activist who ran the community input process for the state's 4.7 mile-long South West Corridor Park back in the 1980s; Cyndi Walling, a bike commuter; and Dennis Heaphy, a paraplegic who rides a wheelchair to work and objects to the narrowed sidewalks.

Andrew Fischer, one of two attorneys arguing the lawsuit, said that traffic studies used in the community design process represent traffic flows that existed before the Big Dig was completed, and were therefore overblown.

"The Big Dig was a success, it took traffic off Mass Ave.," said Fischer. "You can take the benefit of that and give it to the cyclists and pedestrians. You don't need dedicated turn lanes at every intersection… Instead of giving us three months to get it right, they spent six months hustling the neighbors and putting off the advocates."

State law requires "reasonable provisions" for bicycle accommodation on any new road project. The Mass Highway commissioner has a right to deny those accommodations only where it would interfere with public safety, degrade environmental quality, or conflict with existing rights of way.

Those reasons haven't entered into the city's defense so far. The first motion Roache filed in the case is based on a technicality.

"The city's position on this is the plaintiffs don't have standing in this case," said Roache. "That section [of the law] doesn't grant a private right of action."

Fischer, representing the plaintiffs, conjectures that the city's strategy is to delay the case until the road construction is underway, thus too far along to make changes. He has already filed a motion declaring the residents do have standing.

Aside from the potential for a safe route out of Edward Everett Square to the city and beyond, the Mass. Ave. battle's outcome could signal things to come on other thoroughfares.

Already, the city seems more open to bike accommodations along Dot Ave., with an apparent focus on the wider stretch between Freeport Street and Columbia Road for a possible bike lane. The street is among several that the city hopes to begin design work on this year.

"In a lot of ways it's really encouraging to see what's happening, but as someone living out in Dorchester I feel very left out," said Debbie Munson a member of Dot Bike, Dorchester's bicycle advocacy group. "There's nothing along Blue Hill and I don't think Hyde Park was even shown on any slide."

Though Dot Bike members haven't "pushed" the idea formally with the city, many see Talbot Avenue as an opportunity for a bike lane. Wide from the days when the number 22 trolley tracks ran down it, Talbot Avenue would interconnect Dot Ave., Washington Street and Blue Hill Avenue, and create a safe passage for young riders from Peabody Square to Franklin Field and Franklin Park.

So far Talbot isn't on the city's short list of "low-hanging fruit" but Freedman said it would be looked at in a larger bike network plan that would seek to connect bike lanes, paths and other accommodations. Freedman said she is examining requests for proposals (RFP) from potential consultants on that plan now, hoping to award the project to a bidder by March.

She said she is also set to put out an RFP for the creation of a bike-sharing program in February. Bike sharing programs such as the one now being piloted in Washington D.C. allow bike-share members to borrow public bikes using Zipcar-like technology.

Freedman also told the crowd at BPL central that the city would publish a new bike map in 2009, as well as open a Facebook page and install 250 more bike racks around the city - largely by resident request. For more information, see www.cityofboston.gov/bikes.