By Pete StidmanBoston’s bike coordinator Nicole Freedman, now on her way to new opportunities, is a powerhouse. Her energy and ability has helped transform the Boston bike scene and bring several city agencies into the bicycle way of mind since her appointment in 2008. Now, with her departing for the top job at Maine Huts & Trails in the tiny town of Kingfield Maine, it will be a test of the Menino Administration and the advocacy community’s resolve to continue to improve the biking experience in our fair city. The question is, without our fearless skipper, can we all join together and get the job done?
The good news is we have an amazing and vibrant bicycling community and strong mayoral support that will continue through this transition. That support was communicated this morning when members of the Boston Bikes Advisory Group were introduced to Kris Carter, Samantha Herr and Alice Brown, all of whom will labor to fill Freedman’s shoes until a new candidate is chosen, with Carter assuming the lead role of interim bike coordinator.
It remains to be seen whether or not the city will conduct a high level nationwide search for a new coordinator, whether or not Freedman’s position will be institutionalized as a lasting separate budget line item position in the Mayor’s office, and whether or not other positions in her office, such as the coordinators of the Roll it Forward and Youth Cycling programs will also be made permanent and funded through the city’s budget rather than grants that cover six months at a time. The Union will be asking these questions and others in collaboration with other leading organizations, and we ask that our members and supporters give the city time to sort out the details and get a plan together.
It is also already clear that the transition will make for some bumps in the road. The first fallout from Freedman’s departure occurred the day it hit the newspapers, when the Bikes Belong Foundation announced that six cities, including Washington D.C., had been chosen to participate in the national Green Lanes Project–not Boston.
The Green Lanes Project–a program specifically geared to provide a variety of resources to ensure they successfully build their first cycletracks–was firmly in Boston’s grasp in the weeks before Freedman’s departure thanks to a strong application and support from the Union. But Boston’s sure-to-be-chosen status suffered when Freedman acknowledged there was not enough support, be it funding or otherwise, to complete three or four cycletracks by the end of 2012, a requirement of the grant, and then shortly thereafter announced her departure from city government.
The original concept for the grant included cycletracks for Malcolm X Boulevard, Charles Street, Boylston Street, and on a circumferential path around Boston’s Public Garden. Only the latter plan still seems viable for 2012 now that Freedman, the facility’s strongest internal advocate, has moved on. The other three may now be on two year timeframe.
Some of the city’s caution about cycletrack ambitions may have been related to the relatively higher cost of physically separate facilities compared to bike lanes. To be completely safe, cycletracks often require new construction of curbs and/or new traffic signals. While there is significant funding for bike infrastructure design and construction in the city budget this year, curbs and signals are far more expensive than bike lanes.
Cycletracks are also a focus of the Boston Cyclists Union’s new Connect the City program, which is aimed at building neighborhood support for a connective network of physically separate facilities. Freedman’s transition raises the bar for the public support Connect the City promises to achieve by promoting these safer bikeways, and the success of Connect the City in turn depends largely on Union membership dues and donations, as grants for this kind of work are few and far in between. Green Lanes would have brought national resources to bear on Boston’s ambitious ideas for cycletracks, but advocates can follow Washington D.C.’s progress in the program and take notes, and work together to build support for cycletracks in all of Boston’s neighborhoods.
Also on the up side, thanks to Freedman’s help and work cyclists now have far more friends in city government than they did before her arrival. Michael Kineavy, Mayor Thomas Menino’s chief of policy and one of the city’s most powerful internal bike advocates was of course there before Freedman, and helped hire her in 2008, but several other city employees have begun working with the needs of cyclists in mind thanks to Freedman’s infectious enthusiasm.
Several people at the Boston Public Health Commission have taken an interest in bicyclist injury reduction, including Anne McHugh, director of Chronic Disease Prevention and Control, who helps run a crash data task force the Union participates in, and Huy Nguyen, who is heading up another effort to develop a public education campaign around helmet use by bringing together an unprecedented collaboration of the medical community, advocates like the Bike Union, the police, Emergency Medical Services, and others.
The Boston Police Department’s Captain Jack Danilecki also became his department’s bike liaison thanks to Freedman’s doing (after the Union recommended him for the post), and helped create positive helmet encouragement campaigns and better access to crash data. Danilecki has already expressed to the Union his interest in continuing his good works.
Vineet Gupta, head of BTD’s planning department, and BTD Commissioner Tom Tinlin too have become advocates for biking in their own right during Freedman’s tenure, often taking their own initiative in recent years to make sure bicycles are addressed in all the projects they oversee, including those actually designed by the state.
Another great Freedman-era decision was to bring in Toole Design Group to work on the city’s bike infrastructure. Their office will of course remain an oft-used consultant on road design, helping to ensure continuity at least of the technical aspect of Nicole’s work. They will also now be contracted to manage the bike racks program and the creation of the city’s bike map. Their biggest project due this year is the Bike Network Master Plan currently in development, and projected to be released in July.
But even these great internal supporters of cycling are likely realizing that this summer will be something a test for Boston. Can we all pull together and carry the weight those slight but very strong shoulders held? Can her role and those of some of her employees and 12 interns become institutionalized to create more stability for the program?
The answers to these and other questions remain to be seen, but we at the Union are dedicated to taking on whatever work we can to help ensure a smooth transition. Please consider joining, or making a donation to help us ramp up for what promises to be an amazing summer, full of parties, street events, and more bikes on the streets than ever before.