Legislators keep arguing for supporting the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, a gargantuan public works package packed with initiatives and investments to shore up roads, buildings, bridges, public transit and the internet , among others.
Amid the legislative confusion, transportation experts and climate advocates separately expressed mixed feelings about the priorities of the bill, with many transit groups saying the package don’t go far enough to address what was – until the COVID-19 has changed the nature of work and therefore travel— an urgent problem in most cities: reducing car traffic and, consequently, developing cycle networks.
“I don’t see anything in there that says we’re going to move America forward on the sustainability front by investing in bikes,” says Peter Furth, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern. “It is still largely a local affair” that the communities must take in hand.
And while the pandemic has eased a widespread traffic congestion problem in many US cities, efforts to reduce carbon emissions will always require less driving. Establishing safer, more bikeable streets is a cost-effective way to get closer to that goal, Furth says.
“The bicycle is a far superior mode of transportation” to the car, says Furth. “We just have to make it safer.”
In fact, if Boston prioritized investments in bicycle transit—made roads safer, added protected bike lanes, and expanded bicycle facilities—the number of people using bicycles for transportation could increase to short term up to 15%, Furth said, citing previous research.
“Boston is mostly flat, parking is expensive and driving is hell,” he says, “and the distances are small. There are a lot of good factors here to get a lot of people into cycling.
The problem, according to Furth, is that less than 2% of Bostonians who bike to work had “low-stress” routes available to them, according to an earlier survey. The safety and ease of cycling on the streets depends on several factors, such as the volume of traffic, the speed of traffic and the existence of protected cycle paths, among others, he says.
While the city has expressly envisioned a bike-friendly future, Boston lags behind other US cities in practice. Cities like Boulder, Colorado; Portland, Oregon; and Davis, California—considered one of cycling capitals the United States—have made a concerted effort to swing the pendulum from emissions-based public transit to cycling and sustainability. Many places in Canada and Europe have long relied on bike networks as their primary modes of public transportation, surpassing even the most bike-friendly US cities.
The benefits go beyond just travel.
“Not only are you addressing sustainability, but equity—everyone can afford it—quality of life, obesity and public health,” says Furth.
Transforming a city like Boston into a “cycling nation” like the Netherlands—where more than a quarter of adults cycle some of their journeys and up to 50% of high school students cycle to school— would cost, at baseline, about $1 billion, Furth says. The money would be used to reconfigure streets to make them bike friendly, cycle lanes and other facilities to ensure safety and continuity.
Since parts of the transit system are in a state of disrepair years of underinvestment, combined with a deep budgetary problems facing the MBTA in the coming years, an allocation of this size could be a tough sell, says Furth.
But it’s a worthwhile investment, Furth says, noting that the state currently spends about $400 per person per year on the T, compared to $1 per person per year on bike access and infrastructure. In some communities, it’s practically nothing.
“It’s something you can get big returns on for every dollar invested compared to other things,” says Furth.
A shift towards cycling would inevitably lead to questions of transit equity. There is a long history of bicycle addiction in communities of color in the United States, but also a deep stigma that associates cycling with ” without a car “, and poverty. There is also data showing that cycling in black neighborhoods was associated with excessive surveillance.
In Boston, the BlueBikes bike-share program, which has hundreds of stations across the city, offers discounted rates to students and low-income cyclists. But the focus on bike-sharing, which can also be used for recreation, could distract from other equity concerns and approaches to bike expansion, according to Joan Fitzgerald, professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern.
“The way the equity discussion tends to be framed is that we need more BlueBikes in [neighborhoods of color]says Fitzgerald. ”Do we want to promote more BlueBikes in different neighborhoods, or do we want to promote more owning a bicycle?”
Transformational change on bikes is unlikely to come from the federal government, but rather through local advocacy, Fitzgerald says.
“There has to be a call from neighborhoods that want to ride bikes,” Fitzgerald says. “Until we see that kind of movement, where there’s pressure in the city on fairness and access, we won’t see change.”
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