Is a Protected Bike Lane on Comm. Ave. a Cyclist’s Victory or a Driver’s Loss?

The Globe and Herald report the same story, with predictably different emphases.

If ever you doubted that bicycling culture in Boston has become a political issue, look no further than the different treatments of the same story offered in today’s Boston Globe and Boston Herald. The papers report the same news—that the city announced plans to install a protected bike lane along a dangerous stretch of Commonwealth Avenue—but they offered drastically different emphases.

The Globe’s headline reads, “In a victory for cyclists, Commonwealth Ave. to install bike lanes.”

Note how the paper is focused on the winners in this story. It reports that city officials were initially wary to set back the construction project’s timeline. But concern for the safety of the city’s cyclists, who haven’t faired well on Comm. Ave. in recent years, motivated them to make this change. (Bike advocates argue that only a protected lane, with a barrier between car traffic and bikes, can provide a truly safe environment for the city’s cycle commuters.) Great! Nine paragraphs into the story, though, we learn that the project will involve removal of the outbound traffic lane for cars. This, anyone who knows anything about the debate over bicycles on city streets, should indicate that this plan might have some opponents. And where better to find them than…

…The Herald, where the headline on this story reads, “Bike lane plan draws ire.”

Oh, really? The story’s first sentence describes the announcement as a “plan to eliminate 73 parking spaces, plus an outbound traffic lane, to make way for a special ‘cycle track’ for bike riders on a stretch of Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton.” Notice how the Herald leads with the loss to the city’s driver, as well as scare quotes around the words “cycle track,” as if it’s a thing made up by those damn hipster cyclists. The story comprises mainly of quotes from City Councilor Michael Flaherty, who is “outraged” at the plan, and a sentence of resistance to his argument from a city official. Eight paragraphs in, we find that “At a public meeting on Comm. Ave. last night 
attended by a largely pro-bike crowd of more than 200, speakers were overwhelmingly in favor of the proposed tracks.” Wait, some people aren’t enraged by this? Who knew? Suddenly, the headline starts to seem thin. More accurately, it might read, “Bike lane draws ire of one, but largely impresses a crowd of 200,” but hey, column width is narrow.

We’re always inclined to poke fun at the Herald, where coverage of bike culture has typically been shrill, close-minded, and trollish. It remains so here, but—hold your breath—their story isn’t utterly without merit. The fact is that, at least when it comes to the width of Commonwealth Avenue, there is a zero-sum game between cars and bikes. The lanes can either be devoted to cars, or some of them can be carved out for cyclists. There are winners and losers, and to gain a full tally of the points scored here, you need to read both stories. The Globe, after all, does not mention anywhere that this cycle track will eliminate 73 parking spaces. That might be an entirely fair and necessary sacrifice, but it’s a surprising omission on a day when elsewhere, the Globe reports on the dire lack of parking in the city of Boston. It also doesn’t quote anyone with reservations about the proposal.

That said, we’re still giving this one to the Globe. The Herald’s story, from its headline to its lede, seems designed mainly to outrage its car-centric readership, leaving the voices of any who might feel the city has served their needs to the final paragraphs, and offering basically no explanation for the logistical merits of a cycle track. But the Globe has its blind spots, too. The issue of bicycling and urban transit has, improbably enough, become a culture war. And in culture wars, there’s very little hope when the two sides aren’t speaking the same language.