A Conversation with Outgoing MassBike Executive Director David Watson

He remembers the days when biking to work wasn't so popular, but spandex certainly was.

A lot can change in eight years, especially when it comes to bike sustainability and infrastructure, and MassBike executive director David Watson has been a significant driving force behind some of the Commonwealth’s biggest transformations in that regard.

After nearly a decade steering the non-profit organization along the right tracks, helping to introduce bike lanes to municipalities that at one point in time had never considered them, and leveraging the support of the talking heads on Beacon Hill to introduce cyclist-related legislation to keep riders safe, Watson is leaving his post, and with it a slew of ongoing projects that will continue to reshape the state’s perception of the forward-moving bike trend, even in his absence.

In a letter to the community last week, Watson announced his impending departure, and recalled what bike culture was like during his first days on the job:

“So much has changed for Massachusetts bicyclists since I joined MassBike in 2006,” he said in his letter to the community. “Bike commuters were bravely riding along, but largely limited to the strongest and most fearless among us. There were precious few bike lanes in the state, and none at all in Boston. State transportation policies were just beginning to contemplate biking and walking, but that had not yet translated to change on the streets. Little or no funding was dedicated to bicycle infrastructure or education.”

But the “seeds of change were there,” he said, and MassBike reaped what they sowed.

“We can see the results. Bicycling for transportation is booming—bike traffic jams are a regular sight on many popular routes—and the people riding bikes look like, well, everyone,” he said.

With a significant stack of accomplishments latched to his namesake, Watson said just because he won’t officially be in charge of continuing to forge relationships between city officials, bike advocates, and residents in cities all over, it doesn’t mean his ability to make those connections will come to a standstill.

Watson has vowed to stay on board for a few months longer, before venturing off on a personal expedition offering consulting services on everything transportation-related, and to make sure the transition of welcoming the next executive director is a smooth one.

Boston caught up with Watson to talk in detail about how two-wheeled transportation has transformed communities across Massachusetts during his tenure, and what he expects to see in the next 10 years:

This must be a little bittersweet.
Definitely a little bittersweet, but it’s definitely time for me to move on to something else and I think for MassBike to take another step forward. You know, this is the most fun and rewarding job I have had, but also the hardest and most challenging. But you know, I think it’s a good time for me to move on because we are still doing great work at MassBike, we have had a lot of great stuff starting up recently.

Like what?
Like the Bike Valet at Fenway Park, which I understand had substantially higher numbers this weekend. That’s building, and I look forward to more of that happening next season. And the MassDOT Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety program is just getting started, and that’s exciting. It’s the first time they have decided to spend federal highway safety money on bicyclist and pedestrian safety specifically. It’s targeted on 12 communities with a statewide outreach component. We are also promoting our police training, where all police in those communities had to watch the police training video that we produced.

Why’d you decide to step down?
As MassBike got bigger and became engaged in a broader range of activities across the state, I was able to spend less and less of my own time doing a lot of these great things that I’m passionate about, and I realized that the vision that I had for MassBike going forward wasn’t going to let me spend anymore time doing those things, so I decided it was time for me to go my own way and focus on the things I’m most interested in.

As you depart, where are you heading off to?
I set up a new consulting practice called Watson Active, and what I’ll be doing is assisting communities, agencies, and other advocacy groups with community engagement, active living, and sustainable transportation issues, as well as government regulations. That has been one of my favorite parts of what I’ve done the last eight years, working with the legislature.

Sounds like you will be using a lot of your experience from the last eight years and applying it to your new practice.
Absolutely. It lets me take more control over the projects I’m working on, and how I invest my time in the work I’m doing.

Looking back at your time with MassBike, what are some of the differences in terms of where the state was, and where Boston was, compared to where it is now?
Just eight years ago infrastructure was very sparse in Massachusetts. There were very few communities that made the investment and developed the political world to redistribute space so cyclists had more room on the roads. There was Cambridge, and maybe a few others that had experimented with bike [infrastructure], and that was about it. But now, there is bike infrastructure and facilities across the state in places you probably wouldn’t have expected eight years ago.

Any other big shifts in culture? 
The number and kinds of people who are riding has shifted dramatically. When I started, there were bike commuters, but they tended to be the more hardcore riders, and there was a heck-of-a-lot of spandex. Now, there are tons of everyday people using their bikes only for transportation—they’re not cyclists, per se. And I think that’s a huge shift. It was a huge step in the direction that I, and many advocates, have been working toward over the years.

As you get ready to go, what do you hope MassBike will continue to focus on?
I think one of the most important things is that the next governor’s administration continues the policies and work that was being done under Governor Deval Patrick, and several of his transportation secretaries, because we have significant changes in both the law, and with state policy. That work needs to continue, because without that top-level support and leadership on these issues, it’s just not going to continue at the pace that it needs to.

There have been a lot of positive bike-related changes, but what were some of the difficulties you faced as a director?
I think changing the minds of the people responsible for building and designing the infrastructure at all levels, not just senior officials—down to the ranks of the ranks of the agencies. We were asking them to make a pretty tough change in what they think about roads, something that went against decades of their training and thinking. That was hard. And we’re not done with it, of course, but we have been very successful with it. The interactions between the different user groups on the road, that is something that is still evolving, as people learn to how to really get along with each other, and keep each other safe, and I think that is really challenging.

Will the war between cyclists and drivers ever cease?
I don’t use that word ‘war,’ I think that that’s a misleading analogy. Because if there were actually a war between bikes and cars, then we lost. That’s not a war we could win. But you know, I think that’s not the way to look at it. I think it’s confusion and a lack of understanding and I think a lot of motorists who don’t ride bikes have a hard time relating to cyclists, and don’t understand some of the things people are doing. Yes, sometimes cyclists do things against the law, but there are plenty of things cyclists do that are legal to keep themselves safe that motorists don’t understand, and believe they are illegal, or being done to solely annoy motorists, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.

What happens in the next eight years?
I think infrastructure changes will continue, and we will start to see more separated, or protected facilities—or what people call “cycle tracks.” They are in the plans for Boston, and certainly Cambridge has built some of them. Somerville is building them on Beacon Street; I think we are going to see much more of that, and that’s going to relieve some of the confusion by providing dedicated space for bicyclists, but it’s still going to be a learning curve for people to understand.