By Seth Daniel
For more than a few in the Town, the mention of a dedicated bike path in the plans for Sullivan Square and Rutherford Avenue brings on a frown or the rolling of the eyes – and is sometimes seen as a bit of expensive, wasted space to accommodate a small, but vocal, group of bike riders.
Who, after all, many ask, would ride a bike to work or to Boston?
Apparently there are quite a few, and bicyclists, neighboring cities and biking organizations are cheering the move by the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) to include such a protected pathway as it makes a critical connection to a much larger network of trails.
It’s a connection that has been missing, they say, and has prevented the Northern Strand Trail and trails in Somerville and Cambridge – which all converge on Sullivan Square – from taking off the way the Minuteman Trail has blossomed in Arlington and the western suburbs.
“We know the entire North Shore has huge demand to be able to ride to and from Boston. But the ‘cork’ in that bottle is the Everett-Boston connection, where Sweetser Circle, Broadway, Sullivan Square, the North Washington Street Bridge and other regional elements combine to discourage bicycling,” said Richard Fries, executive director of MassBikes.
The Northern Strand Trail is one of the more emerging and hopeful bike commuting trails in the Greater Boston area. The trail has been in the works for more than a decade and is at varying stages of development and success throughout. The goal is to have the separated path go from downtown Boston to the beaches of Lynn.
Already, Malden and Everett have devoted significant resources to the separated path, paving it over and setting it away and off of traditional streets. In Everett, they have even established community gardens in the right-of-way of the path that grow fresh vegetables in the summer for the local food pantry. However, without the finished connections in Lynn, the path has its limitations.
But much action has taken place closer to Boston, which has bike enthusiasts like Fries and the Cities of Everett and Malden quite excited. The Wynn Boston Harbor development unlocked a great deal of stagnation on that area of the project. Currently, the dedicated path ends at Rt. 16 in Everett near the Gateway Mall. However, the developers of the Gateway Mall and the City of Everett are in the process of designing and building an extension of the path that will deliver riders to the banks of the Mystic River next to the Wynn property.
The casino is dedicated to building a bridge that would go over the water, further delivering riders to Sullivan Square. That’s where the BTD’s plan comes into play and the idea of a bike path through Charlestown to downtown becomes so important.
Some wonder, though, just how many riders would actually use such a path.
In a recent study released by the BTD, bike counts were done electronically at numerous locations across the City for the first time ever.
One location was at Main Street/Sullivan Square, and another was at the North Washington Street Bridge/Chelsea Street intersection.
At Main Street there were 294 bikes counted, or 1.5 percent of the total mode shares of transportation. At Chelsea Street, there were 346 bikes counted, or 0.8 percent. That was pretty low compared to hotbeds within the city like the Mass Ave Bridge in the Back Bay where 3,081 bikes were counted in the same time period, which was a 10.5 percent mode share.
Fries said the current counts cannot be used against putting a bike lane in place because the conditions are simply too dangerous right now. Making it safer and easier will bring more bikes through the corridor, and consequently, fewer cars. After all, he said, if people are riding bikes on Rutherford Avenue, it means they’re not driving.
“Let me quote Northeastern Professor Emeritus Peter Furth: ‘We cannot measure the demand for a bridge by the number of people swimming across the river,’” he said. “Riders want to go to Boston. From the North Shore, they’re going right down that corridor. I like Tom Brady and I like Rob Gronkowski. It’s important that Tom Brady, though, throws the ball where Gronk is going to be. Nobody rides there now because it was designed in the 1960s to get commuters from the area through there quickly in cars.”
Likewise, the City is also pedaling in the same direction as the cyclists.
In the recently released Go Boston 2030 report, one of the major goals is to change the way people commute to Boston. A critical piece of that is changing the mode share away from cars.
Chief of Streets Chris Osgood said the report states a goal of increasing bike ridership from 1.9 percent now citywide to 8 percent by 2030.
Such things, Fries said, can only be accomplished with great, safe paths like the one proposed by the BTD in the most recent Sullivan Square/Rutherford Avenue corridor plan.
“When you do have good, safe corridors for bikes, people flock to it and they love it,” he said. “There was a study by the Brookings Institute recently that reported 72 percent of 18 year olds don’t have a driver’s license in the United States. People love the high-quality efficiency and speed of a bike path.”