Boston Common bike ban continues 131-year debate

By Anna Flinchbaugh
Bike Union Intern
Anti-bike symbols at several entrances to the Boston Common not only renew an old debate, they send a very negative message about bicycles overall.

There are two complaints that come in more often than all the others, Boston Parks Commissioner Toni Pollak told a room full of bike organization leaders earlier this week: dogs off the leash, and bikes going too fast or coming too close.

The meeting was organized in response to several anti-bike symbols the Parks Department painted at certain entrances to the Boston Common. For years, the Public Garden has been clearly marked off-limits, but bike riders have gotten accustomed to using the Common even though a park ordinance has technically banned them since 1882.

Many cyclists were incensed by the new rule-and unfortunately at least a few sent nasty letters to the department. (Note to the wise: Always be nice when asking for something.) Their anger isn’t entirely unjustified, as many have been injured on the streets around the common, including one fatality on Beacon and Charles in April 2010. But preliminary crash data reveals that pedestrian-bike collisions are also fairly common in and around the Common, sometimes involving small children whose parents doubtless trust the Common’s paths as a safe place to play.

Beacon and Charles Crash
The scene of a fatal bike crash at Beacon and Charles in 2010.

The original decision to ban bicycles from the Common resulted from an 1882 letter to the “Committee on Common and Squares” detailing the danger that “wheelmen” posed to pedestrians. The author, Sam’l H. Russell, explained, “They move so silently, and swiftly, that when several are in company it is difficult to avoid them, and where there are so many children, and careless people about, the danger of collision is considerable.”

But even around the time the ban was put in place, and for a time after, the wheelmen of Boston from various bicycle clubs and the League of American Wheelmen (L.A.W. – nowadays known as the League of American Bicyclists) were proposing ways to make biking in the common a regular occurrence.

An 1881 proposal, for example, urged the city council to consider the “expediency of laying out an oval path on the parade ground of the Common,” conceding that it would only be used “at suitable times and under proper restrictions.”

Another plan, submitted shortly after the ban was enacted and with apparently little effect, addressed the ways in which clearly delineated bike paths would provide relief to pedestrians and provide some order. Its champion Alderman Slade explained: “…if that track was made for the use of the bicycles, we would have good reason to keep them off the malls where people congregate the most, which might be a relief to the foot passengers.”

In subsequent years bike path proposals kept on coming. Riding on the Common was a hot topic for the L.A.W. in Boston, just as it was for their fellow wheelmen in New York City regarding Central Park. As one defender of an 1898 path proposal explained: “there is no doubt of the fact that [cyclists] are directly affected by the great inconvenience, trouble and danger of tumbling around among the vehicles on Beacon and Tremont Streets.”

This argument failed to persuade many decision-makers, who balked against “any encroachment on the sacred common [sic].” They believed that the Common was to be a space for recreation and pleasure, untainted by concerns of commerce and commuting; this same sense of precious open space pervades much of the discussion today.

Despite being banned in the Common, bikes nonetheless remained a cherished part of the Boston community. Newspaper articles from the end of the nineteenth century speak in ecstatic terms about (permitted) races held on the Common as well as the pleasantness of riding in parks more generally. One bubbled, “The brightness and the clear atmosphere are just what cyclists enjoy, and the popular resorts…were visited by thousands of wheelmen and wheelwomen.”

It was also argued back then, just as it is today, that the Common has always been intended to be a shared public space, open to all communities. At present, it plays hosts to school groups, visiting tourists, Freedom Trail trekkers, downtown commuters, T riders, and bicyclists. As an advocate of bicycle paths explained back in 1898, “The Common is for the people, and for the whole people, and it is not to be set up in our minds as a thing to be venerated and looked at…” Rather, it is to be used well, safely, and inclusively – a goal that would benefit significantly from a solution to allow all users to enjoy the park.

The Bike Union and other bike advocacy groups are going to continue the discussion with Commissioner Pollak and under the leadership of Nicole Freedman and Boston Bikes propose a few alternatives to the ban. These new ideas may include allowing cycling on certain paths but not others, and are likely to be combined with campaigns to urge cyclists to slow down around pedestrians.

The whole episode is instructive to all who ride a bike. When cyclists run afoul of pedestrians, they awaken an even more vulnerable and numerous lobby against bikes in general. Simply slowing down, showing care, and saying excuse me can go a long way toward ensuring that all who ride continue to have access to safe routes.

11 comments to Boston Common bike ban continues 131-year debate

  • Alyson Fletcher

    Thanks for working on this – I am very interested in the outcome! I would like to be able to use a portion of the Common as a safer route through downtown. We might look to how Central Park and Prospect Park have managed to balance sacred/passive open space and more active space for runners and cyclists.

  • It’s nice to know I wasn’t alone in being surprised by the no biking signs! What can I do to help agitate for bike lanes through the Common? In the meantime, is there a route that the city recommends for getting around it?

  • David Knudsen

    Thanks for a historically informed and balanced report on the Common circumstances. I am sympathetic to pedestrian concerns, but I am also fairly inconvenienced by having to ride around the Common, particularly because no room has been made for me on the surrounding streets. Park and Tremont Streets are not too bad for bicyclists, but Charles and Beacon are quite dangerous. I like the strategy of designating portions of the wider paths for bicycle (or skater) traffic, paired with signs at entrances to the Common reminding cyclists to slow down, give a wide berth to pedestrians, and give audible alerts when appropriate. Until we get cycle tracks on the surrounding roads, it seems like a reasonable compromise.

  • Justin McIntosh

    I agree with @David here. I live in Cambridge and always take the Longfellow bridge, then Charles st. to approach Chinatown/Downtown Xing. At the intersection of Charles and Beacon st. there is no safe, reasonable route to continue towards Chinatown. I always enter the Commons and ride the outer path along Charles st. The city should not enforce a cycle ban in the Commons (at least the wide outerpath) when there are no other reasonable alternatives for cyclists. I will take “illegal” over dangerous any day of the week and that is not a choice the city should force cyclists into making. ILLUSTRATION of my route: http://www.flickr.com/photos/59311579@N07/9154913596/

  • William Furr

    Bike Snob NYC once calculated the NFBHU – Nu Fred Bicycle Hate Unit – which is how many people a red-light running, pedestrian-buzzing jerk can cause to hate cycling in general, and it turns out to be a lot.

    http://bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com/2011/11/indignity-of-commuting-by-bicycle-power.html

  • ChrisWheeler

    As a biker and pedestrian I am sick to death of bikers who think they own the road. I had a nasty encounter with a biker who called to me “On your left! As he he careened toward me. He expected me to jump out of his way. I am older and not as quick on my feet as in the past. I barely got out of the way. I am still angry over his attitude of privilege. People who ride bikes in pedestrian areas need to go slow. They need to get out of the way of pedestrians. Not the other way around. I do ride but I get off my back and walk it past pedestrians if I half to. Most bikers expect the opposite and they are wrong. It makes me want to exclude myself from the cyclist community. I don’t blame the city for wanting to ban bikes from the common. It’s a place to relax and not to worry about obnoxious cyclists.

  • ChrisWheeler

    For the record, have to.

  • W Johnston

    If plans proceed to get some paths available to bikes, it should be done in conjunction with some clear guidance to encourage bikers to use only those paths, and to understand and obey the rules for nearby spaces. To wit, bikes are not allowed in the Public Garden (even though it seems to me just as filled with children), but bikes aren’t allowed in the Commonwealth Ave Mall.
    I see bikers riding illegally in the Common all the time and also in the Mall illegally, and it certainly doesn’t do much to improve bikers’ image. If signage or color made new acceptable bike zones visible, and arrows pointed folks to the bike lanes on the outside of the Mall, I think we could enjoy better routes and at the same time improve our relationship with non-biking users of these spaces.

  • Anon

    “It was also argued back then, just as it is today, that the Common has always been intended to be a shared public space, open to all communities. At present, it plays hosts to school groups, visiting tourists, Freedom Trail trekkers, downtown commuters, T riders, and bicyclists. As an advocate of bicycle paths explained back in 1898, “The Common is for the people, and for the whole people, and it is not to be set up in our minds as a thing to be venerated and looked at…” Rather, it is to be used well, safely, and inclusively – a goal that would benefit significantly from a solution to allow all users to enjoy the park.”

    What about Pedi-Cabs?

  • Mark

    Its very simple: parks are for relief from city stress. Parks are not for putting highways through or ANY OTHER form of transportation. Walk your bike if you want to use the park for transit, as on sideWALKS and crossWALKS.

  • Joe M.

    The Common has been, is, and should always be a pedestrian only venue. This means no bikes, skateboards or inline skaters. There is something to be said for being able to wander along its paths without worry of a speeding cyclist. It’s a good thing for the city to have such space designated.

    I agree that the abutting streets are not safe for cyclists and that issue needs to be addressed. Until then, note that Boston Common is not an enormous tract of land that requires an hour to traverse by foot. Hop off your saddle and walk through it.

    Slightly off topic, but regarding mixed use paths pedestrians do need to keep in mind that their walking/jogging path is the same one that we cyclists commute on every day. Yes, technically I believe you do still have “right of way” but the mixed use paths require you to observe some common courtesy as well. When I signal to you (via voice or bell) twenty or thirty yards out, please move over so I can pass you. There are often five or six teens walking abreast down the SW Corridor Path who have little interest in responding. Eventually someone is going to get hurt (cyclist and pedestrian alike).

    More off-topic (sorry): I have no issue with taking a look at some Boston streets and prohibiting cycling on them altogether (or until a suitable bike path is installed). These include all of Huntington Ave. (to Brookline Village) and Jamaicaway/Arborway. These streets are not safe for cyclists.

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