Urban Biking: Boston’s Freedman on Improving Safety and Access

As biking season returns to Boston (and it never really left with our mild winter), I thought it a good time to post my interview with Nicole Freedman, director of bicycle programs for the City of Boston, otherwise knows as the mayor’s “bike czar.” Freedman has overseen the launch of the Hubway bike sharing program — the first in the U.S., the expansion of bike lanes, and a number of other initiatives aimed to encourage more bicycle use while also making it easier for bikes to coexist with cars. Boston has long been considered a tough place to bike — Freedman’s mission is to change that in a big way and make Boston a more sustainable city.

Nicole Freedman is a former bicycle racer with two titles as U.S. national champion and a member of the 2000 Olympic team, she brings an intense love of of bicycling and a competitor’s zeal to the position. Her racing career gave her experience riding in cities around the country and internationally. She also has an urban planning degree and experience as a bicycle  planner in California.

Freedman said that the inspiration to make the city more bicycle friendly came from Mayor Menino. Boston had been ranked as one of the most unfriendly cities for bicycles and he “was savvy enough to know that if Boston was to be appealing to smart, young professionals it had to be seen as socially progressive.” This was the inspiration for his sustainability initiatives and the bicycle program is part of that effort.

This top-down approach was critical according to Freedman. She noted that Boston is governed by a “strong mayor system” and thus Menino’s support and enthusiasm were critical. She said that this has been true for each of the top bicycling cities she has visited.

“Mayor Menino opened doors,” she said. “My job was to walk through them and make things happen.”

One of her significant early challenges was working with City engineers as they were not familiar with how to make a city bicycle friendly. Their training was automobile-centric. She brought in an outside firm, Tool Design Group, that had cutting edge expertise in this area. This gave Freedman a critical interface: she had engineers with whom she could communicate — they understood what she wanted to do — and they in turn could communicate with the City’s engineers in “engineer speak.”

“Once the City engineers knew that this was going to be a long-term effort and not just a passing fad, they took it seriously. Once they understood how they could contribute and how bicycles could be integrated into their projects, they became enthusiastic.”

She knew that she alone would not have all of the answers. In October 2007 she convened a three-day Boston Bikes Summit which brought together the public and a wide range of experts to brainstorm ideas for cycling in Boston. From these diverse perspectives came a plan to achieve the vision of a bike-friendly Boston.

The results are beginning to show. The share of trips in Boston made by bicycle doubled between 2007 and 2009. “That sounds impressive but we have only gone from 1% to 2%.” Her goal is to get to European levels of “5%, 7%, 10% mode share of journeys.” Five percent or greater is the level at which a city is a “world class bicycle city, she said. She looks to New York and Portland, Oregon as model U.S. cities to watch.

The most recent visible evidence of Boston’s commitment to bicycles is the Hubway bike share program that launched in summer 2011. While it is too early to have much data, Freedman said that usage had met expectations. The vision is that the Hubway bicycles will be used about equally by residents and visitors.

Freedman uses a fairly standard arsenal of tools to build community support and bicycle  usage: events, education, and enticements. “Building support is not complicated,” she said. “It is time intensive and labor intensive, but it is not complicated.”

For example, Boston hosts a city-wide ride called Hub on Wheels that is both an event and an educational opportunity. The ride is designed to get show more bicyclists the many opportunities there are to ride in the city and for people in the city to get to used  to seeing more bicycles on the streets. She noted that Hub on Wheels is also designed to help educate riders on how to ride safely in an urban environment and for non-riders to see that large groups can ride in an orderly, courteous way.

Freedman said that the more people see bicycles as part of the normal flow of traffic, the more likely they are to try cycling themselves and respect cyclists’ use of the road. Pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists must all respect each other, particularly given Boston’s narrow, congested streets. “It’s a combination of demonstration and inspiration,” she said.

Enticements include demarcated bike lanes, bike racks, and other amenities that make it easier to use a bicycle as a regular mode of transportation.

Most recently, the City has begun to investigate a program of personalized marketing. Inspired by an initiative in Australia, the City wants to move beyond general information and timetables to providing precise answers to specific travel inquiries. Dubbed Travel Smart, it enables citizens to get exact mass transit and biking route information between points in Boston.

The City also works with the business community. It provides a list of suggestions for how to be a bike-friendly enterprise and Freedman says that participation is increasing. The City is also using its regulatory tools to increase the requirements for new construction in terms of bicycle amenities.

Asked about collaboration with neighboring communities such as Brookline and Cambridge, Freedman said that it is important but a lower priority than “getting Boston where it needs to be.” She said that Boston will align bike lanes when requested. They also used the City’s heftier bargaining power to set favorable terms with the bike share program vendor that will be extended to Cambridge and Somerville in 2012.

Freedman said that City of Boston is much better as using inducements, “carrots,” than penalties and other “sticks.” There isn’t yet the political support to use authority to be more assertive.  She noted, however, that “until you make drivers pay for all of the externalities” associated with the automobile “there is only so far you can go before you hit a wall.”

Asked what she would do if she could wave a magic wand, Freedman went right to the “sticks”: $6.00 a gallon gas, no on-street parking, and a downtown congestion charge. She concluded, “Give me those and I wouldn’t have to build a single mile of bike lane because the streets would be full of cyclists.”

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