As part of its Better Bike Lanes initiative, the city is getting ready to launch the design phase for proposed new bike lanes on Berkeley and Boylston streets, leaving some Back Bay leaders to anticipate what this will ultimately mean for the neighborhood’s already fraught traffic conditions.
On Berkeley Street, the city is “envisioning” a one-way, separated bike lane that would connect the South End and Back Bay to the Charles River Esplanade.
“Today, people who want to bike from the South End to the Back Bay don’t have great options,” according to the city’s website dedicated to the proposed Berkeley Street bike lane (https://www.boston.gov/departments/transportation/berkeley-street-bike-lanes). “We aim to complete a missing link in our bike network between Tremont Street and Beacon Street. Commuters will be able to reach job centers in the Back Bay and beyond. And everyone will be able to safely bike between two vibrant shopping, dining, and entertainment districts: Tremont Street in the South End; and Newbury Street in the Back Bay.”
On Boylston Street, the city is proposing a one-way, separated bike lane between Arlington Street and Massachusetts Avenue.
“Many people already ride their bikes on Boylston Street as a natural continuation of trips from Fenway, Mission Hill, the Longwood Medical Center, and Brookline,” according to the city’s website dedicated to the proposed Boylston Street bike lane (https://www.boston.gov/departments/transportation/boylston-street-bike-lanes). “Today, people biking on Boylston Street contend with a busy street lacking a dedicated bike lane. There is also frequent double parking and commercial loading. As a result, several blocks of Boylston Street are high-crash corridors for bicyclists.”
This route was announced in September as part of the city’s expanded bike network. The city spent the last few months collecting information about existing conditions, including traffic volumes. The Boston Transportation Department has begun public consultation to hear from residents, businesses, and other street users to help refine the vision for these streets.
The city will hold Better Bike Lanes office hours from 3 to 7 p.m. on March 1, 15, and 29; on April 12 and 26; and on May 10. Visit the project websites to sign up for office hours.
Meanwhile, Elliott Laffer, chair of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay board of directors, is among those who believes that adding bike lanes to Berkeley Street will only serve to exasperate the street’s already challenging traffic conditions.
“There’s a very marginal traffic situation [in the area], and it all gets concentrated on Berkeley,” said Laffer.
If a driver gets off Storrow Drive and wants to go westbound, there are only to point of entry – Berkeley Street and Charlesgate – which are located fairly far apart, as Laffer noted.
And traffic has been an issue on Beacon Street, since the fall of 1982, he added, when the city decided to change the one-way direction of traffic flowing on Charles Street between Charles Circle and Beacon Street.
All of this has led to congestion on Beacon Street and slight congestion on Berkeley Street, said Laffer, as well as making the intersection of Beacon and Berkeley the worst in the Back Bay, which has consistently earned a grade of ‘F’ on traffic studies.
“It’s a very difficult intersection. It’s a very dangerous intersection for drivers, pedestrians, and people on bikes, and none of that would be helped by making the street even more congested by taking out a lane of traffic [to accommodate the proposed Berkeley Street bike lane],” said Laffer.
The alternative would be to remove parking on Berkeley Street to accommodate the bike lane, but Laffer anticipates that suggestion wouldn’t be met favorably with car owners in the neighborhood.
Moreover, if bikes come down the right side of the street on Berkeley Street, they would then need to cross over its traffic lanes to reach Beacon Street, said Laffer.
And if the bike lane were instead to go on the left-hand side of Berkley Street, the traffic would be “squeezed in on the right,” which, he added, could cause further congestion on Berkley Street.
Cars that don’t want to take Storrow Drive when they go to Beacon Street would then need to make a left and might have to cross over the bike lane to reach their destinations, said Laffer.
Bicyclists would also have to navigate the block between Arlington and Berkeley streets outside of any bike lanes to reach the proposed Berkley Street bike lane.
Meanwhile, traffic coming out of Mugar Way and turning onto Storrow Drive already creates dangerous conditions.
“Pedestrians take their lives into their own hands when they cross at Berkeley, where drivers are already frustrated because they’ve been jammed up,” said Laffer.
Regarding proposed bike lanes on Boylston Street, Laffer said this is mostly a “merchant issue” while acknowledging “there’s a lot of street there.”
As Laffer understands it, a bike lane on Boylston Street couldn’t go on the right side of the street due to the close proximity to the Prudential Center and the Hynes Convention Center, among other major destinations on that side of the street.
Putting a bike lane on the left side of Boylston Street instead would need to be studied first, he said, to determine whether there could still be parking there, as well as what the expected impact would be of taking away a traffic lane.
But the city’s traffic studies could also very well overlook one major factor: Delivery drivers for and drivers picking up orders from Chik-fil-A on Boylston Street frequently double park outside the store, said Laffer, yet the city’s study likely wouldn’t take this into account, since double-parking is illegal.
Moreover, providing bike lanes in no way ensures that bicyclists will use them, said Laffer, since bicyclists face no penalties if they opt not to use them.
Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president and executive director of the Back Bay Association, said while the city has yet to share their plans for the proposed Boylston Street bike lane with her group or with the neighborhood’s business community, she believes that if implemented properly, a bike lane on Boylston Street “can be successful.” “The Back Bay Association looks forward to working with the Boston Transportation Department to ensure the safety of all users while also enabling successful curb operations,” Mainzer-Cohen wrote. “It will be important to maintain Boylston Street’s vehicular capacity link between Back Bay, Downtown and the Seaport and incorporate commercial loading access, hotel patron entry and exit, valet operations, and the overall safety of pedestrians at the curb. As we have seen BTD ‘over reduce’ capacity on other important arteries, adding to intersection cues, (like Tremont Street and Huntington Avenue), we will look carefully at the City’s plans.”