Boston’s Bike Future

Background Reading


Nicole Freedman, the director of Boston's bike programming. (Courtesy City of Boston)

Nicole Freedman, the director of Boston’s bike programming. (Courtesy City of Boston)

After more than seven years overseeing Boston’s bicycle initiatives, the city’s bike czar is heading to Seattle to lead a new transportation initiative in that city.


The bicycle world is almost as incestuous as the financial one. A very small group of people rotate through the ranks going from city to city and basically experimenting with other peoples monies.

In a decade or two there will be an accounting for all the money spent and a determination of whether it was worth it. But those who might have been failing at their jobs will have long since neared retirement age.

Selling Furniture

Right now the ‘gig‘ is to sell the public on the notion that with enough ‘furniture‘ the behavior of motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians can allow us to reach ‘Vision Zero‘. This would be like selling parents on schools which had nifty computers, brightly colored books and carpeted floors all around as the only way for their children to get into Harvard or Stanford.

I know this because in the 1970s and 1980s that was the thrust in education. We thought you could knock down walls between classroom, add a sliding partition and voila, education would succeed. But frankly, furniture is only part of the needed equation. There will always be the human component.

Children and their parents have to want a good education above all else. Parents cannot simply send their children to school and expect that their children will succeed based on someone else’s efforts.

Parents have to encourage learning in the home. Children have to adopt personal lifestyles that favor education. There are not enough bottles of booze and pills in the world to make a child’s high school experience worthwhile. Right now both the kids and the parents in many neighborhoods across the country are trying to unwind from a decade or two of reliance on pills and booze. For the first time in many generations we have a drinking problem among teens and preteens.

And instead of attacking that problem head-on we are spending precious cycles debating the value of the CORE Curriculum. Well that in essence is what is happening in the cycling world. We are often too drunk to even read the street signs in front of us and damned sure that the bike lane is the safest place in the world.

But a bike lane is like a spot on a carpet in a crowded theater when you are waiting to enter the main auditorium. The shiny stanchions with ropes hanging from them are what create that waiting area.

Bike lanes are essentially that in today’s parlance. They are neither protecting nor really lanes. In fact they are the very worst place to put a ‘lane‘ designed for  thin tired vehicles. All the glass and debris on the roadway are designed to flow towards the drains on the sides where the bikes are. Smart, huh?

Meanwhile the only thing necessary to succeed in the bike czar business is to issue a rocking good Vision Zero speech every few months and to keep those new lanes rolling out. You have a built-in receptive audience who have no idea about what they are accepting, but it sure looks pretty!

And we keep going back and forth and around and around with this dance that means absolutely nothing. Meanwhile nobody who issues a statement about Vision Zero can ever be held accountable for having made it. Everyone knows it is an impossible goal to achieve. So the only thing you have to worry about is narrowing the gap.

If the numbers should go up, all you have to do is blame the automobile and its drivers and keep raking in the big bucks for guiding the rest of us towards the Promised Land. Back in the day, these folks were known as Snake Oil Salesmen. Today we invite them to come to Washington DC each year to help lead the True Believers in a round or two of Kumbayah.

Life is great when all you have to do is sell the public on more furniture and hope that your retirement arrives before they get wise.