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Jamaica Plain is a Hub of Bicycle Activism

From the Southwest Corridor to the Emerald Necklace and on, JP riders breathe fresh air, stay fit, and get a close-up view of the city.

Green Jamaica Plain holds the crown of Boston bicycling. JP cyclists have many of Boston’s sweetest cycle-spots in their back yard -- the Arnold Arboretum, the Jamaicaway Bikepath along the Emerald Necklace, Forest Hills Cemetery and Franklin Park. JP is home to Boston’s international bike charity, Bikes Not Bombs, and to unnumbered bike events, ranging from JP Bikes’ annual to Ferris Wheels’ free pancake breakfast for bikers participating in Boston’s Walk/Ride Day the last Friday of each month. 

And it’s not just bikers out for a ride. JP is also a hub of activism; bicyclists are key players in urban planning and politics; led by JP’s Peter Stidman, the Boston Cyclist Union takes positions on issues like the Casey Overpass replacement and a leadership role as advocate for safer biking. And JP is home to Boston’s bicyclist-in-chief, Nicole Freedman, advisor to the mayor on all things bicycle. Freedman, sadly, is leaving her post this month to run a bike program in Maine.

Many in JP share the Cyclist Union’s vision of a city with a network of safe bike routes, where “bicycles [are] commonplace, residents are healthier and have reduced levels of cardiovascular disease, asthma and obesity. They also have more expendable income, more free time, and greater choice in how they move about their city.”

One such resident is Charles Lucas, a JP resident and Boston public school physical education teacher who won a Fund for Teachers grant to investigate bicycle usage in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and France and to get ideas about how to foster similar bike usage in Boston.  What an education it would be for Boston drivers if they had to navigate a street filled with cyclists like the streets in Malmo, Sweden or in Amsterdam!

Lucas won the grant because of his work promoting bicycling among his third to fifth grade students. He works with the city program, Boston Bikes,  to introduce his students to bicycles, and says it’s always a thrill to see the kids excited about  finding success with biking at an early age. He makes it possible for them to fall in love with bicycling. 

Bikes Not Bombs Youth Programs uses kids’ enthusiasm for bicycles as a tool to develop young people’s leadership and “sense of individual and collective power to transform their own lives, strengthen communities and build a just and sustainable planet.” They’ve put thousands of local kids through their training programs in the last twenty-some years. 

Falling in love with bikes at an early age is a common theme.  If you talk to a number of bicyclists, it keeps coming up. I assumed that JP bike commuters swarmed out on the from JP to downtown Boston because we in JP are so environmentally aware. It turns out that many of the cyclists I’ve talked to agree with Kris Lucius when he says, “The primary reason I bike is just that I enjoy it.  Even as a teenager when I was so excited to be driving a car, I never went very long without riding. It is such a sleek and free feeling, the beautiful efficiency of cranking the pedals and being propelled forward.  And coasting, what a great sensation.  That it is cheap, healthy, and resource non-intensive is just icing.”

Lots of people start telling you why they ride a bike by telling you about riding one as a child (which begins to make the Boston Bikes program sound more important). One cyclist tells how he learned to ride a bike on his seventh birthday: his mother gave him a bike in the morning and told him that he needed to learn to ride the bike before his birthday party that night. Talk about finding the right motivation -- he went from never having been on a bike through training wheels to full mastery in a matter of hours, all in time to celebrate his birthday!

It’s surprising to me that so many cyclists said a big motivator is efficiency.  Most bikers say it’s much faster to go somewhere by bike than by car or by public transportation. Almost all the commuters emphasize that they save time (and aggravation) by cycling to work. John Dabrowski (whose favorite bike ride is his ride to work each day) explains, “It triggers little of the anger and frustration I experience when I drive a car;  I move unimpeded towards where I am going...  I never worry about parking or being late due to traffic.”

Sometimes JP bikers boast about the length and difficulty of their commutes. At a recent cyclists’ gathering, Arthur Prokosch told of cycling 7 miles each day, including a difficult bridge crossing, but Abbi Holt beat him easily with her 11 mile commute across the river to Arlington. They agreed with many other bikers that crossing Comm Ave to get to the BU bridge is especially tricky, mostly because the car drivers are not sure which lane they should be in. Since bikers ride in such close proximity to cars, and since car drivers don’t tend to be aware of bikers, bikers need to be able to read the road very carefully – to read the traffic patterns around them and to predict what the cars immediately around them are about to do -- passing, turning, slowing down, switching lanes, pulling into or out of parking, etc. So bikers feel more secure when they know what to expect of car drivers. Laura Everett goes only 6 miles, and part of that is along the comfortable, relatively secure biking paths of the Southwest Corridor, but she insists that her commute is challenging because it includes navigating up Beacon Hill.

For most cyclists, the most treacherous places are those with trolley tracks that can catch and hold a bike wheel; the Green line’s E train tracks on Heath Street are a last holdout of trolley track trouble for cyclists in JP. Dave Mak says he goes on high alert every time he comes to the crisscrossing of tracks at Cleveland Circle on his daily commute. Other danger points for many commuters are routes that go under bridges; several cyclists say they will feel safer .

Noelle Janku doesn’t complain about her commute from JP to Harvard Square. She claims it’s not only faster than the T and good exercise, but the best way to experience the city. Other riders echo her sentiment that you get a feel for a Boston neighborhood when you are there every day on your bicycle that drivers and passengers stuck inside their cars never know. As one commuter cyclist put it,  “I feel I am a part of life in the city, not an invisible isolated traveler passing through; I experience the sights and the sounds and the smells in the most direct way (usually pleasurable…).”

JP cyclists agree that it has become much easier – and feels much safer – to move through the city on two wheels in the past few years. , the Hubway bike sharing system, and more of a presence of bikers in the city all make a difference. JP activist cyclists have labored long toward making Boston a bike-friendly city, working on various ways the city can improve the biking experience, and are glad to see Boston becoming more and more bike-aware. 

The catalyst most often credited for these changes is Boston's Bike Czar, Nicole Freedman, who is accorded enormous appreciation and respect in the biking community.  Pete Stidman of the Boston Cyclists’ Union describes her as tireless.  There seems to be no pause in the initiatives from her office that improve safety and access for bikers and raise consciousness about bicycling on the part of drivers, bikers, and potential bikers.

Confirmation of Nicole’s influence comes from John Dabrowski, who has been biking in Boston for 30 years.  John says “the complete turnaround of the past few years is astonishing.  Nicole Freedman has cast a spell on Mayor Tom, to good effect.  Talk about the right person in the right place at the right time...”

Other bicycle commuters agree that it is a good time to be riding to work in Boston.  That said, there are still problems for cyclists who share the road with cars or need to cross roads where cars drive fast. Martha Merson, who has biked from JP to Arlington each day for twenty years, knows that drivers are often startled to realize that bicyclists are sharing their road. That’s why she wears the brightest colors she can find, and attaches a brightly colored t-shirt to the back of her seat to make herself even more visible. But she still feels vulnerable.

Martha knows that she has a right to the street, even though car passengers still call out that she should get off the road and ride the sidewalk. In Boston, bicycles are considered vehicles, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails.

Some cyclists feel they can enjoy the rights but forget about the responsibilities. Joan Hazard believes cyclists should take a stand for taking responsibility.  She recently indulged in the following rant: “What about somehow reforming the hot dog bikers that give all of us a bad name?   The ones that ride fast and dive across streets between cars, forcing the cars to slam on their brakes, or ride fast on sidewalks scaring pedestrians, or ride fast past bikers on the southwest corridor, without any audible warning, and then swoop back to the right side of the bike path nearly running into the biker they just passed.”

Ah well, there are always some... But in the cool mode of most JP cyclists, take a breath, cycle on... stay green.

Karla Vallance April 07, 2012 at 01:46 PM
And with the bike lanes now, besides carving out room, it makes a subtle statement to car drivers: bicycles have a right to be there.
William Furr April 07, 2012 at 09:42 PM
JP is the best place in Boston to bicycle, but that's really not saying much. The city has made some great strides just in the two years I've been here, but it's still not great. And I shudder to think of what it was like before the Boston Bikes program.] I hope the mayor follows through with his promises to make Boston a world-class cycling city. We have a really long way to go. I'm disappointed at how slowly Boston has improved compared to what other cities in the US have done, like Chicago (who already have their first separated cycle track!) and NYC (which has added 200 miles of bike lane in the same time period we did 50!). Maybe within my lifetime I won't feel like a second-class citizen when I ride my bicycle in the city.
Alfredo Duh Driver April 07, 2012 at 11:27 PM
For years the Rallying cry of bicycle riders "same roads, same rights" the 'missing 3rd R is same responsibilitys. Road maintence , repair + cost of bike lanes are bourne by gas + excise taxs. Bikes run stop signs, red lights go wrong way down one way streets, cut off people on cross walks. I would estimate the 'average' bike rider who pays nothing for Bostons roads cost an average of 5 to 10 gallons a year in gas to others through pin head manouvers. ticket them, make them where lights + plates PAY your share.
Marc Grossman April 07, 2012 at 11:39 PM
Nice piece, Janell. I've done all my intracity traveling by bike ever since I moved into the city from the suburbs 15 years ago. And, like others you interviewed, my principal reason for doing so is efficiency--within certain distances it really is faster and less hassle than driving, especially if you include the time required to find a parking place (took my daughter a half hour to find one near the Children's Museum the other day!). In fact, it's so efficient that my personal biggest gripe is the nuisance of having to lock up my bike each time I stop, especially on short multi-stop errands. But while my current motivation for biking is the same as many other bikers, unlike them I didn't take to it out of a childhood love of the recreation. As it happens, I didn't learn to ride a bike until I was 19 years old, when I taught myself, at night, in the Hudson Street area of Manhattan. I did so because it seemed a well-advised preparation for buying the motorcycle I had my eye on! Given my bike-free childhood, i often reflect on the incongruity of my having become a bicycling retiree!
Janell Fiarman April 08, 2012 at 02:39 AM
Bravo, Marina, for going car-free (and much more carbon-free!). I guess I am timid about giving up the car. But I love your vision of roads without all those endless streams of private autos. You've encouraged me to think about being car-free...
Janell Fiarman April 08, 2012 at 02:51 AM
I love the image of a young man teaching himself to ride a bike. Was it at night so that no one could see you practicing or was that just the time that you had free? You inspire me to try to learn something new at an unconventional age.
yeah okay buddy April 09, 2012 at 05:48 PM
Local streets are mostly paid for from local property & sales taxes (which cyclists pay too, obviously). Overall, the USDOT estimates every car gets a $3000+ subsidy every year.
Phil Lindsay April 09, 2012 at 06:03 PM
JP is ALL that except it wasn't the first neighborhood to have an organized grass roots presence. That honor is left to Dorchester! Dotbike led the way!

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