The real story on Charlestown's bike lane removal
From director Pete Stidman,
The recent removal of the bike lane in Charlestown has been largely misunderstood and poorly reported in the biking blogosphere. A more accurate account has been published at Charlestown Patch, and I give some details on the situation on the ground below. But most importantly, I would like to ask my fellow cyclists to remain positive and to refrain from harassing Charlestown neighborhood activists or city employees. This is not helpful.
Charlestown is not anti-bike, and the city may have taken the right approach given the situation.
Let me introduce you to Tom Cunha, the dedicated chair of the Charlestown Neighborhood Council. I first met Tom at a meeting for the Rutherford Avenue/Sullivan Square reconstruction project where he expressed support for bike routes and a traffic-calming of the street to become a “boulevard” rather than a “highway.” He struck me as even keeled fellow who takes into account the needs of all the residents and businesspeople he represents—including cyclists.
“People think we’re anti-bike, we’re not anti-bike,” said Mr. Cunha in a phone conversation I had with him about the bike lanes today. “We just don’t want to create a tremendous parking situation for people on Main Street.”
What happened on Main Street was, after all, more about a miscommunication between the city and the neighborhood than any sentiment against cycling in Charlestown.
“Some of our businesses on Main Street have been closing because people couldn’t park,” said Cunha. And the neighborhood council had been discussing ideas for angled parking along the street to increase those parking opportunities.
Normally, when two competing interests arise like this, the neighborhood has a chance to talk them through and see options on designs that attempt to address both concerns. This happened recently in the St. Mark’s neighborhood of Dorchester when the plan for a bike lane on Talbot Avenue also came up against some interest in angled parking. In that case, the Union brought the neighborhood and city planners together and it was found that angled parking would not create a significant number of new parking spaces due to the configuration of the street, and the neighborhood agreed that a bike lane might also be a way to get more customers into their shops. Talbot is now painted and appreciated and the St. Mark’s neighborhood is on its way to becoming a very bike-friendly place.
But in this case in Charlestown, that competing interest was not identified or discussed with the Charlestown Neighborhood Council beforehand. And admittedly, Boston Cyclists Union organizing in Charlestown is in the early stages, though the neighborhood is well represented in our organization by a member of our organizing committee. The upshot being that when a bike lane began appearing on the street, Cunha began getting calls from his constituents.
“Business leaders were calling me saying: ‘What the heck is going on? Did you decide we’re not going to do angled parking on Main Street?” said Cunha.
Cunha relayed these concerns from his constituents to the city and a public, well-advertised meeting was called. According to Cunha and Charlestown Patch, only four or five members of the neighborhood council showed up. They asked that the city stop painting the bike lane in order to discuss some other options, at the time it was only half painted. According to Cunha, they did not ask directly for its removal. But after this meeting, the city decided that the correct thing to do, “out of respect,” and perhaps due to safety concerns about a half-painted lane, was to remove the bike lane so that a full and transparent public process could take place. And that may have been a good call.
“We are still very committed to having bike lanes in Charlestown,” wrote City of Boston’s bike coordinator Nicole Freedman to Shane Jordan, editor of the Boston Biker Blog. “Prior to installing, we had not paid enough attention to the public process. In the long-term interest of having a successful bike program, we decided it would be best to start the process over and have the whole community involved. We hope to be able to put back bike lanes in the future when the community is ready and with the community support.”
It is the hope of the Charlestown membership of the Boston Cyclists Union that a solution can be found that will solve both the parking concerns and create a better accommodation for cyclists, who also like to support local businesses. Those Charlestown members of the Union are already gearing up for some organizing, but to be clear: the future of this bike lane is best determined by the people of Charlestown.
Boston is a city of neighborhoods, as Mayor Thomas Menino has rightly pointed out on many occasions, and that means if you are not from the neighborhood, you are not helping matters by calling or emailing Mr. Cunha to complain. He’s now in receipt of several calls and emails from all over Greater Boston, including some that are fairly inflammatory.
“A couple of them are pretty ugly and said things that I wouldn’t want to make public,” he said. “That stuff is not pleasant to hear about our neighborhood. And I get a little hairy about people calling me from Malden, from Somerville, from Cambridge… I represent a whole community here. And I had a lot of people angry at me when these bike lanes went in too.”
On the other hand, if you are from Charlestown and would like to get involved in this public process, please contact your neighbor Gerald Robbins at email@example.com. You’ll be put in touch with your pro-bike lane neighbors who are already working on the effort.
We live in Medford, but my with worked in Charlestown for years and biked there daily. And we still both bike through Charlestown fairly often. Roads are a regional matter, not a neighborhood matter. I haven’t, and wouldn’t, write an inflammatory letter, but it strikes me that a big part of the problem with Boston is the strength of unelected, unprofessional community groups controlling decisions that affect everyone.
With or without a bike lane, angle parking will make Main Street much more hazardous for cyclists.
I can certainly understand the desire to make car parking easier, however, I would be very surprised and saddened if the City allowed more parking to be added at the expense of bike lanes. Creating more space for cars while creating less space for bikes is exactly the opposite of the City’s goals.
There are many solutions to increase parking availability. Increasing the number of spaces is one way, but with limited space it’s not always the best one. Another way to make parking easier for customers would be to increase the cost of parking in order encourage turnover and to discourage employees from taking up prime on-street parking.
And while I agree that the folks who live and work in a neighborhood should have input as to what happens on their streets, the ultimate decisions that are made should never be at the expense of more vulnerable road users. While the City should respect the wishes and opinions of the community, it also needs to ensure that fairness is a part of how every road is designed, regardless of local opinion.
Thanks for taking the time to tell the whole story. Things make more sense now.
Thinking of things in the broadest sense, I believe urban planning is in motion away from regional planning and toward context-sensitivity, with full neighborhood input. This is certainly the case in Boston since Urban Renewal.
But more importantly, the people who are affected most by decisions about city streets are the folks who live or work next door because they use that part of that street everyday, see their friends on it, and raise their families on it right down to the grandkids.
In keeping with the grassroots mission of the Boston Cyclists Union, we fully trust folks in Charlestown to make decisions that take into account their own quality of life, safety and health. The same way we would trust you to make those calls in your own neighborhood.
Additionally, the Charlestown-based members of the Boston Cyclists Union and other Charlestown residents who know and use this street daily are organizing local support for the return of the bike lanes on Main Street, and they’re doing a great job so far.
(For anyone from Charlestown, contact your neighbor Gerald Robbins at firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved.)
So please, it’s a Boston thing. Neighborhoods get a say in their own fate.