DotBike spawns imitators in city neighborhoods; Neighborhood-based groups recall bicycling heyday

Bicycling groups aren't yet endorsing candidates for public office, holding back-room meetings at City Hall or clogging the roads with bicycles, but for the first time in decades, the neighborhood-based bike group seems to be back.

DotBike, a small group of dedicated bike commuters, formed during the city's bike summit a year ago, now others are following suit.

In May, Allston-Brighton Bikes took shape. Last week, RozzieBike and JPBike held their first meetings. It's got all the makings of a trend.

This kind of thing happened once before though few, if any, are alive to remember it. Back at the turn of the last century, bicycle clubs were multitudinous. On one Sunday in April, 1895, the Boston Morning Journal reported 25,000 cyclists on the streets in one day.

Beyond just advocacy groups or organizers of rides, cycling clubs in those days represented centers for socializing in general. Groups like the Metropolitan Wheelmen, the Diamond Club and the Tonkys spent their non-pedaling time organizing contests of billiards, chess, whist and pedro. Dorchester sported a few, such as the Tiger Wheelmen and the Rahkajak Wheelmen, and there was even a Press Club wheeling around. Some, like the Roslindale Cycling Club, even owned buildings to house their clubs and put on dances and shows.

Bound together by regional and national umbrella groups like the League of American Wheelmen, the groups advocated for road improvements long before potholes were on every mayor's radar and for cyclist's rights.

Locally, wheelmen groups campaigned against an 1899 park regulation that required all bikers to carry acetylene lamps on their cycles when traveling through the Emerald Necklace at night, even though the park was well lit.

Earlier this month, when the Boston Parks Department held a meeting about Franklin Park transportation plans, members from DotBike, RozzieBike and JPBike made up nearly half the audience. They advocated for a bike lane on Circuit Drive and other amenities, but they weren't the first.

"In such swarms do they frequent the Boston parks that, in planning the great meeting place for promenaders, carriages and riders in Franklin Park... it has been deemed essential to lay out a separate way for bicycles," wrote secretary to the Metropolitan Park Commission Sylvester Baxter in an October, 1892 issue of 'Arena.'

In those days, races were held in Franklin Park, cyclist clubs were featured centrally in papers like the Dorchester Beacon and the Jamaica Plain News, and some even endorsed city council candidates. They were much like what DotBike and others say they hope to become.

"The idea is fantastic and it's one of the things a lot of us have been hoping for," said Steve Miller, head of Hub on Wheels, a yearly bike festival. "There are some groups that are playing the big view, but you also need someone who is really local, finding the bike routes that need help, good spots for bike parking and helping educate."

No place has that been more clear than along Massachusetts Avenue in the South End. Between Albany and Westland Avenue, the street is due to be completely reconstructed, a prime time to create bike lanes. But neighborhood associations in the area have long worked on a plan that included planters in the middle of the road. Limited space pitted the associations against bike and pedestrian advocacy groups reacting to the plan. A final solution has yet to be worked out.

"Part of what's happening is that there's a new epic of people who are invested in cycling," said Miller. "In a sense we have to open up our processes to let this uprising be heard."

In Dorchester, DotBike has run formations in the Dorchester Day Parade, led several bike rides, helped out in District C-11's annual Bike Rodeo, advocated for dozens of new bike racks that are popping up around the neighborhood, and attended dozens of community events and meetings.

Along with the Talbot Harvard and Bernard Neighborhood Association and the Talbot-Washington Safe Neighborhood Initiative, DotBike is beginning to press for a bike lane on Talbot Avenue between Peabody Square and Blue Hill Avenue.

"Our main goal is getting more people to ride," said Andrew Schroeder, a key member. "If you can do that within your community it's definitely more effective."

Quite a few members of DotBike have been active in the neighborhood other ways, such as Vivian Girard, also a leader in the Five Streets Neighborhood Association, Debbie Munson on the Executive Board of the Ashmont Hill Association and Roseanne Foley, who works for DotWell advocating environmental health in the neighborhood.

"A lot of people think we're the lycra-nazi crowd, but no, it's all cyclists," said Laura Smeaton of the nascent RozzieBike group. "It's about realizing that we have some common needs. I'm seeing so many more riders over the past year. It's just been phenomenal. If we all got together we could really have a strong voice in the city and the government."