Mayor Gets Relijun

Tom Menino has glimpsed the future, and it looks a lot like the past which for years he has totally ignored. The Globe dedicates a significant amount of real estate both online and in the print edition today to the mayor’s downright evangelical plan to make Boston the greatest city ever in which to ride a bike. If Hizzoner means it, it would be a significant departure from the present, in which Boston is the worst city ever in which to ride a bike.

The perils of riding a bike in Boston are hardly new, which is why the mayor’s newfound zeal is as frustrating as it is encouraging. For years riders have complained about dangerous road conditions, sociopathic drivers (two cyclists have been killed by cars this year), trash-strewn bike lanes and scant bike racks. On the latter point, to give you an indication of how much of an about-face this is, when the city replaced the conventional meters on Newbury Street with those high tech jobs, cyclists complained they had lost the only available thing they had to chain bikes to. The city’s response: “Bikes are not supposed to be chained to parking meters.” Thanks guys!

After being hectored unrelentingly by bike rights groups, the mayor appointed a bike advisory committee in 1999, but then shut it down in 2003. “There was just not a mandate,” bike czar Paul Schimek said later. “I got to the point where I realized, I can do anything I want, as long as it doesn’t involve spending money or getting policy changed.”

That’s why it’s so galling to hear the mayor—who is now talking about appointing another bike czar, creating more bike paths, installing public showers, bike rental kiosks and so forth—say something like this: “We need to get more people to take the bike around. It’s good for their health, it’s good for the environment, and there’s less congestion on our streets. It’s time for this issue to come to the forefront.”

Goddamnit, it was time for this issue to come to the forefront ten years ago!

The benefits to cycling to a city are obvious: healthier people, less traffic, less pollution and the like. Making a city as bike friendly as possible is not just a nice quality of life gesture, but an absolute necessity as we enter a future of rising gas prices, uproarious obesity and global warming. We’re far from the first American city to realize that an emphasis on non-car transit is critical (Portland, OR, is especially smart about this stuff), but the fact that our mayor is acting like this is some grand discovery he made is another infuritating example of Boston behaving like some two-bit backwater. We’re like the guy who really got into wine after seeing Sideways.

Additionally infuriating is how the notion of making the city more hospitable to bikes didn’t enter the mayor’s head until he got himself a bike and saw firsthand how much of a nightmare this city is for cyclists. Is City Hall’s capacity for abstract thought so limited that they need to experience problems themselves before they recognize them as problems? It’s like when former councilor / mayor-feed Maura Henngian waged a crusade against potholes after breaking her ankle in one, as though Boston’s streets hadn’t been downright lunar for years. (Also worth noting is that Hennigan became an outspoken bike advocate while running against Menino, which may explain why he steered clear of the issue.)

I hope all these improvements happen, as someone who cares about this city’s adaptability, and as a cyclist tired of nearly being gruesomely killed every time I take the bike out. If we become Bike City USA, none of this will matter. But if this is just more idle talk out of a City Hall temporarily gah-gah for bikes, it’ll be an outright embarassment.

UPDATE 2: Fear not, everyone who somehow believed that Boston was a great place to bike, despite a decade of news stories and anecdotal and empirical evidence to the contrary: BostonNOW is on the case! As it turns out, Boston is NOT a great place to bike! What would we do without this newspaper?

UPDATE 1: The following press release from the mayor just landed in my inbox. Our new bike czar is an Olympian. The last line is especially rich.

Mayor Announces Boston Bikes and $25,000 Grant for the Harbor Trail

Initiative will make Boston a friendlier bike city

Standing alongside community partners on the Harbor Walk today, Mayor Thomas M. Menino announced Boston Bikes, a citywide initiative to make Boston a better biking city. Biking is a low-cost transportation, great exercise that can help lower obesity and asthma rates with our young people, is great for the environment, helping to reduce smog and carbon dioxide emissions, and can help generate revenue for the city. Mayor Menino is grateful for the help of state and community agencies including the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and Mass Highway. DCR Commissioner Rick Sullivan joined Mayor Menino at the event.

“Boston has the potential to be a great city for cycling,” Mayor Menino said. “We are working with community partners and bike advocacy groups, planning bike routes and installing bike racks all to help foster a healthier city, a more vibrant economy and a higher quality of life for not only our residents and visitors, but the environment.”

Mayor Menino has hired former Olympian Nicole Freedman, who currently directs the annual Hub on Wheels event, as the new Bike Coordinator who will be responsible for creating and implementing bike policy. Among her duties, Freedman is working with several City departments to find locations for the installation of bike racks. She is also leading a mapping project, asking commuters, couriers and other bike enthusiasts about where they ride in the city. This information will help the City plan bike routes.

Boston will host a summit next month with bicycle advocacy groups and experts asking them for their help in planning safe bike routes and an online map with planning capabilities. A base count project, which Freedman believes no other city is doing, will also begin shortly. The idea is to get a real account of how many commuters and other bike riders we have in the city.

Mayor Menino also announced a $25,000 grant from the Boston Redevelopment Authority that will fund the development of a master plan for the South Bay Harbor Trail that Save the Harbor, Save the Bay is building. In 2001, Mayor Menino stood with the organization to announce their partnership on the project. The organization has since been in the planning stages and securing close to $4 million in funding. The South Bay Harbor Trail will be a 3.5 mile-long system, from Ruggles MBTA Station to Fan Pier on the South Boston Waterfront.

“The City of Boston is lucky to have a bicycle-friendly Mayor like Tom Menino who truly understands the importance of innovative projects like the South Bay Harbor Trail in connecting our City’s neighborhoods to our fantastic waterfront. His support, and the support of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, have been and continue to be critical to the success of this exciting project,” Patty Foley, of Save the Harbor, Save the Bay said.