By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)
In early April I joined in the reopening celebration of Hubway, one of the smartest bicycle infrastructure investments our region has made—and one of the most telling when it comes to understanding how our city and our nation are evolving. The country is undergoing the greatest demographic shift since the 1950s when people fled cities for the suburbs. Today that trend is reversing. People are returning to the urban core at historic levels as they seek the vibrancy and connectivity of bikeable, walkable, transit-oriented urban neighborhoods. Somerville, and the Boston region, are experiencing this shift too as we seek to make Greater Boston the most bikeable and walkable region in the country. But it’s about far more than sustainable transit. I believe what’s driving this trend is also a desire for community, which is at the heart of what makes Somerville the city we love.
People today demand neighborhoods where they can walk or bike to public transit, work, stores and services. Families want options for getting to work that don’t include sitting in traffic, and want to live where it’s easy for their children to lead active lifestyles. Young professionals crave walking routes and bike lanes, along with access to public transit. Retirees want to walk to the neighborhood store and the local coffee shop. Ultimately, all of these groups want to live in the kind of vibrant, close-knit communities that are created when faces aren’t blurs seen through car windows, but people out on sidewalks and in the streets and paths, walking, pushing strollers and biking.
Somerville is working to meet that demand by making it easier, safer and more appealing to bike and walk. On the biking side, we have doubled our bike network that now has more than 30 miles of bike lanes in a 4.1 square mile city, and added more than 300 new bike parking spots to city streets since 2011. Two years ago, we joined the Hubway bikeshare system with 12 stations, garnering thousands of rides monthly. And the soon-to-be completed Community Path extension will connect it to the future Lowell Street Green Line station and eventually to Cambridge, Boston and beyond.
Meeting that demand cannot be incumbent on a single city, though, and fortunately Somerville is not alone. MassDOT’s rehabilitation of the Longfellow Bridge between Boston and Cambridge will make this heavily trafficked commuter route better and safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, and plans for the Cambridge Street bridge in Allston now include a cycle track with dedicated bike lanes and barriers separating them from the car lanes. Elsewhere in the metro region, a 4.1 mile stretch of the Northern Strand Community Trail has been paved from Malden to Everett, bringing us closer to a true seamless bike and walking connection from Malden to Somerville’s own Community Path. And MetroWest communities are getting closer to turning a 23-mile abandoned rail line into a bike and walk path that could reach the Waverly commuter rail station in Belmont—not too far from where it could also eventually connect to our Community Path.
Greater Boston is creating a biking and walking network, and we’re seeing the effects of investment. In Somerville, biking has risen by 56 percent over two years. Biking and walking to work continues to increase according to the Alliance for Biking and Walking’s biennial report released this past month, most noticeably in cities, and Boston has the highest share of walking commuters. Meanwhile, the long-term trend for bicycling and pedestrian fatalities is downward, and biking is safer in larger cities where roads are evolving to accommodate all forms of travel.
We need to seize this opportunity because developing our pedestrian and bike infrastructure, along with building near transit, can eliminate traffic impacts and over time shift more commuters from the roads onto our sidewalks, subways and bike routes. It helps achieve environmental justice: a recent study by the University of Minnesota found that non-white people inhale 38 percent higher levels of air pollution than whites, and Greater Boston has the fourth highest pollution disparity between whites and nonwhites. That’s particularly important to Somerville, where approximately 38,000 of our residents live within environmental justice zones, shouldering a disproportionate burden of environmental impacts caused by traffic and industry.
Building routes for bikes and pedestrians also brings community because it builds the vibrancy that comes when increased foot traffic helps the stores, restaurants, cafes and services in our neighborhoods flourish. And when our businesses flourish our squares and nearby parks are filled—with our neighbors. Making our region walkable, bikeable and transit-oriented creates urban rooms—active streetscapes supported by workers during the day and residents during the night.
This isn’t just about biking. This is about the kind of community we want to build—equitable, connected, healthy and convenient for residents—and a place where you bump into friends on a street corner, chat with other parents at the neighborhood park, or wave to your barber when you walk by his shop. Economic health then follows suit. Thriving squares filled with busy businesses creates a resilient, self-sufficient economic base for cities and the region. And when we make connections that move pedestrians and cyclists between neighborhoods, we create the growth and vitality that will help us bring back historic neighborhoods such as Brickbottom and Inner Belt. Hubway is one of a number of invaluable tools to make and increase those connections. I’m pleased that a new Hubway station is now open at Magoun Square and I look forward to the expansion of Hubway eastward in our city. Spring is here—let’s get out and ride.