Rack Race

Reckless drivers and monster potholes won't keep Bostonians from biking. But not enough parking will.

Rack Race

Illustration by Heather Burke

Greg LeMond, Lance Armstrong, and…Tom Menino? Ever since that fateful day back in August 2007, when the Globe slapped a picture of the bike-riding mayor on the front of its Metro section, the image of Hizzoner the Cyclist—helmet-clad, intensely focused, showing more than a little leg beneath his conspicuously snug shorts—has been seared into my brain. Sometimes I imagine him curling up to sleep at night with a yellow jersey as his binky.

In his waking hours, Menino has said he wants Boston to be a “world-class biking city.” He named former Olympic cyclist Nicole Freedman as the city’s first bike czar in 2007, and today is in the process of bringing a large-scale bike-sharing operation to the Hub. And though we’re not yet Portland, Oregon—where nearly 10 percent of city-dwellers use bicycles as primary transportation—we’re getting better. I started commuting by bike a year ago, and have seen the streets grow more crowded every day.

Just one problem with Menino’s mission: There aren’t enough places to park our bikes—not nearly enough. According to David Watson, executive director of the nonprofit MassBike, that shortage is one of the biggest factors deterring people from riding more. Bicycles are not inexpensive, and with theft an ever-present concern, people know they can’t dock their ride just anywhere. (Boston magazine world headquarters is located on the relatively genteel Christian Science Plaza, and if the beneficent pooh-bahs here didn’t let me roll my bike inside the office for safekeeping, I’m not so sure I’d pedal in every day.)
“People don’t want to lock their bikes to trees and fences and parking meters. They don’t feel good about it,” Watson says. “You could build bike lanes everywhere, but if you don’t have sufficient bike parking where people want it, then they’re still not going to ride.”

According to bike czar Freedman, there are between 1,500 and 1,600 city-provided parking spaces for bikes in Boston; by comparison, Portland has about 6,500. Worse, there are entire Boston neighborhoods that are almost bereft of racks. By Freedman’s own admission, the Financial District, Mattapan, and the mayor’s own Hyde Park all come up short. Beacon Hill is also light on parking, as is Allston-Brighton—at least relative to the large number of bikers who live there.

Other cities have devised creative solutions to this problem. Chicago’s Millennium Park boasts a 16,500-square-foot cycling center complete with 300 secure spaces (plus showering and changing facilities); Seattle has a similar facility. Even more innovative is a New York City law that requires office buildings with a freight elevator to allow employees to wheel their bikes inside, effectively increasing the amount of parking without necessitating more racks. “I am very intrigued by that law,” Freedman says. “I am going to see how it works and if it is something we should look at here.”

Indeed, Freedman has been paying attention to best practices. And despite knotty zoning laws and difficult neighborhood groups, last year she saw to it that 250 new bike racks were installed in Boston, with another 250 slated by the end of this year, and another 250 in 2010. But—much like the mayor’s pledge to add five miles of bike lanes a year (five whole miles!)—the action isn’t quite living up to all the big talk. Even with the new racks, there still won’t be enough parking. “I think we’re moving forward, which is much better than it was before last year,” Watson says. “I think it would be great if we could move forward more quickly.”

One bright spot can be found at the OtherSide Café, on the Newbury Street extension, where the city has replaced an on-street parking space with a so-called bike corral. It holds up to 20 bikes and tends to be under constant casual surveillance, making thieves less likely to target them. But, alas, it’s the only one in the city, and exists solely because café employee Andrea Parros suggested the idea to Freedman after seeing the corrals in Portland. While the corral here has been a success, there are no imminent plans to replicate it—for that to happen, Freedman says, a local business would have to come to her and ask for one.

That’s the most discouraging part: Racks are installed mostly on a by-request basis. While it’s nice that people who want racks get them, it also means that we end up without a deliberate plan for turning all of Boston into an inviting place to bike. Until that’s fixed, and Boston becomes something nobody thought it could be—a world-class city for parking—it will never be a world-class city for biking.