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The Boston Globe: “On Beacon Street, it’s bike lane interrupted”

For almost the entire length of Beacon Street in Brookline, there’s a bicycle lane. Just don’t try riding it from one end of town to the other.

Bicycle lanes, part of the broad-ranging Beacon Street Reconstruction Project, are a significant achievement for the town, in which Harvard Street is the only other street with special accommodations for cyclists. Based on early reactions, however, it could take some time for the public to understand and accept the new system.

The latest bicycle lane was completed in late July, when white lines were painted on the outbound side of Beacon from Pleasant to Carlton streets, near the Boston border.

The new lane joins the portions of Beacon that got bicycle lanes a year ago. However, the lanes aren’t continuous. Most of the stretch from Coolidge Corner to Washington Square has a bike lane running on the inbound side of Beacon, while the lane from Washington Square to Cleveland Circle is on the outbound side.

That means that a cyclist going across town can ride in a 5-foot-wide bicycle lane for part of the trip, but has to share the road with cars for other parts. For the side of the street without a bicycle lane, parking spaces were narrowed by 2 1/2 feet to provide more space in the right-hand traffic lane, and new yellow road signs were installed, reminding motorists about bikers who also use the road.

According to Bill Smith, who coordinates the reconstruction project for Brookline, it was not possible to have continuous bicycle lanes in both directions on Beacon, without eliminating entire stretches of parallel parking, reducing the width of the sidewalk, and cutting down “a bunch of trees.” The situation was further complicated by the Green Line trolley track, which is not in the center, but splits Beacon Street into a narrow and a wide side.

But Smith says he thinks the new arrangement will be safer, as more signs and physical changes will raise awareness among pedestrians and motorists that bicyclists use the road, too. “That is the first and most critical step,” he said.

According to Dennis Watson, executive director of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, the bicycle lanes have “the potential to encourage more people to ride their bicycles in the area. It’s an example for people to look at how a community tried to incorporate bicycle facilities into a difficult situation.”

Even with these improvements, though, many cyclists are still riding on the sidewalk or traveling in the wrong direction in the bicycle lane. Between 6 and 6:30 p.m. last Monday, for instance, four people were observed pedaling on the Beacon sidewalk.

“I didn’t want to put my helmet on. If I was on the street, I’d put my helmet on,” explained Brookline resident Denise Oberday, 55, who commutes daily to her job in Cambridge. She said she feels safer riding without a helmet on the sidewalk because the speed tends to be slower than in the bicycle lane.

On the inbound side of the street, 14-year-old Omar Sanabria was also riding on the sidewalk, not paying much attention to the new “share the road” sign that showed a bicycle sharing the road with cars.

“I don’t see the space to be in there [on the street], a tiny space with all the cars parked over there,” he said. “Also, it’s better for us to ride over here because over there you’re close to the cars so you might get hit.”

Even those who ride in the lane point to its shortcomings. Boston University student Anuj Paliwal, 21, said he worries about being hit by an opening car door more than about the cars behind him.

“I think the current situation is slightly safer, but [I] definitely wouldn’t call it too much safer. It kind of forces cars to give a little space to bikes,” he said, adding that the only way road engineers could have ensured bikers’ safety is if they had put the lane a door’s distance away from the parked cars.

Several cyclists also said there is weak enforcement of laws that prohibit vehicles from driving, parking, or stopping in a bicycle lane.

“I’ve never heard of anyone being ticketed for driving or parking in bicycle lanes,” said Watson of MassBike.

Doctoral student Carolina Trujillo, 36, was concerned about taxi drivers who stop near the Holiday Inn with their doors ajar, blocking the lane.

Civil engineering professor Peter Furth, who also bikes on Beacon Street – and who was a member of the Brookline bicycle advisory committee until recently when he was appointed to the transportation board – suggested that the penalty for double-parking in a bicycle lane should be harsher than for double-parking elsewhere.

“Almost every time I go through, there’s always one car double-parked,” he said. “To me, double-parking in a bike lane is like parking in a handicap spot because you’re … forcing a vulnerable person out into heavy traffic.”

Furth said many people will still not ride their bicycles on Beacon Street because they do not feel it is safe. In August 2002, a 51-year-old doctor on a bicycle died after colliding with a garbage truck on Beacon.

“For a route to be safe, every section has to be safe. You can’t just have a bike route disappear for a section,” Furth said. “It’s still not something you’d expect kids to ride on, and it’s not something most adults will ride on.”

All bicycle facilities on Beacon Street are to be completed by Oct. 15.

A lane remains to be installed between Carlton and Saint Mary’s streets on the inbound side, and between Winchester and Charles streets on the outbound side, Smith said.

Julie Masis can be reached at greenelephant888@hotmail.com.

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