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Protected Bike Lanes Come to Comm Ave

Can they bring order to BU’s Wild West?


During the summer months, BU Today is revisiting some of the past year’s favorite stories. This week, we feature life and happenings on the Charles River Campus.

Every day on Comm Ave, cyclists dodge illegally parked trucks and swarms of students exiting Green Line trolleys. They swerve around construction barriers and skateboarders roaring at them head-on.

The existing bike lanes are an obstacle course of Uber and taxi drivers dropping off or picking up passengers, and delivery trucks with blinking hazard signals. Throw in heavy traffic, other cyclists who text while pedaling (no joke), and about 30,000 pedestrians a day, and rush hour can approach chaos.

Change is coming. Construction crews have begun building the city’s first protected bike lane, a mile-long stretch along Commonwealth Avenue from the BU Bridge to Packard’s Corner. And the emphasis is on protected. The new lanes will be for bikes only, and they will be defined by granite curbs between the sidewalks and street parking for cars, much like lanes already in use in Manhattan, Montreal, and Copenhagen. It’s part of a $20.4 million roadway improvement project funded by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), with help from the city of Boston and Boston University.

It’s a first in Boston, which has had a network of painted bike lanes for almost 10 years, but nothing like this.

“It’s a very big deal,” says Carl Larson, a BU Parking & Transportation Services manager. “Comm Ave has been hostile to people for a long time.”

The new lanes have been discussed and debated for more than a decade, but it was the 2012 cycling death of a BU graduate student that sparked change.

Crashes along Comm Ave number roughly twice the state average, city officials said last year.

The map above shows the location and number of bike accidents that the BU Police Department has responded to on the Charles River Campus between 2010 and 2017. Mouse over the map markers to see how many accidents have occurred in each location.

Despite the roadway’s hazards, the number of Boston cyclists continues to grow. Since 2007, bicycle use on Comm Ave has increased 47 percent during the morning commute and 135 percent during peak afternoon traffic, city of Boston officials say. Some good reasons for that upsurge: it’s efficient, fast, cheap, and it’s good exercise.

Robert K. Kaufmann, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth and environment, has been commuting from his Newton home to his Comm Ave office for nearly 30 years. His 30- to 40-minute ride is almost as fast as driving, Kaufmann says, and biking gives him an endorphin rush that he can’t get driving a car. He continues to ride despite a crash earlier this year that left him hospitalized for a week.

“Comm Ave is a disaster area,” he says, and he rides along Beacon Street to avoid it. “Cars need to understand there are bikes on the road and share it. That’s what these lanes will do.”

If the new bike lanes allow cyclists to feel safer, the number of riders could grow. Currently, only about one percent of people in Boston get around by bicycle, according to the city’s transportation planning initiative Go Boston 2030. City officials ultimately plan to quadruple the number of people who commute by bike while reducing auto traffic in the city, the report says.

So what exactly is a protected lane? Contractors working for MassDOT have been sawing through six inches to a foot of asphalt roadway, removing tons of asphalt as they replace it with a track for cyclists between the sidewalk and a lane for parked cars. If the painted bike lanes along the roadway were the city’s first shot, these are version 2.0, built at a width of six and a half feet (less along some portions of Comm Ave, according to state highway officials), with a three-foot buffer between parked cars. They are sloped to prevent water from pooling, and city officials say they will be plowed in the winter.

Protected bike lane construction area on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston

Protected bike lane construction along Comm Ave. Photo by Cydney Scott

One of the big benefits of the dedicated lane is protecting cyclists from getting “doored” by someone exiting a car.

Protected bike lanes also have better sight lines and greater predictability, not just for cyclists, but for cars, says Stacy Thompson, executive director of Cambridge nonprofit LivableStreets, which has long advocated Comm Ave improvements. The bike lanes, at least in theory, also remove bikes from roadways and sidewalks, returning roadways to cars and sidewalks to pedestrians.

“This demonstrates what’s possible,” Thompson says of the changes. “This is significantly safer for a person on a bike. We also hear from drivers that it’s less stressful. They know the road is more predictable.”

The bike lanes alone come in at about $2.5 million of the $20.4 million roadway improvement project that includes widening the Green Line trolley medians, repaving Comm Ave, and installing wider curbs at intersections for pedestrians. Sidewalks will shrink in some locations to accommodate expanded track space for people with disabilities and the new cycling lanes.

Diagram of the protected bike lanes being built on Commonwealth Ave in Boston

The bike lanes (shown in green) will be six and a half feet wide and separated from parked cars by a three-foot buffer. Courtesy of the city of Boston

City of Boston officials have already installed a traffic light specifically for cyclists heading east at the BU Bridge intersection, a hot spot for crashes. About 2,000 bicyclists pass through the intersection each day, according to city data. (A second light for cyclists has been installed at the intersection of Comm Ave and Carlton St.)

The new system gives a green light to cyclists so that they get a head start and avoid a “right hook”—the collision occurring when a cyclist moves forward as a car makes a right-hand turn. Such lights are a preferred strategy in Copenhagen, where 40 percent of the population uses a bicycle for any trip two miles or less.

Whether bicyclists and cars will honor them in Boston remains to be seen. But bicyclists can get a $20 ticket for running one of the dedicated lights as well as for running a regular traffic light.

Watch this video to see how the new intersection at the BU Bridge uses new stoplights just for cyclists to reduce crashes. Video by Devin Hahn. Photo by Cydney Scott

Landry’s Bicycles spokesman Galen Mook (UNI’09), a founder of the bicycle-promoting student group BU Bikes, says such intersections are still not without danger. While he’s excited about the new tracks, he knows they won’t solve every problem. Pedestrians may wander into them, for example, and passing slower riders may be a challenge.

Mook says he will continue to ride with traffic in the roadway. But the new lanes will help would-be and less-experienced riders feel more comfortable using a bike instead of a car, he says, and that’s a huge benefit.

“If you have only a few blocks of protected lanes, then you ride back into anarchy, it’s not the fully desired effect,” he says. “But this is a good first step. Actually it’s a great first step.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megwj@bu.edu.


27 Comments on Protected Bike Lanes Come to Comm Ave

  • Ephraim Semah on 11.02.2017 at 5:24 am

    The bike lane should include all Comme ave from harvard street to kenmore, the sooner is much better.
    It’s saving lives and protecting the environment what could be more positive than that?

  • John Whalen on 11.02.2017 at 5:42 am

    Maybe riding bicycles in a city with horrendous traffic is just a bad idea and should be discouraged. I am sure this will just make traffic worse and will lead to more enraged drivers. Maybe instead of wasting money on bike lanes try fixing the traffic problems and then people will drive more carefully.

    • Betty on 11.02.2017 at 8:10 am

      Creating a safe bike infrastructure helps more people feel comfortable cycling, and reduces the number of drivers/cars, therefore reducing traffic. Wish granted.

      • Tyler on 11.02.2017 at 9:39 am

        Betty’s right, encouraging cycling is proven to reduce traffic, not increase it. Boston’s problem is that commuters feel like the T is too unreliable and cycling is too dangerous, so we have far too many cars driving around in a crowded city with relatively tight streets.

    • Jenny on 11.03.2017 at 10:28 pm

      1) Protected bike lanes actually do remove bicyclists from traffic, so it’s as beneficial to the drivers as it is for the cyclists.

      2) Also, accidents happen no matter how careful people are, and unfortunately, a collision between a car and a bike is a scenario where the bike doesn’t stand a chance.

      3) Re: To say that people should be discouraged from biking because of this…well then why can’t I say “maybe driving in a city with horrendous traffic is just a bad idea and should be discouraged? I know it makes traffic worse and leads to enraged bicyclists.” etc. There’s no reason why the interests of car drivers should take priority over the interests of everyone else. Not everyone can afford a car, knows how to drive, need to drive, want to drive, live far enough from anything to need to drive or near enough to want to walk everywhere, and personally I get carsick in both cars and public transportation. There a plenty of problems that aren’t relevant to me personally, but I don’t go and say it’s a waste of money to fix them. Hope you’ll consider the flip perspective.

  • S on 11.02.2017 at 7:28 am

    I doubt this is going to make a dent in the issue. A lot of people do not obey street lights and signs. I think we will still see people/cars/riders blowing through red lights and cyclist riding in the wrong way on the bike lane.

    So when this get completed, there is no excuse for cyclists to ride on the sidewalk on this stretch of road.

  • Ian on 11.02.2017 at 7:39 am

    The parking should be completely removed on Comm. Ave in most sections. The protected bike lanes should be barrier bike lanes but should use planters or bollards instead. 6.5 feet is a good width (on lower volume streets, where there is not a lot of bicycle traffic) but does not allow convenient passing. There will be slower bike riders just as there are slower car drivers and 8-9 feet is more appropriate based on the traffic volume that will be experienced in the area around BU. The above comment disregards the space that is required for an automobile versus the space required for a bicycle to be operated. Old myth.

  • Question on 11.02.2017 at 8:16 am

    I’ve been following this for years and I still haven’t seen how the turn lanes are going to work. Currently between the BU Bridge and Packards Corner you can turn left (outbound) at St. Paul, Pleasant, and Babcock. Are they still going to allow left turns? If so, the left lane is going to be stopped most of the time. If Uber/Lyft, taxi, and delivery trucks stop in the right lane, that lane will be blocked. At that point, no traffic will move on Commonwealth Avenue. It won’t take long for everyone to figure out to use Beacon Street instead, thus moving the problem, and accidents, to another street. This is not a solution.

    • Confused on 11.02.2017 at 9:15 am

      Don’t they also have them on Commercial Street in the North End?

    • Meg on 11.02.2017 at 9:37 am

      That’s very similar to what’s underway on Comm Ave., although shorter and without the additional buffer of parked cars.

  • Anne Donohue on 11.02.2017 at 9:48 am

    I think the bike lane should be named for Chris Weigl, in his memory.

  • Doubter on 11.02.2017 at 10:11 am

    This is not going to solve the problems of bikers following vehicles too close, or blowing through the Red Lights,not wearing protective wear, riding on the sidewalks after a 20.7 Million dollar lane is made just for them. The cyclists have absolutely no accountability. I suggest that the State should require Bar code ID stickers on every bike in case they do zoom through a light so they can be sought.

    • Biker and Driver on 11.02.2017 at 11:13 am

      It’s not going to solve all the problems. It’s up to bikes and drivers to obey traffic laws, but new infrastructure will allow less interaction between drivers and bikers, which will be safer overall.

      For example, in the new intersection, cars often blow through the red light on the two right turn lanes near the BU Bridge. Bikers also go through the bike light on red. This behavior is counter productive to both the biker and the driver. However, there has at least been a reduction of the interaction between bikers and drivers since the lights were installed. Small wins.

      As for the amount spent on infrastructure, there is plenty spent on cars. It’s okay to invest in other forms of transportation and make them safer for people.

    • BU Employee on 11.02.2017 at 12:41 pm

      As someone who walks, rides and drives to work I can say that the bikers aren’t the only people who are causing problems. It would appear that you are clearly a driver. Yes, some bikers do run red lights and ride unsafely. However, many are very safe and cautious – I know I am. Just like some drivers are irresponsible and drive dangerously, and many in contrast are safe.
      Increasing the number of bikers removes drivers off the already congested streets. It’s also better for overall health, and sustainability.

    • student cyclist on 11.03.2017 at 10:50 pm

      As a cyclist, I agree with the ID license plate idea. (Does Boston have intersection traffic cameras though?) I think it would also help with bike theft. Cyclists who run red lights and other terrible things give the rest of us a bad name. In general I think there should be much more traffic enforcement in Boston for both cars and bikes. I also see cars loading and unloading all the time where they shouldn’t be.

      Re biking on sidewalks when there’s a bike lane: if only a shoulder strip labeled “bike lane” is available, depending on the traffic and time of day, I sometimes feel it’s only safe for me to bike on the sidewalk, and I always do so with extreme caution, and if it’s at all crowded I will walk my bike. That’s why the protected bike lanes are so critical, and it’s important to make the distinction between protected bike lanes and regular bike lanes. With regular bike lanes (e.g. current Comm Ave., Mass Ave bridge) , we’re basically biking on the shoulder of the road, and one small slip of the hand of an inattentive driver could have terrible consequences for us. No one’s riding on the sidewalks out of spite or for fun. They’re rather bumpy and uncomfortable, and there’s pedestrians to watch out for.

      If there were protected bike lanes everywhere, with enough room for bikes to pass each other (which doesn’t take much room), all the problems you mentioned would actually be solved, since there’d be no interaction between bikes, cars and pedestrians.

  • Michael on 11.02.2017 at 11:46 am

    Nowhere in the article does it state the predicted completion of this project.

  • Pedestrian on 11.02.2017 at 1:45 pm

    The cross-section diagram claims a resulting sidewalk width of 25 feet. From the reality of completed construction, sidewalk width is actually being reduced to about 10 feet. It’s painfully apparent to all western Comm. Ave pedestrians that the added lanes are being carved out of sacrificed sidewalk space, as is evident by all the construction to relocate hydrants and street lamp posts back from the historic curb.
    Years ago, the once-wide sidewalks around 700 Comm. Ave were similarly shrunken, resulting in severe congestion for the large numbers of students trying to walk between classes on school days.
    We all understand the motivations for bicyclist safety, but it needs to be realized that it comes at an enduring cost.

  • GM on 11.02.2017 at 1:53 pm

    An ongoing issue is the high degree of tolerance for parked cars in the existing bike lanes on Comm Ave. I bike, walk, and drive to and around campus, in that order, and it is entirely normal to see multiple cars sitting in the bike lane in front of Warren Towers, the GSU, and other locations (in addition to delivery trucks and so forth). There seems to be very little enforcement of this as a lane designed to separate, in whatever modest way, car and bike traffic.

    There are “good” and “bad” bikers, drivers, and pedestrians, and too often there seems to be relatively little mutual respect even though many of us are more than one of those things at different times; while it is true that some days there seems to be a high number of bikers breaking the rules, which I find frustrating as a daily bike commuter, it’s also hard to avoid the sense that a significant minority of drivers, who are in control of more dangerous vehicles, can be quite careless with the rules and the existence of other road users.

  • Nathan Phillips on 11.02.2017 at 11:30 pm

    This is on my regular bike commute and I can’t wait to experience the lower stress riding.

  • Francie on 11.03.2017 at 7:56 am

    Please, tell me HOW this prevents “dooring” of bikers on the PASSENGER side??? I don’t get it ….

    • LarryO on 11.03.2017 at 10:35 am

      Based on the diagram, there will be a 3 foot buffer zone between the parking and the bike lane itself. That should be enough to prevent the vast majority of potential passenger side dooring incidents.

    • Crane on 11.03.2017 at 10:53 am

      There will be a 3′ wide raised curb between a parked car and the bike lane. A passenger door won’t be able suddenly open before an oncoming bicycle.

    • Tom on 11.03.2017 at 10:54 am

      The article and diagram explains that there will be three feet of curb between the bike lane and parking. That should be wide enough for a car door.

    • Carl, Parking and Transportaion Services on 11.03.2017 at 11:36 am

      If you look at the diagram above, you’ll see that the bike lane is separated from parked cars by a three-foot buffer.

  • chris on 05.14.2018 at 1:16 am

    i think a sign should be posted telling people if the biker can make a left turn

  • bob on 11.02.2018 at 5:34 am

    The problem with boston is that NOBODY MAINTAINS ANYTHING. Even with the bike lane built on one side, I continue to see bikers traveling on the road and sidewalks and facing no consequences. And this is when the bike lane is nice and new. Once a winter or two roll through new england and the bike lanes start getting potholes and bumps and cracks, the bikers will be back in the street and the sidewalk again in full foce. Bikers needs to be strictly held accountable if the city is pouring millions into building these lanes just for them. Heavy fines should be actively issued by police for not being in the bike lanes and running red lights. Honestly, I’m not even sure doing that would solve it as most cops could seem to care less about stopping bikers. Me and my friends always jokingly say that the only way to make sure bikers stay in the bike lanes and pedestrians stop cutting off traffic to cross the street when it’s not their walk sign, is to make it legal to hit them when they’re in the street without the right of way. Keeping everyone in line and forwarding human evolution all at once.

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