Almost eight percent of Somerville’s commuters get to work on a bicycle—and while that percentage may seem small, it actually puts the city in fifth place nationally, according to a 2014 report by the League of American Bicyclists.
“It all stems from [the Curtatone] administration’s push,” says Ward 3 Alderman Bob McWatters, Chairman of the Somerville Traffic and Parking Committee. “They want to be a bikeable and walkable city.”
A lifelong Somerville resident, McWatters thinks small steps have had a big impact when it comes to making the city friendlier and safer for cyclists and pedestrians. “I grew up in the city and I never had a bike lane,” he says. (The city’s first bike lane, on Washington Street, was only built in 2003; its second was installed in 2008.) He lists the bike-sharing system Hubway—which is adding four new locations in Winter Hill and East Somerville in 2016—as an example of a positive change that’s making cycling more accessible. He also points to Neighborways—low-volume residential streets designed to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety—as a “great, effective, low-cost traffic-calming measure.”
Ken Carlson of the Somerville Bicycle Committee agrees that many of the small-scale improvements coming this year and next will go a long way to increase bike safety and overall ridership statistics. And there are big infrastructural changes on the way, too. Bike lanes are currently being added to Beacon Street, which sees up to 400 cyclists per hour during rush hour, making it one of the busiest biking corridors in Greater Boston. Within a year of adding protected bike lanes, Carlson expects that number to increase to 600 per hour.
“When you build safe bicycling infrastructure, you increase the people riding bikes in cities,” he explains. “When you put in protected bike lanes, you increase ridership.”
But not everyone is so enthusiastic about Somerville’s cycling culture. Sam Christy and Zach Hirschtritt, co-founders of the Somerville Bike Kitchen in Davis Square, find that there’s a frustrating disparity of resources between drivers and cyclists, as well as a culture clash between the two groups.
“No amount of paint you’re going to put on the road is going to change driver culture,” laments Hirschtritt in regard to initiatives like Neighborways. Christy adds that, in addition to building better infrastructure, the city could make cyclists and pedestrians feel safer and more welcome by holding motorists accountable for the financial strain they place on the city. “It’d be nice if cars had to fully pay what they actually cost the community,” he says, listing snow removal, parking issues and the physical space cars take up as resources that bikes and pedestrians don’t require.
Asked about Somerville’s consistently high ranking as one of the country’s most bikeable cities, Christy cautions against being too optimistic. “Even in the best situation, 99 percent of the road is [for drivers] and one percent is ours … There’s a real long way to go,” he explains. Adds Hirschtritt, “The streets are designed for cars, the lights are timed for cars. It’s all built around cars.”
Carlson and the Somerville Bicycle Committee understand these frustrations. With the support of the mayor, they want to increase the number of cycling commuters to fifteen percent. To do that, Carlson says that fostering any kind of “us-versus-them” narrative between bicyclists and motorists is counterproductive. “A bicycle is closer to a car than it is to a pedestrian when it comes to how it operates on the road and how it moves,” Carlson says. “If we as cyclists want to gain respect as vehicles on the road, and coexist with other vehicles … we have to give respect to get respect.”
Instead of fighting over which space belongs to whom, Carlson believes that the city should be implementing solutions that will make the roads safer and easier to navigate for everyone. One of the best ways to do that, he says, is by putting in constructed intersections—intersections designed with very clear visibility lines to minimize the chance of a “right hook” by constructing a physical barrier that extends into the intersection, staggering the stop line and giving cyclists a head start, thereby also protecting pedestrians.
To Carlson, nothing is more important than infrastructure. “In the last seven years,” he says, “we’ve added miles and miles of bike lanes, we’ve added safety boxes, we’ve had a change in culture.”
“You can see the change happening,” Carlson adds, “and it’s leading to a healthier environment.