Latest Proposal for Two-Way, Protected Bike Lanes on Charles Street Meets With Strong Community Response

The latest proposal for bike lanes on Charles Street submitted by the Boston Cyclists Union is eliciting a strong reaction from the neighborhood, with community members weighing in both strongly in favor and adamantly against the plan. The concept calls for the elimination of one of Charles Street’s three traffic lanes to allow for the creation of two adjacent 4-foot wide, parking-protected, one-way bike lanes on Charles Street between Cambridge and Beacon streets. The two remaining travel lanes would each measure 10 feet wide, with a 2½ foot buffer, while parking lanes on both sides of the street would each be 7 feet wide. One sidewalk would be 9 feet wide, and the other 9½ feet wide. While a conceptual diagram of the proposed Charles Street bike-lane configuration found on the Boston Cyclists Union website indicates that the bike lanes would be located in one of the travel lanes adjacent to the sidewalk, Alex Shames, community organizer for the group,  said the decision regarding which of the three traffic lanes would be eliminated to create the bike lanes is still in flux as the group hasn’t heard back from the city yet regarding their preference.

The Boston Cyclists Union is now proposing the elimination of one of three traffic lanes on Charles Street (seen above) in order to create twoway, protected bike lanes on the street.

“The factors that are important to the Beacon Hill community are that it’s two way, fully separated from cars and pedestrians, and that it’s connected from both ends,” said Shames. “We’ve heard from businesses that they need to preserve parking and loading zones, so that’s also our priority.” Besides the plan for bike lanes on Charles Street, which was created by a North End resident, the Boston Cyclist Unions other “signature campaigns” propose bike lanes for the Arborway in Jamaica Plain; Massachusetts Avenue South (Dorchester, Roxbury, and the South End); and Malcolm X Boulevard in Roxbury. Over the summer, the Boston Cyclists Union launched an online petition (found at https://secure.everyaction.com/vpelc2mfUEWNwBFiBhNXjw2) in support of its proposal for bike lanes on Charles Street. “Currently, Charles Street between the Charles/MGH T station and the Public Garden/Boston Common represents a significant gap in the bike lane infrastructure in Boston,” the petition reads in part. “South-bound cyclists must contend with three lanes of car traffic to pass through the neighborhood, while north-bound riders have no safe route through Beacon Hill—especially with the closure of Fiedler Footbridge—and must either bike against traffic or circumnavigate the neighborhood altogether.

This link is key to connecting downtown Boston to the Longfellow Bridge, which was recently redesigned to accommodate a protected bike lane, and Cambridge beyond.” As of Tuesday, March 15, the petition had garnered 1,235 signatures towards a target of 1,500 signatures, although only 142 of these signatures were from Beacon Hill residents. The Boston Cyclists Union has 10,000 names in its database, said Shames, and the petition likely reached many of them, regardless of the neighborhoods where they live, and they signed the petition. “One hundred forty-two if the number that’s important to me, and we’ll say 142 Beacon Hill residents [support the plan] when we go to the city,” said Shames. Kalli Catcott, a Hancock Street resident since 2017 and resident of the neighborhood since 2011, as well as the member of the Boston Cyclists Union who started the online petition, is among those who support the proposed bike lanes on Charles Street. Catcott travels down Charles Street almost every weekday on a cargo-bike, commuting to and from work over the Longfellow Bridge, and picking up and dropping off her two children each day at the Advent School and at daycare near  Tufts Medical Center, respectively. Since biking is her primary mode of transportation, she also bikes to the grocery store and on other errands. “There are several reasons I am in favor of a two-directional bike lane,” Catcott wrote in an email. “First, safety.

As a bike commuter in the city, I have firsthand experience of how some car-drivers don’t notice or check for bicycles while changing lanes or making turns. A well-designed bike lane significantly reduces the chances of car-to-bike crashes. Second, access. Currently, there are not any good bike routes to get from the south-side of the neighborhood back to the north slope. The counterflow part of a bike lane would fix that.” Moreover, Catcott wrote, “I try to talk a lot of people into commuting by bike. The number one reason I hear from folks as to why they won’t is lack of bike lanes. I know not everyone is comfortable biking on the street with car traffic and a bike lane down Charles street will provide access to those riders.” In conclusion, Catcott wrote: “Third, people-friendly Charles Street. I’m a Beacon Hill resident and my family walks down Charles Street all the time. As currently designed, Charles Street is five lanes of cars. That is a lot of cars for what is supposed to be a street that is great for strolling. I’d love for the street to feel less like a parking lot. A bike lane would help in this, and even provide a little breathing room for folks walking on the sidewalk.”

If two-directional bike lanes were installed on Charles Street, Catcott said she expects to use them every day, “since there would be a way to get northbound through the neighborhood on bike.” Zach Gold, a Myrtle Street resident who bikes nearly every day as his primary mode of transportation, would also like to see bike lanes on Charles Street. “I became involved with the Boston Cyclists Union specifically to advocate for a protected, two-way bike lane on Charles Street,” Gold wrote in an email. “Charles Street has five lanes dedicated to cars–three for driving and two for parking–which is a dangerous and hostile environment for cyclists. Even though it is a route that I would take often, I now walk my bike along Charles Street because I simply do not feel safe riding alongside so many cars without a bike lane.” Gold added, “I support this proposal because our reliance on cars is harmful to the environment and contributes to the dire effects of climate change. Improved bicycle infrastructure is key to reducing emissions and decarbonizing Boston’s transportation system. “The bottom line is that Charles Street needs a protected, two-way bike lane to improve the safety of the street, the accessibility of the neighborhood, and the sustainability of the city,” Gold concluded. Michelle Adams, a member of the Boston Cyclists Union for more than a decade, as well as a Jamaica Plain resident who makes the seven-mile trek to her job as a nurse at Mass General Hospital via bicycle every day, weather permitting, is another voice in favor of bike lanes on Charles Street.               

“I used to contraflow ride down Charles Street, but after going to a Beacon Hill neighborhood meeting several years ago and hearing how it bothered them, I began riding the sidewalk along the Storrow Drive off ramp to Charles Circle,” Adams wrote in an email. “Folks that walk themselves, strollers and dogs don’t love bikes along that sidewalk, but they have been flexible about sharing the only safe passage inbound passageway along the off ramp. We do ride home with traffic along Charles Street – thus my desire for a two-way bike lane.” Adams, who, along with her husband, regularly visits Charles Street to shop and dine, added: “Charles Street  is a lovely place that is dear to my heart. I can see the potential it could have to be less of a car highway and more of a bustling neighborhood shopping-dinning experience with safe passage for all.” But this is far from the first time that bike lanes on Charles Street have been considered, and the Beacon Hill Business Association has consistently voted against such proposals in the past. Years ago, the idea of bike lanes on Charles Street was first broached and then dropped, and this dialogue has been repeated several times since then, said Jack Gurnon, owner of Charles Street Supply Co., as well as the owner and a 45-year resident of the Charles Street building where the business is located, and a longtime Business Association member who has been working for years on finding a solution for bike lanes in the neighborhood.

“Now, we see a huge push for bike lanes popping everywhere, and they pop up indiscriminately with little forethought,” said Gurnon. It was Gurnon who first proposed installing bike lanes on Mugar Way because, he said, “it’s a stretch of land that no one uses, and nobody really walks on the sidewalk back there.” Gurnon described Mugar Way as “very underutilized,” and said, “it’s a straight shot from the park to the other bridge, and that’s what everyone wants.” Bicyclists want a “thorough-through,” he said, instead of having to start and to stop at traffic lights on Charles Street. “Charles Street is a residential street with lots of people on crowded sidewalks, baby carriages, and a lot of people are elderly, too,” said Gurnon. “I feel a better solution [for bike lanes] is Storrow Drive.” Chris Quigley, a current Business Association board member, as well as the group’s former president, who owns a chiropractic practice at 102 Charles St., also said Mugar Way, along with the Esplanade, would accommodate bike lanes better than Charles Street could. “I’ve been in business on Charles Street now for 31 years, and Charles Street is effectively a one-way street due to double-parking, construction, and deliveries,” said Quigley.

 “I get here at 7 o’clock in the morning, and there’s a line going into the garage, and trucks making deliveries on the other aside of the street, so with a bike lane, where is everybody supposed to go?” Added Quigley, “If they want to have a bike lane going south, that’s fine because it would be going with traffic, but you can’t have one going the other way.” Ali Ringenburg, a board member of both the Beacon Hill Business Association and the Beacon Hill Civic Association, as well as co-chair of the two groups’ Joint Charles Street Committee, also emphasized this wasn’t the first time that bike lanes on Charles Street had been explored, and that the Business Association board has steadfastly voted against protected bike lanes – both one-way and two-way – every time the subject comes up. “The real dialogue has been going on for many years, and we understand it’s a very complex issue because it involves a very commercial street with a lot of independent businesses that are all front loading,” said Ringenburg.  “The street is also an artery for traffic coming in, out, and around the city…and is a heavily trafficked artery for buses, trucks, other drivers, trolly tours.” Like Gurnon and Quigley, Ringenburg also points to Mugar Way as an alternative for bike lanes in the neighborhood as opposed to the “one-dimensional” plan for Charles Street.

“We’ve had some very constructive conversations about bike lanes on Mugar Way, and those conversations are still active,” she said. In a statement, Rob Whitney, chair of the Beacon Hill Civic Association board, wrote, “The BHCA continues to engage with its members, neighbors and the businesses along Charles Street in discussions concerning the best solution for improving bike use and safety in traversing Beacon Hill between Charles Circle and Beacon Street, and looking at possible pathways for such travel including, but not limited to, Charles Street.  In addition, the City of Boston’s recently issued 2022 Temporary Outdoor Dining Program, which allows for the use of Charles Street’s parking lanes for outdoor dining during the warmer weather months, needs to be taken into consideration in determining how Charles Street might best accommodate bicycle travel during such time periods.  The BHCA hopes to be able soon to share its thoughts, based upon its discussions with members, neighbors and businesses, as to what it thinks might be a good plan for bicycle travel through the Beacon Hill historic neighborhood.” Lynne Wolverton, owner of Linens on the Hill, which has operated at 52 Charles St. since 1987, is dead set against the proposed Charles Street bike lanes. “Any other merchant on Charles Street I’ve talked to is completely against this,” said Wolverton. “It’s really going to interrupt our business and make it harder for bicyclists to park. There’s no parking for bikes if [cyclists] want to come shopping, although I’ve never had a bicyclist customer in my 24 years in business.” Regarding bicyclists now on Charles Street, Wolverton said, “It’s mostly leisure bikers trying to get from point A to point B.

I would feel differently if the bicyclists were people who had no other way to get to and from work.” Longtime Beacon Street resident Chris Clyde also strongly opposes the Boston Cyclist Union’s plan for bike lanes on Charles Street, citing myriad safety concerns. “Charles Street is the only route to Beacon Street for firetrucks, ambulances, and police cars coming from Cambridge Street,” she said. “They need a clear lane.” Additionally, Clyde said, “There are three nursery schools on Beacon Hill. Children walk to the school, and as they get older, they walk alone. There are also six school buses on Beacon Street in the morning to take kids to schools further away…and if [a bicyclist] hits someone, there’s no liability.” Clyde also highly doubts that if bike lanes on Charles Street become a reality, bicyclists would abide by traffic regulations. “Charles Street has six traffic lights, and I’ve never seen a bike stop at a red light at Charles and Beacon,” she said. “The idea that bikes will be going down Charles Street and stopping at all those lights is not believable.” Rep. Jay Livingstone said he looks forward to continuing the dialogue about bike lanes on Charles Street. “I hope [the Boston Transportation Department] completes its current public process regarding Cambridge Street soon and that any separate discussion of Charles Street does not delay that work,” Rep. Livingstone said via text.

“I plan to be an active, engaged participant of any new public process the City starts regarding Charles Street to make sure we achieve the best result for the neighborhood.” According to a statement from Mayor Michelle Wu’s press office, “For the past several years, the City of Boston has been improving walking and bicycling experience as part of the Connect Downtown project. This project includes streets in Back Bay, Bay Village, Beacon Hill, Chinatown, Downtown, the South End, and the West End. For the next phase of this work, we are evaluating additional corridors where there is high demand for bike facilities, including Cambridge Street and Charles Street. At this point, no specific changes or designs have been proposed by the City. The City expects to hold public meetings and provide other opportunities for feedback on these corridors in the coming months and looks forward to a conversation with community members, advocates, and other stakeholders.” Meanwhile, Shames of the Boston Cyclists Union said the plan for bike lanes on Charles Street is a neighborhood-led initiative. “This really is led by Beacon Hill residents,” he said. “There is a sense that it’s a big lobby coming in and trying to change Beacon Hill. [In reality], I go to Beacon Hill residents and they say, ‘this is what you should do,’ and I do it – I follow their lead.” Shames said the Boston Cyclists Union is now simply looking for a consensus on the proposed Charles Street bike lanes. “We know this is a contentious issue in the neighborhood sometimes,” said Shames. “We want to bring everyone along. We know that Charles Street is best when it’s a place for everyone, and when it’s a place for everyone, all of Beacon Hill will benefit.” Readers can email their ideas for the proposed Charles Street bike lanes, including the traffic lane preference, to Alex Shames of the Boston Cyclists Union at [email protected], or tag them on social media.

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