It is a glorious April Saturday morning in New England. Sixty degrees: bright sun; cotton candy clouds; light breeze. I hop on my bike to go to the gym and run errands. I travel easily along city streets, many of which have designated bicycle lanes. I divert onto dedicated bike trails to shortcut automobile routes. I lock my bike to a post right in front of the gym. If you consider time lost in searching for parking, I get from home to gym to store to supermarket as quickly as anyone. The only place I encounter traffic is in Danehy Park, where the bike path is full of casual riders and families with young children on this gorgeous day. But all those bikes disappear the moment I leave the park and pedal to Fresh Pond Shopping Center. The parking lot is full of cars, while mine is the only bike locked to the rack.
The vast majority of Americans own cars. Car sales peaked in 2016, above 17 million vehicles, dipped during the pandemic, and are climbing again. The vast majority of Americans also own bicycles. Coincidently, over 17 million bicycles are sold in the United States each year as well. During the pandemic, bicycles actually outsold cars, but we are quick-slip-sliding back to our old gas pedal ways.
Cambridge, MA is a benevolent place to be a cyclist. The city’s 2020 Bicycle Plan promotes the advantages of cycling from an economic, environmental, and personal health perspective. The document also outlines an ambitious plan to increase cycling for all types of trips. And yet, on an April Saturday in ideal cycling weather, I see folks on bicycles noodling around for fun, but not a single other cyclist pedaling through their daily activities.
A common refrain among bicycle advocates is, “build it and they will come.” If we only provide more designated bike lanes, or more protected bike lanes, or more dedicated bike routes, people will feel that cycling is safe; they’ll ditch their cars; they’ll start to pedal. The City has taken that mantra to heart. In 2021, Cambridge added 4.08 miles of new bike lanes. There are now over 101 miles of dedicated bicycle pavement in a city of only seven square miles in area. Yet many—most—people only use bicycles for recreation.
As a person whose primary means of transport has always been my bicycle, I truly appreciate what the city has done, and what it aspires to continue to do. Cycling throughout the Boston area is so much easier, and safer, than it was thirty, forty years ago. Still, I am the sole cyclist in a separated bike lane often enough to appreciate the frustration of vehicle drivers queued up beside me, pushed into a single traffic lane that, before the bike-lane-paint was applied and stanchions installed, used to be two.
Change comes hard. Four generations into cityscapes defined by automobiles, we have no reference for streets that accommodate a range of transit options. And when we need to do anything other than ‘play,’ our go-to mode of transport is the automobile.
Designated bike lanes are part of the solution to creating better balance between vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians. So is increased density, pedestrian-friendly development. So is phasing out the myth of ‘free’ parking. But none of these changes, individually or collectively, will make much difference unless we make a cultural shift and embrace bicycle riding beyond simply recreation. If we live in a city or town, we can do what we need to do and get where we need to be—on a bicycle!