This report describes work carried out in May and June, 1993 under a contract from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management to survey communities west of Boston for routes suitable for bicycle travel.
The scope of the project as described in the contract was to develop two bicycle commuting routes. However, through close cooperation between the Executive Office of Transportation and Construction (EOTC), the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the Central Transportation Planning Staff (CTPS), it became clear that the best focus for the work was to provide input to a transportation plan which the CTPS was developing for 10 communities west of Boston as a pilot project for a larger, Boston metropolitan area plan.
As a part of the work on this project, the author attended meetings of a Metrowest Bicycle Committee, which brought together representatives of the ten municipalities as well as interested citizens, members of bicyclists' organizations and representatives of the agencies concerned with the transportation plan.
Besides preparing this written report, the author also took color slides and prepared maps of the recommended bicycle routes. The CTPS and the ten communities collected accident data and information on traffic volumes, major trip endpoints and intermodal transportation links. All contribute to the CTPS planning process.
The 10 communities, positioned on the following table as on a map, are:
This group of communities is roughly bounded on the east and west by two superhighways, Route 128 and Route 495; population is concentrated between them along the east-west transportation corridor composed of the Massachusetts Turnpike, Massachusetts Routes 9, 20 and 30 and the Boston-Albany rail line used for passenger service by Amtrak and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, as well as for freight service.
This so-called "Metrowest" area is the most densely populated area west of Boston; communities away from the major transportation corridors are less heavily populated.
Through cooperation between the DEM and the CTPS, the scope of the project was revised into evaluation of suitability and potential improvements for bicycle routes throughout the study area of the CTPS project. This task involved considerably more surveying of routes than was originally contemplated; however, certain phases of the work such as collection of accident data proved already to be underway as part of the CTPS study and are included by reference.
In Massachusetts, all public ways are open to bicycle use, except for posted limited-access or express state highways which, by definition, do not include trip endpoints. Except when a such a highway is the only route -- and there is no such case in the study area -- it is legally possible to make any trip by bicycle. For the transportation planner, this also means that bicycle traffic can be expected on all public ways. However, some are more important than others, and priority in the CTPS project goes to the improvement of a network of routes which constitute bicyclists' arterial route system.
Bicyclists generally choose through routes for their relatively pleasant riding conditions: good pavement, low traffic and/or wide lanes, relatively flat terrain. The bicycle routes chosen in this project reflect those preferences. It is important, however, for bicycle routes also to connect trip endpoints of importance to bicyclists; one stated goal of this project is to link endpoints of utilitarian trips such as rail stations, residential areas and shopping districts, and also to link recreational destinations such as historic districts, parklands and scenic overlooks.
The survey attempts to determine the availability of, and necessary improvements to attain, a reasonably-spaced network of arterial routes between all endpoints along roads; not just major trip generators, since bicycle use is inherently dispersed. Endpoints served only by off-road trails and of interest mostly for recreation are, however, not included in this study.
Within these guidelines, this study includes a comprehensive evaluation of the suitability of existing through-route roadways and pathways for bicycle travel; also, an evaluation of the potential usefulness of abandoned railroad grades and aqueduct corridors. Where closely-spaced alternate routes exist, not all routes may be evaluated.
Especially near its endpoints, a bicycle trip in the study area will often require some travel on roads which have not been evaluated. This survey is therefore not sufficient to indicate all possible route deficiencies. If, however, road upgrades, maintenance and path development recommended in this survey are undertaken, most travel will be possible on roads which experienced bicyclists find adequate. Novice and child bicyclists will find their riding more restricted, as they avoid riding on heavily-traveled roads even where adequate provisions for bicycle travel exist.
Route evaluation was primarily through a detailed "on-the-ground" field survey, conducted mostly by bicycle to permit exploration not only of roads but also of paths and other corridors where a motor vehicle can not travel. Evaluation of corridors for potential paths was primarily in terms of their usefulness and their ease of adaptation for bicycling (e.g. hilliness, absence of hazardous road crossings or other barriers).
Evaluation of roads accounted for directness of the route, width, grades and curves as they affected bicycle operation, and traffic density and speed. To the degree possible, evaluation was carried out in the evening rush hour in order to determine the most difficult typical traffic conditions.
Evaluation was to some degree subjective, and factors are interrelated. For example, a road need not be as wide if it does not carry heavy truck traffic. In this study, a road described as wide has at least 12-foot outside lanes, but if a road carries heavy truck traffic, then it must have 13 or 14 foot outside lanes. The author's evaluation of traffic counts is also affected by road width: a wide road can carry much more traffic and still allow comfortable bicycle travel.
Detailed descriptions of the roads and other existing and potential routes will be found in reports on each of the ten communities following this introduction. Subjective overall evaluations were entered on Massachusetts Highway Department base maps by drawing lines along the routes in several colors;
green: existing or potential off-road path
blue: road with easy travel even for novices;
purple: road acceptable for experienced bicyclists
orange: road unpleasant even for experienced bicyclists
yellow: Massachusetts Route 9, which has wide shoulders but too much and too fast traffic and too many driveway entrances and ramps to be considered pleasant riding in most places.
red: problem crossing for a potential route, where an improvement (for example an overpass) could make the route useable, or safer.
Planning for bicycle transportation must account for two major groups of riders: children and novices on the one hand, and experienced bicyclists on the other. It is important to understand that routes which may be entirely acceptable for experienced bicyclists may be too intimidating for children and novices; while routes suitable for children and novices may involve speed restrictions and extra travel distance which experienced bicyclists will not tolerate.
Children and novice riders generally prefer separate bicycle paths or else roads with very light traffic, moderate grades and low speed limits. Such routes are available or can be provided in some places, though by no means in all places.
Therefore, a program of improvements which focuses only on novice routes -- typically, bicycle paths -- ignores the need and opportunity for bicycle travel by adults who can ride under more challenging conditions. Neglect of routes for experienced riders is a common error in planning for bicycle use, because most concerned citizens and public officials are not experienced bicyclists, and view their needs from a novice perspective or in terms of "a safe place for my children to ride."
On the other hand, a common mistake of experienced bicyclists is to neglect the needs of children and novice riders. Adult, experienced riders not only tolerate more challenging conditions but also more often ride longer distances, and are not as concerned with local, neighborhood connections as are child and novice riders. This project attempts to achieve a reasonable balance between the two types of routes and categories of riders.
The typical distance for a utilitarian bicycle trip is between approximately 1/4 and 5 miles. Below 1/4 mile, the added time overhead required to use the bicycle makes walking a better choice. From 1/4 up to 5 miles, trip time for a bicycle is typically equal to or shorter than than for either walking or a motor vehicle under urban or suburban conditions. The motor vehicle has a faster top speed, but a greater time overhead because, unlike the bicycle, it often does not provide door-to-door travel. Beyond 5 miles, a motor vehicle is significantly faster than a bicycle, though under congested conditions, the bicycle is faster for longer trips.
Some people will choose to ride a bicycle over distances for which a motor vehicle would be faster: because a motor vehicle is unavailable or public transportation schedules and routes are not convenient. Combining the recreation or exercise of bicycling with a utilitarian trip can actually save time in the daily routine.
All in all, there are two major categories of utilitarian bicycle use, like those of the riders:
1) Short-distance and neighborhood cycling typical of all categories of riders. For these trips, connections through and between neighborhoods are especially important to make bicycle trips short enough to be attractive. See comments below on neighborhood connections.
2) Medium-distance riding typical of experienced bicyclists. These riders will ride distances of up to five miles without hesitation, and ten miles if time can be made for the trip in a day's routine. The entire trip is long enough that an indirect route out of a neighborhood onto a through route does not add much time. For longer-distance riders, good through routes are more important than "trick" connections in neighborhoods.
Designating bicycle routes serves the purpose of informing bicyclists of the routes, but no less importantly, it serves the purpose of informing governmental bodies of the routes. The official status of the routes should lead to enhanced attention and concern for maintenance, improvement and preservation of the routes.
Maintenance includes normal street cleaning, repaving and other activities; but with attention to the particular needs of a bicycle route. Typical improvements include lane widening, signalization, building of connecting links and other projects to correct deficiencies of the route, and may often be carried out as part of normal maintenance and upgrading of a road.
Preservation of routes is especially important where increasing population and development lead to more traffic on portions of a route. Many preferred bicycle routes are on narrow country roads which are attractive and safe as long as the traffic is light. However, when traffic increases, these roads must be upgraded if they are to continue to accommodate bicycle traffic well; or perhaps other roads or paths may be substituted to maintain the continuity of a route corridor.
Bicycling, particularly for recreation, is more popular in warm, dry weather and during daylight hours. However, with appropriate clothing and equipment, it is possible to ride a bicycle comfortably and with reasonable safety after dark, in rain and in the coldest weather which the Boston area can offer. Many bicyclists ride for transportation year round, and transportation planning should account for year-round bicycle use while also recognizing that winter use will be lighter. These factors have an important bearing on decisions whether to improve roads or build separate bicycle paths. The following general principles apply:
1) It is easy to keep roads open for normal bicycle use as part of the ordinary program of snowplowing, except in the few days after a major storm when roads may still be covered with packed snow. Motor traffic on the roads breaks up the packed snow and hastens the clearing of the pavement.
2) Keeping certain bicycle paths which are essential parts of through bicycle (and pedestrian) routes open in winter is warranted. Careful design for drainage, and a sound maintenance program including sweeping, sanding and salting after every snowstorm are needed to keep a path free of slippery packed snow and ice: the path is narrower than a road, usually not crowned, and not cleared by the pounding of motor vehicle tires. When a bicycle path is used mostly for recreational traffic and/or a parallel, on-road route is available, it may make more sense to leave the path unplowed for use as a cross-country skiing or snowmobiling trail.
A path which is to be unplowed should not be considered a substitute for a parallel road, but only as a way of accommodating heavier summer bicycle traffic. The parallel road should be improved despite the presence of the bicycle path. A path which is to be unplowed may have a somewhat lower standard of construction, for example a crushed stone surface rather than a paved surface, reducing expense.
3) Whether a bicycle path is to be plowed or unplowed in winter, it will be unusable for any transportation or recreational purpose if it is obstructed by snow plowed from a nearby road. For this reason and many others, it is a bad idea to locate a path directly adjacent to a roadway. Plowing of roads at their intersections with bicycle paths also should not block the path entrances.
4) While most people believe that bicycle paths are safer than roads, the statistical studies comparing the two have shown that roads are in fact safer. Bicycle paths or routes whose goal is to serve novice and child riders must therefore be designed with exceptional care. Temptations to cut corners in design in the belief that any path is better than no path must be resisted. AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) bicycle facility guidelines should be followed as a minimum. A bicycle path that feeds the public belief that it is safe while actually being hazardous, attracts children and novice riders only to lead them into trouble.
This is particularly true at intersections with roads. Where a path attracts schoolchildren, its crossings of roads must be as safe as school crossings. Effective measures are to provide open sightlines and slow down the motor traffic on the road, or provide a grade separation. Barriers or mazes to slow down the bicycle traffic on the path create a false sense of security.
Also, bicycle paths which are popular recreational routes often become crowded with bicyclists and pedestrians, to the degree that travel at normal bicycle speeds is impossible or unsafe. When a path becomes crowded, it loses its appeal for utility bicyclists, who will leave it and use parallel roads. In fact, nearly every new bicycle path will increase rather than decrease bicycling on nearby roads, for two reasons: bicyclists need to get to and from the path, and the path increases the popularity of bicycling.
5) The usefulness of bicycling to reduce air pollution and help solve other environmental problems is sometimes questioned because of the decline in bicycle use in winter. However, the worst air pollution problems are generally in warm weather. Also, reduction in air pollution at any time of year helps lower the total health burden. Any substitution of bicycle use for fossil fuel burning at any time of year reduces long-term changes to the atmosphere and depletion of fossil fuel reserves.
6) Bicycling declines in wet weather. This decline is partly a function of the bicycles commonly sold in this country, which lack fenders, and of the perception of bicycling as a good-weather recreational activity. With the proper equipment, it is possible to ride a bicycle in rain without getting wet. Some rainy countries, including affluent Holland, have a very high rate of bicycle use. Acceptance of wet-weather riding in this country is largely a question of education and of increased availability of appropriate equipment. Good drainage also is important, for both paths and roads.
7) Bicycling declines after dark. Longer hours of darkness including the evening commute are a major reason for decreased utilitarian bicycling in winter.
Also, there is a common perception that bicycling after dark is very dangerous. Yet the great majority of American bicyclists fail to use basic nighttime safety equipment -- especially lights, which are required by law. Bicyclists who use proper equipment and ride with reasonable skill have a low accident rate.
Again, education is the key. Generally, in-town bicycling is highly practical after dark; overhead lighting makes it easier; than on rural roads and highways. Most bicycle paths, intended primarily for recreational use, are not lighted. If intended for year-round transportation use, overhead lighting should be considered just as for a street. Major advances in bicycle lighting systems are occurring with the introduction of more efficient bulbs and lighter, more powerful batteries.
The variety of bicycles is increasing in at least two directions.
1) Technical developments already underway can be expected to blur the distinction between some bicycles and motor vehicles. Streamlined and enclosed human powered vehicles are faster and/or more weatherproof than the traditional bicycle. Within the next quarter century, aerodynamic improvements, regenerative braking and battery or flywheel will bring the acceleration and hill-climbing of human-powered vehicles up to that of motor vehicles except for high-speed highway travel.
For these reasons, it could be a mistake to develop a bicycle transportation system entirely around paths which meet the minimum width and design speed standards for today's bicycles; these paths could be obsolete quickly for utilitarian bicycle travel, though still useful for recreation.
2) The mountain bike goes in another direction, increasing not the speed of the bicycle but its tolerance of poor surfaces and inept riding. For shorter trips, it will continue to provide low-speed travel with confidence and on roads and paths that were not practical with traditional road bicycles.
Tallies of accidents are available through the accident location maps which communities in the study have provided to the CTPS. Generally, the numbers of accidents are too small to lead to statistically valid conclusions. However, significant numbers of accidents occurred along Washington Street in Wellesley and Route 126 in Framingham south of Route 9: both are major arterials which pass through populated areas with heavy cross traffic from side streets and driveways.
An accident reduction strategy is best developed, given the limited available data, by evaluating statistics and following guidelines available from national studies and references. The book Effective Cycling, by John Forester, gives a cogent overview of the bicycle accident problem and a list of references.
In the early 1980's, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council carried out a study of car-bicycle collisions in the neighboring communities inside Route 128 which confirmed the pattern shown in national studies. National bicycle accident patterns may, then, reasonably be considered valid for the Boston area. It is, however, important to note that patterns of bicycle accidents are different for different categories and age groups of riders, and to design facilities accordingly.
Preventing bicycle accidents is only one facet of accident prevention. Law enforcement and education, though outside the scope of this report, have a larger impact.
If bicycling is considered primarily as a recreational activity, it may seem odd that the communities with a a higher population density offer more opportunities for bicycle travel. However, of the ten communities studied, bicycling is most practical as a transportation choice in Framingham and Wellesley, precisely because their higher population density shortens travel distances and leads to the largest choice of alternate routes. These are also the two communities with the most severe bicycle accident problems relative to their size; whether the accident problems are greater relative to bicycle miles traveled can not be determined, since travel data are not available.
In the communities which are only now increasing their population density, old rural roads are filling with single-family houses. When population is still light, such housing provides the quiet and the experience of a natural setting which many Americans crave, though at the expense of isolation and of dependence on long automobile trips to work, shopping, social activities, schools and worship.
However, the old rural roads are the main transportation arteries of the towns. Once traffic has reached a certain level, children no longer play, walk or ride bicycles on these roads. As traffic continues to increase, even adults will not travel along the roads except by car. At this point, a household along one of these roads becomes isolated even from close neighbors. Any remaining nonmotorized access is off-road, usually on unimproved dirt paths on private property.
Access in industrial districts is generally less difficult, because roads in these areas must be improved to serve utility traffic. This may seem paradoxical, since most people think of residential neighborhoods as safe and friendly compared with industrial districts, but it is the case nonetheless.
Housing along the rural roads of a town whose population is increasing rapidly offers a transient experience of natural setting, quiet and safety. Within a couple of decades, housing along these roads will become unattractive. Roads will be widened, cutting into front yards. Some houses will be be torn down or butchered into shops to make way for the services required by an increasing population.
The situation of residents living along the main roads worsens when infill development begins between the roads. This increases traffic along the main roads by many times. Locations which were desirable then become undesirable. The new roads in the infill subdivisions, however, serve only local traffic and are places where children ride bicycles and neighbors can walk up and down the street and get to know one another.
The subdivisions, however, are often isolated from one another and from access to services, because the only access into the subdivisions is along the main roads. Even when two subdivisions abut one another, there is frequently no way to get from one to the other except by trespassing through neighbors' yards. Neighbors who share a back fence may be miles apart by the roads.
Residents don't want through traffic, but they are giving up the opportunity to travel by bicycle or on foot if the one-entry pattern for subdivisions applies to nonmotorized travel as well. Generally, children ignore the artificial barriers, and their paths cut across the back lots. Adults do not, however, tolerate trespassing on their private property by other adults passing through.
Some communities in the area have avoided these problems to some degree. Weston and Lincoln have used zoning to require large lots. Also, much land in these towns is publicly held or subject to conservation easements, reducing population density and fostering the construction of extensive systems of off-road paths used legally for walking, horseback riding and mountain biking.
Framingham has many cut-through paths, primarily to lead to its schools. These paths have the added advantage of connecting many neighborhoods.
Creating such cut-throughs where subdivisions have been completed is difficult. All evaluated routes in this survey, to the degree that it can be determined by on-the-spot observation and examination of maps, are on public ways, publicly owned property, easements, or railroad rights of way.
However, there are many cases in which routes through privately held land would offer great advantages as short connections between subdivisions. Though such routes have been indicated on the maps, no specific suggestions have been made. There are often numerous options for such routes; one strategy to develop them would be for the municipal government to buy a house and lot at market value when it comes on the market, then separate a right of way from the property and resell the house and remainder of the lot. This strategy would avoid hardship to the seller or a surprise for the buyer.
This procedure would be necessary to develop access between subdivisions bounded by private lots. Where a street deadends without a cul-de-sac, however, it is possible for a municipality to buy property or an easement so that the right of way is established before the street is closed off. In new subdivisions, the right of way could be a condition for development. This proactive approach is the least difficult and expensive one.
Bicycling in the study area is a practical mode of transportation for experienced adults. However, children and novice adults will find many obstacles to bicycle use. Some fall outside the scope of this study: the need for stronger traffic law enforcement and bicyclist education, for example. Obstacles within the scope of the study are:
1) Through routes in some corridors carry heavy traffic and are of marginal or inadequate width for shared bicycle/motor vehicle use. This problem may be addressed by improvement of highways and development of alternate routes, as discussed in the reports on the individual communities.
2) Local connections for short-distance bicycle travel are fragmented by isolated subdivisions with interconnections only via the arterial street and highway network, thereby increasing the length of local bicycle trips and requiring travel on roads which many bicyclists find unattractive.
And now, on to the reports on the individual communities.