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.
|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.