DCR slip highlights lack of de-icing treatment on bike-ped paths

A winter cycling photo uploaded to the Union's Facebook page by member Alfred Gadway as part of a campaign to get the DCR to change their snow & ice removal policies.

A winter cycling photo uploaded to the Union’s Facebook page by member Alfred Gadway as part of a campaign to get the DCR to change their snow & ice removal policies.

On Sunday the UHub blog posted a chain of emails from several Department of Conservation and Recreation staff members that revealed a strain of anti-bicyclist thinking at the state agency. The following was written by a DCR employee described as a “higher higher up”:

“Frankly, I am tired of our dedicated team wasting valuable time addressing the less than .05% of all cyclists who choose to bike after a snow/ice event… We should not spend time debating cyclists with poor judgement [sic] and unrealistic expectations, and stick with [the staffer]’s recommendation that they find other transportation. If someone is completely depending on a bike for year-round transportation, they are living in the wrong city.”

This quote is not endorsed as policy by the DCR. It was part of an internal discussion about how to respond to a constituent, and the sender followed it up with a brash “Feel free to forward this to those complaining.” The agency so far has not identified the staffer or apologized for their remarks, and their official response to the person isn’t completely different.

Instead of suggesting people move, it simply suggests people just shouldn’t ride their bikes.

“While we do treat some high-priority crosswalks (such as at schools and T stations) with salt, we do not treat all the pathways and sidewalks throughout DCR (including on the Southwest Corridor) as this can have a detrimental effect on landscaping. Unless you have appropriate winter bike tires that can handle normal winter weather conditions on these paths, we recommend you use alternate forms of transportations at this time of year for your own safety.”

This policy, as stated here, seems to run counter to the City of Boston’s goal of achieving 10 percent bicycle share by 2020 and the state’s goal of tripling biking, walking, and transit share by 2030. Year-round cycling and cycling in “normal winter weather conditions” would certainly be key in creating a bicycling habit in large numbers of new riders, and it’s part of mode shift strategies in Portland, Minneapolis, New York City, and even places further north like Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. In places like Netherlands, where good safe infrastructure like the SW Corridor is everywhere, people bike through snow in huge numbers.

But in Boston, the SW Corridor, the Paul Dudley White Path and other key commuter routes have been icy lately, according to riders reporting to the Bike Union. And several times this winter, the new North Bank Bridge between Charlestown and Cambridge has simply been left unplowed. Cyclists complaining there have been told to take the Gilmore Bridge——which is a heart pumping experience in any weather.

Oftentimes the fear people have of winter riding isn’t so much about the cold or even the snow, because Bostonians know how to dress for winter and people know that good fenders keep you as dry as if you were walking. Moreso it’s about the perception that it’s more dangerous to be around the cars on the streets in the wintertime. The bike paths are the one refuge people have from cars, and are pleasant even in a snowstorm——as long as ice is kept at a minimum.

In fact the best bike path in the country, according to USA Today, is in snowy Minneapolis. That city gets 20 percent more snow than Boston, and the 5.5-mile Midtown Greenway is plowed year-round by the city’s Public Works Dept. and treated with sand mixed with salt, according to Soren Jensen, Executive Director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition.

“Does it hurt the vegetation? Maybe a little bit, but not that ever noticed.” Said Jensen. “When you salt your sidewalk at home it doesn’t kill your grass. So I’m not sure what they’re talking about. It might be more of a red herring to be honest. Mostly it’s about plowing it right away and making that a priority. We had seven inches of snow yesterday and it’s plowed right now and people are riding.”

Jensen said at times there is hard pack and ice, so it’s never a perfect result, but it’s clear that in Minneapolis that the Public Works Department’s explicit goal is to keep the path open and safe for people who ride bicycles. “They plow it faster than most side streets. It’s cool,” he said.

This kind of acknowledgement of cycling, and of inviting people to do more of it, is the common goal bike activists in Jamaica Plain had in mind to start building with the DCR when the agency requested, along with pedestrian and access activists, that bike lanes in the plan for Casey Arborway be removed in order to make a shorter crossing of the street. The Casey Arborway is a MassDOT project that will essentially build an extension of the SW Corridor to connect Franklin Park and the Arnold Arboretum, while getting rid of a 1950s era highway overpass and sparking economic development in the area.

To get comfortable with the idea of removing bike lanes and having only two-way bike paths on either side of the future Arborway, the Bike Union negotiated with MassDOT to build the DCR’s capacity for snow removal. After a series of Bike Union requests at public meetings, letters, and calls, MassDOT agreed to purchase a new Trackless snow plow for the DCR as part of the project.

It would be hard to imagine that any cyclist would not share in the DCR’s mission “To protect, promote and enhance our common wealth of natural, cultural and recreational resources for the well-being of all.” But given the quotes of their staff, it’s currently not clear that the DCR includes cyclists in their definition of “all.”

Before Frederick Law Olmsted designed many of our parks, he was a journalist interested in social reform. He took up landscape architecture after an epiphany in Yosemite where he saw clearly that nature could be a “civilizing force” that brought people together. He called nature’s effect an “unbending” of our faculties that can be mitigated by the stress and fatigue brought on by urban life. Nature, he said, can produce a “temperate, good-natured, and healthy state of mind.” Much later, Edward O. Wilson dubbed this restorative effect of nature Biophilia and the idea that nature is good for people is backed up in research on everything from school performances to domestic violence, healing to mental health, and crime to economic development.

It’s likely just about all of DCR’s champions these ideas. But if that’s the case, shouldn’t we be working harder together to find solutions for the people who visit the parks most often–twice daily even, as a matter of routine? Surely, any experiment or method or long-term solution we could discuss would be more inline with the central mission of the agency than suggesting that a potential visitor take the train or a car instead.

The Bike Union is ready to work with Gov. Patrick and the DCR to come up with a solution, whatever it takes, to ensure that the public——and far more than .05 percent of them——can access our natural resources daily, as part of their commute.


  1. robert fine on February 18, 2014 at 8:13 am

    For a public employee to suggest a patron of the parks move to another city if they aren’t satisfied with the winter conditions is obviously an inappropriate personal comment. The 0.05% figure may actually be accurate when you include all the bicycles that are stored in the suburbs in basements and garages only to see use on a summer weekend on the cape. That figure certainly is not accurate to account for bicycle commuters in Boston. Why isn’t the Boston Bikes program also held accountable as well for these conditions? The DCR has a limited mission to manage recreational facilities that may fall short of those who need these trails as daily transportation. If the state wants to get serious about relieving traffic congestion and reducing it’s carbon footprint, more than just PR campaigns to be green are needed. A shift in priorites and organization should emphasize bike/pedestrian trails and infrastructure be managed by or as a transportation department. This is already happening in bridge work and major roadways that the DCR used to manage the design of. It seemed easy enough for Mayor Walsh to merge the Public Works and Transportation departments and in a similar manner, the Governor can put more of these DCR facilities under the control of MassDOT. Don’t blame the DCR for trying to do their job which is to maintain recreational faclilities in a manner that is consistent with good conservation practices as would be to avoid excessive chlorides in the soil as was explained.

  2. Todd on February 18, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    Well said.

  3. Steve on February 19, 2014 at 8:52 am

    As a counterpoint to this DCR issue, it’s worth noting that there are some new and encouraging good examples out there.
    The Northern Strand Trail is 10-ft wide off-road multi-use path that was paved for the first time in Summer 2013 in Everett and Malden. Both of those municipalities have been plowing after every snowstorm — this is a milestone that took >15 years to reach on the Minuteman trail through Arlington and Lexington.

    Help us extend the path so that you can ride all the way from Boston to north shore beaches on a separated bike path: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/northern-strand-trail-revere

  4. sean cummings on February 19, 2014 at 10:35 am

    I think it should be pointed out that, at least in recent years, the clearing of snow and ice roughly from brighton to downtown along each side of the river was paid for privately, by New Balance, which is wonderful. Each year it gets better, actually– i’ve been reverse bike commuting to a school in lower Allston from downtown–with children– throughout the winter for 2 years now. I don’t know about other bike paths, but perhaps some other sponsor could be sought for the SW and other paths?

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