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Navigating Boston on a Folding Bike

What makes a city bike-friendly? What makes a city a place where bicycles are used by people young and old, for transportation, exercising, leisure riding, and even for transporting two weeks' worth of groceries plus a lucky curbside find?

Are flat, even streets lined with trees and year-round mild weather a requirement? Not really, since that would make the Boston area, with its many hills and cold, windy winters, an improbable cycling city. Are bicycle lanes the answer? Not really, if they are not well-designed, properly maintained, constantly blocked off, and if there is nowhere safe to park at the end of the trip. Is it important to educate drivers, walkers and bikers? Is it important to have not only bicycle infrastructure, but to integrate it with public transportation, to enable people to use both for travelling and commuting? Is it important that people of all income levels, in all parts of the city, have facilities and infrastructure that would facilitate biking? Yes to all of the above. Making a city bike-friendly follows many of the same principles of not being just a fair-weather city: how can we make biking safe, pleasant and comfortable in all weather, for bikers, pedestrians and drivers?

The 1975 Motobecane folding bike on the Charles River esplanade, Cambridge, MA

Biking along the Charles river in Cambridge, MA

In the last few years, the Boston area has become a more bike-friendly city through a number of initiatives like Boston Bikes and local bicycle committees. Initiatives need to include more bicycle infrastructure (lanes, shared lanes, bike boxes, cycle tracks), especially scenic trails that also serve commuters, like the Minuteman Trail, and the trail along the Charles river esplanade; bike-share programs like the Hubway; and numerous new dedicated parking spots.

Having a folding bike makes it easier to ride and use public transportation at the same time: unlike normal bicycles, which are not allowed on trains during peak hours, on some stations, and on the Green Line, fully folded bicycles are always welcome. However, a crowded train full of weary commuters and a bike still do not mix well. My 1975 blue Motobecane, for instance, is no stranger to buses, the subway, and the commuter rail, thanks to elevators that facilitate movement for the encumbered, those in wheels, and those who cannot use stairs (even when these elevators are often located in the most inconvenient locations, like in South Station). Some people in Boston use their bicycles all year long, and have mastered the art of commuting through snow, slush, ice, darkness, frigid weather, and lanes full of ice and salt.

A bike's worst nightmare: snow in Somerville, MA

The Boston area still has some areas that present challenges: Beacon Street in Somerville is convenient, but notorious for its potholes. Newbury Street in Boston has charming brownstones and great shopping, but the lack of bicycle lanes (and yes, entitled drivers) makes it a dangerous place for riding. It is always necessary to pay attention to buses, which in some streets (Kirkland, Washington and Somerville, for instance) drive almost too close to the bike lane. On snowy days, sidewalks and streets are cleared promptly, but all that snow and salt is often dumped onto the bike lane, and let us not forget what happens when you leave your bike outdoors during a snowstorm!

Is being a cyclist an extreme sport in your city, or a convenient mode of transportation, sport and leisure?

Credits: Images by Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon. Data linked to sources.