Proposed Back Bay Bike Lanes Now at Center of Discord Between City and Community

Separated bike lanes proposed for the Back Bay, including one on Berkley Street, are now at the center of a heated debate between the city and community members, including some who have felt blindsided by the city’s rollout of the plan.

“I think that the city has come out with a fully baked solution without getting input from people in the neighborhood, so rather than saying there are several alternatives one could pursue and asking, they come across as telling,” Elliott Laffer, chair of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay board of directors, told this reporter at a city-sponsored popup to discuss the proposed bike lanes on Thursday, June 29, at the corner of Beacon and Berkley streets. “But when you tell people, people get upset, so we think that the solution they have proposed is not a good solution.”

Laffer added, “But even if it were [the best alternative], this process has been terrible. Even if the proposed solution is a good solution, people would resent it.”

The city plans to install separated bike lanes on Berkeley Street, as well as on Boylston Street and on a block of Beacon Street. The Berkeley Street bike lane would connect to a new two-way bike lane on Beacon Street, which will bring bicyclists to the Arthur Fiedler Footbridge and the Charles River across the Esplanade. A one-way separated bike lane on Boylston Street between Arlington Street and Massachusetts Avenue is also in the works as part of the city’s plan to close gaps in its bike network.

But despite the city’s lofty aspirations, Laffer has repeatedly said that he predicts implementing a bike lane on Beacon Street as proposed will inevitably result in the death of a bicyclist.

“It’s going to be dangerous for people on bikes; it’s going to be dangerous for people who are walking; and it’s going to be dangerous for people in cars,” he said. “It’s likely to increase congestion. It’s already congested, but this will clog it up, and when it gets clogged, people get frustrated and then people do stupid things.”

Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the city’s Chief of Streets, told media outlets during the June 29 popup that the proposed bike lanes would likely have little effect on congestion.

“These are very congested streets and are likely to remain congested streets,”  he said. “This is not going to make it worse, but this is also not going to solve some of that congestion. But we know that when we have a lot of cars in one place, the best way to keep everyone safe is to separate, to physically separate, bikes from cars, so that’s what we’re doing with this project.”

A history of bike crashes on Berkeley Street resulting in serious injuries has prompted this public safety response from the city as Boston focuses its “resources on proven strategies to eliminate fatal and serious injury traffic crashes by 2030,” according to the city.

Chief Franklin-Hodge said two travel lanes would remain on Berkley Street, just like Beacon Street, after the bike lane has been installed. Parking would be eliminated on one side of Beacon and Berkley streets, however, he said.

While the proposed bike lanes would eliminate parking on one side of Berkeley and Beacon streets, respectively, Chief Franklin-Hodge maintained that ample parking would still be available elsewhere in the Back Bay.

“It’s a dense street grid with parking almost everywhere,” he said. “I appreciate that is someone is used to being able to park directly in front of their front door, they won’t be able to do that if they are one of these blocks. We are working though to make changes to the parking regulations along the opposite blocks where parking is to make sure there’s the right balance for parking – long-term parking, metered parking.”

About 34 spaces will be removed from Berkeley Street to accommodate the proposed bike lane, but the Boston Transportation Department will also be changing just over 100 metered parking to resident parking, with another approximately 60 existing meter spaces to be converted to resident-only spaces after 6 p.m., resulting in a net positive increase in parking for Back Bay residents, according to the city.

Like Laffer, Ali Foley, a Beacon Street resident who lives about 100 feet from the intersection of Beacon and Berkeley streets, said the city never consulted the community before moving ahead with plans for the proposed Berkeley Street bike lane.

“There are actually several streets that already do that,” Foley told this reporter during the June 29 popup event. “Those streets include Clarendon, Dartmouth and Exeter streets potentially, but they have solely landed in Berkeley as the street of convenience for bicyclists. They have shown us zero data, but they claim they have [determined] in their own independent analysis that they believe Berkeley is the ideal street for a bike lane through the Back Bay to connect to the Esplanade and back up to the Public Garden area.”

Foley said: “We have requested any data and analysis and comparative review to other street options like Dartmouth, which already has a functional bike lane, to assure residents that this could be the safest option. However, Berkeley Street is a major exit thoroughfare leading directly to the primary entrance for Storrow Drive.”

Additionally, Foley called the intersection of Beacon and Berkeley streets “a notoriously high-prone accident location” over the years.

Moreover, Foley added that implementation of the proposed bike lane would likely eliminate every parking space on the right-hand side of Berkley Street between Back Bay and the South End.

This would pose significant safety and access concerns for residents who reside on that side of the street, including a mix of families with small children, seniors, and individuals with mobility challenges, according to Foley.

“The plan essentially removes these individuals’ abilities to enter their homes directly,” she said, adding that it will also “remove an active residential and mixed-use college block,” since students from Fisher College would no longer be able to pull over on that block of Beacon Street to load and unload there.

Foley said she voiced her concerns with the proposed Berkley Street bike lane when she met “one-on-one” with Mayor Michelle Wu on June 22 when the Mayor’s Annual Coffee Hour Series came to the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.

When Mayor Wu asked her to elaborate on her concerns, Foley said  she pointed out that the new bike lane would inevitably reroute  foot traffic from the Dartmouth Street Footbridge to the already “highly trafficked” Arthur Fiedler Footbridge.

These two footbridges have significant “constructional differences that will have potentially serious consequences,” however, she said, including that the Fiedler Footbridge is only 4 feet tall, as well as being “opaque” and made of cement.

Also, the Fiedler Footbridge is not only one-third longer than its Dartmouth Street counterpart, said Foley, but the Fiedler Footbridge also has four blind spots.

Steve Young, a Beacon Street resident who rides a Bluebike around the city about two times each week, is another opponent of the bike lanes proposed for Berkeley and Beacon streets.

“A bike lane on Commonwealth Avenue is already there, and those bike lanes should be adjusted if need be to permit cyclists coming from the South End to go past to the Fiedler Footbridge on the west,” said Young. “Those bike lanes already exist. While they aren’t as fully protected as the city and all of us who ride a bike would want, there have to be compromises that can be found to make that substantially safe to  not require additional bicyclists on Berkely Street and bicyclists on Beacon Street that would increase an already congested intersection at Berkeley and Beacon streets.”

In contrast, Ben Katz, a Beacon Street resident who bikes every day and uses his bicycle as his primary mode of transportation, strongly supports the proposed Back Bay bike lanes “because first and foremost, it keeps people on bikes safe.”

Katz said: “It’s also better for traffic – the more people on bikes, the less there are in cars – and less traffic is better for everyone, but to get more people on bikes, you need a better bike network. If you don’t have safe bike lanes that connect to other safe bike lanes, you’ll just be stranded.”

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