Does the Pedal have the Mettle?

By Phineas J. Stone

Getting around by bicycle is very un-Boston.

Truly, and historically, it is.

But Boston hasn’t been itself for quite a while, especially recently.

Bicyclists were roundly criticized for years by drivers,  and even pedestrians, and mostly seen as an outlier. They were the folks trying to put a square peg in a round hole; trying to bring the Old Town into the new age – and so many saw this as an incompatible West Coast breeze in the cold reality of a stiff New England wind.

There was the problem with snow, first of all. Friends of mine used to sit at the Dunks and laugh at the guys who would ride by on the side of the street in a snowstorm – slipping and sliding around on a bike.

The old refrain was to yell out the door, “Hey buddy, this ain’t Seattle.”

And there was some truth to that.

At the same time, no one is laughing about bicycles anymore.

That fringe group became much louder and now bicyclists – to the chagrin of old timers – have become a significant “community,” as groups of people doing the same things are often called these days. Even one of the old fellas at the Dunks who used to laugh at the bikes had a change of heart. The other day he said he was pretty much ready to welcome the bike guys now, because every one of them on the bike meant one less car on the road and an easier time for him getting around the congested streets – he being a dedicated automobile guy.

But can bikes really be the answer in Boston?

I wonder this all the time as I hear about developments being planned to house large numbers of new residents. The population here is about to surge in the South End, Back Bay and Fenway as new large-scale projects come online quickly and the numbers of units rarely match the numbers of parking spots. Instead, developers tout the numbers of bike trips and bike storage spaces – and City planners take those numbers seriously these days. They’re also keen on taking away parking spots to make lanes for bikes so that travel is safer – and that’s key, because the City isn’t made for spokes and pedals and some drivers have homicidal impulses when they encounter bike riders.

The Central Office seems to be sold on the fact that bikes are the answer.

I want to believe it, but it’s hard to get over the factors of the snow and cold. Just how are these thousands of new bicycle commuters going to make a difference during the six months of the year when the outdoors are unhospitable even to a resourceful squirrel. Do we have monumental traffic jams in the winter and then free-and-easy travel during the warm months (whenever those want to return)?

I tried to be a biker a couple of decades ago and it was a tough go. I gave up in November because I wasn’t willing to negotiate the cold. However, even during the summer there were critical questions.

When it was hot, I routinely showed up to work in slacks and a Polo shirt…soaked in sweat. There’s no way around the exertion when riding a bike, and what does one do with the sweat and stink that comes with that when they roll into work? I tried to freshen up in the john, but it felt a bit desperate, a little vagrant-like. I never solved that problem.

But then there were the beautiful days that we occasionally have. On those days, sitting behind the handlebars was perfect. It put me in a much better mood to ride home on those days than to drive home, but we only get about 30 of those days up here and most people aren’t as ideologically dedicated to go beyond those prime 30 days.

Not long ago, I was in a mixed audience listening to some talk about traffic and parking and the usual outrage associated with everything that involves building things. There were young professionals dedicated to carbon-free living, carpenters with large families who wanted jobs and a continuation of the life they know, empty nesters who typically side with the young crowd (as long as there are hors d’oueves at the meeting) and City planners who were in over their heads in the social war that unfolded.

At one point, a young man stood up and lectured the crowd on public transportation and the need for everyone to use a bicycle. He told folks that the idea of having one parking spot per housing unit was an old, stale idea that had to be discarded. He had a great point, and he was right in his way. He was a computer guy, and his office was his laptop. That laptop fit nicely in a napsack and was easily portable on a bike.

Then a tradesman stood up, and told him that with all due respect, his view.

“When you can tell me how I’m going to pile three kids on a bike so I can take them to school, along with all my tools and 100 feet of PVC piping, then I’ll get on that magic bike,” he said, getting applause from his side of the room.

He was right in his way also. He didn’t work in an office or on a computer; his office was his van, and that lifestyle doesn’t fit on a bike.

As for me, I think the answer lies in our feet.

Boston has a small footprint. I like to walk when I can, and I’m going to walk more and more when I can. When I can’t, I’m going to drive. And on those 30 nice days we get in Boston, I may even drag out my bike from the cellar and give it a go.

Who says we can’t do it all and still help the cause?


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