Under the Hood of the MA Transportation System: How have bike and pedestrian infrastructure suffered from underfunding?

Christine Chilingerian

As an avid cyclist, it is pretty clear to me that Massachusetts is not realizing its true “bikeability” potential. The desire is palpable. The funding, however, remains remote.

Every time I ride along the Minuteman Trail through Arlington, the Shining Sea Trail to Woods Hole, along the Charles, or on the Cape Cod Rail Trail towards Provincetown, I am reminded of how utterly inundated these popular trails are with other bikers, runners and joggers, walkers, and the occasional roller-bladers. Every so often, I find myself so fatigued from maneuvering around the congestion that I vow to stay far away, at least on any given weekend in spring, summer or early fall. But I have to roll my eyes at myself for this attitude and realize the actual significance: there are so few scenic, well-maintained paths spanning substantial distances that exist for walkers and riders that everyone and their brother (and kids, and dogs) are flocking to a handful of recreational paths and trails. The demand for cycling and pedestrian infrastructure is there. The funding, however, has never been there.

Keith Brofsky Photography, Seattle.

Keith Brofsky Photography, Seattle.

Now, I recognize that not everyone is a self-described “avid cyclist”. Nevertheless, I think most will agree that being active and spending time outdoors is something many aspire to do more. An active lifestyle is healthier than a sedentary one, but thanks to myriad modern-day conveniences in combination with bad habits, we have to really go out of the way to achieve this goal.

In case you needed it, here is some extra motivation:

– Between 1966 and 2009, the number of American children who walked or biked to school each day plummeted by 75%. In fact, about 25% of the traffic you encounter on your morning commute is related to parents dropping kids off at school.

– Not surprisingly, our kids’ decreasing engagement in outdoor activities coincides with soaring levels of child-obesity. Less than fifty years ago, our nation’s youth were a staggering 276% less fat.

– The same consequences are apparent in adults, too. In states where people are walking and cycling the most, you also find significantly better health. The incidence of obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes falls dramatically in populations engaged in regular physical activity. Even a brief 30 minutes of aerobic activity each day can have a positive impact on health, and is easily achieved by people who commute to and from work the old fashioned way – using their own two legs.

Recently, commuting by bike has been catching on in the Commonwealth. Yet bike and pedestrian infrastructure continues to suffer from chronic underfunding, as it has for decades. Greater Boston’s bikeways are crumbling and congested, and its “network” of bike lanes is utterly fragmented because many were never funded to completion. The Greater Boston Area has witnessed hundreds of squandered opportunities to enhance infrastructure in recent years, leaving cyclists stranded on paths that funnel into dangerous intersections, or end in physical impasses or narrow bridges with no bike lanes. While rebuilding the BU Bridge, for example, excavators removed and then filled in a section underneath the bridge which, with forethought, might have served as a pedestrian/cyclist underpass and significantly enhanced the safety of non-drivers crossing between Boston and Cambridge. Moreover, of the existing paths that don’t dead-end, many instead lead to vast sections of pavement in shameful disrepair, as is the case along much of the Memorial Drive side of the Charles.

The Boston area is not alone when it comes to poor bike/ped infrastructure. Central Massachusetts could also benefit from a serious cycling-friendly overhaul. There are virtually no biking lanes painted on roads throughout Worcester. Commuting by any means other than by car in this hub and surrounding areas is daunting enough to discourage all but the most hearty. Across the state, projects to improve infrastructure and connect communities are underway, yet still lack the resources necessary to realize these plans. Over $400 million in funding is required to complete each of the 47 bicycle and pedestrian projects scattered across Massachusetts. Once completed, the Blackstone River Bikeway project would connect 15 communities spanning the 48 miles between Worcester and Providence, Rhode Island. Similarly, the East Coast Greenway project will eventually stretch for 146 miles uninterrupted from Boston through Worcester. Only about 20% of trail for either of these bikeways have been completed. Based on the funds currently dedicated to transportation as a whole, funding for bike/ped infrastructure won’t even come close to what is actually needed.

BU bridge

The BU Bridge, a notoriously dangerous area for Boston Cyclists. Photo Credit: nd-nʎ @ Flickr

Certainly, Massachusetts has begun to make some progress over the past few years. The GreenDOT initiative was inaugurated by MassDOT in 2010, and has set a statewide goal to triple the share of travel by any mode other than driving. The City of Boston is also part of a national movement to redesign municipal transportation, known as “complete streets” planning. The concept was developed to improve poorly-designed streets, sidewalks and congested intersections in a way that encompasses safe use by multimodal commuters, integrating the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, people with disabilities, and public transit users.

The complete streets movement is catching on in the Bay State, though much of this progress has so far only amounted to elusive policy that lacks funding and is far from set in stone. The creation of pedestrian and bike-friendly areas has the potential to revitalize commercial centers, or make a neighborhood more livable and improve overall quality of life. Furthermore, choosing to walk or peddle to work is not just healthier for our bodies, but also improves the environment. By opting to drive less, you are using less petroleum and helping to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere. In order for complete streets to truly be set into motion, Massachusetts must earnestly invest in infrastructure.

Pedestrians and cyclists pass undisturbed by motorists over a busy boulevard in Portland, Oregon; the bridge is part of the Springwater Corridor Trail. Photo Credit: By Finetooth via Wikimedia Commons

The great biking city of Portland, Oregon, is light-years ahead of us – they began investing in cycling infrastructure in the 1990’s and never stopped. Portland boasts about 6 percent of commuters regularly biking to work, as compared to under 2 percent in Boston, and has set a goal for cycling to make up a quarter of all commuting trips by 2030. In order to get there, Portland has focused on building infrastructure that promotes safety and encourages an ever-increasing number of bikes on the roads. Cycle tracks, for instance, are bike lanes that are removed from automobile lanes by distinct physical barriers serving to shelter cyclists. By investing in improvements which promote safe riding for all ages and abilities, Portland increasingly attracts more cyclists, and this in turn fosters a growing acceptance of bicycles. Over time, the culture of the city has changed as once-predominant motorists have been eclipsed by riders on two wheels.

Here in Massachusetts, we still have a lot of work to do, and the urgency of this work is particularly apparent when we look at how underfunding and poor infrastructure affect safety in Massachusetts. Pedestrians make up about 16.8% of all traffic fatalities in the Commonwealth, and 2.4% are cyclists. All too often, the inferior design and lack of maintenance of roads and bike lanes is the principal culprit at the crux of these accidents. With the proper funds and planning, we can help bikers and walkers to safely navigate the hazards spawned by neglect and underinvestment.

By investing in infrastructure that is designed to accommodate growing numbers of cyclists and pedestrians, we are improving overall health and safety in the Commonwealth. Someday soon, Bay-Staters may not have to risk life and limb to live active and more fulfilling lifestyles. For now, though, we still have a long way to peddle.

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