Chinatown to Charles: the Bermuda Triangle for bikes in Boston

When I bike to work, my route is simple. I head down Main Street in Cambridge, cross the Longfellow Bridge, and take a right on to Charles Street. I go diagonally across Beacon Street on to the Common, bike down the wide bike path there, and then bike half a block (or, if I’m on a Hubway, a whole block), slowly, down a sidewalk to the office. It’s simple, relatively safe and even pretty fast.

On the way home, I don’t even bother to try the reverse. It is damn near impossible to get from the Chinatown/Theater District/Park Square area to the Longfellow Bridge, and the options are dangerous and annoying enough that I wind up on the Commonwealth Avenue bike lanes to the Harvard Bridge to Cambridge, a less direct, but much safer route. As such the inbound and outbound portions of my ride are, except for half a block of Mass Ave in Cambridge, completely different.

But what about when I have to go to Kendall? There are several options for getting to the Longfellow, each of which has some major bikeability issue. The main issue is that Charles Street is one way, with no provision for cyclists going northbound. It’s sidewalks are narrow and riding contraflow is a death wish (oh, and it’s illegal). Beacon Hill—the neighborhood it traverses—is comprised of one-lane, one-way roads, and they have been signed in such a way as to prohibit through traffic, which is sensible since it was laid out way, way before cars were invented. This would be fine, but there is no parallel to Charles Street. To the east is Storrow Drive. To the west is Beacon Hill. There’s no good way to get the third of a mile from the Common to Charles Circle.

I’ve gone through the options (none of them good) and rated each from 1-5 for three categories: bike-car safety (how safe is it in spaces shared with cars?), bike-ped safety (how safe is it on spaces shared with pedestrians?) and bikeability (is it really annoying to bike?):

The Storrow double-cross is what you get if you ask Google Maps. It’s a pretty bad suggestion. The two crossings are coded as bike lanes, and while they do provide traffic-free crossings of Storrow Drive, neither is bike friendly, at all. To get to the bridges, you first have to cross four lanes of traffic on Charles Street, without the benefit of lights, unless you dismount and use crosswalks at the corner of Charles and Beacon. The path on the north side of the Public Garden is not bikeable. I call this the Beacon Weave. It’s not much fun on a bike.

And all that does is get you to the bridges. The first crossing (1) is the Fiedler Bridge near the Hatch Shell. To gain altitude, it has two hairpin turns on each approach, the bottom of which is completely blind. Biking at a walking pace, or walking altogether, is necessary going up and down this bridge, which often has heavy foot traffic. Assuming you navigate that bridge, you get a couple hundred yards of easy riding before you have to navigate another double-hairpin bridge (2) to get back across Storrow. This one is less blind than the Fiedler, but it’s narrower and just as trafficked. Even then, that only gets you to the far side of Charles Circle, where you have to jockey in traffic turning off of the Longfellow and on to Storrow before you can get to the bike-laned regions on the bridge itself. This require four separate crosswalks or some creative light-running.

This route would be a bit more doable if there were a path from the river bike path to the Longfellow. But there’s not. It’s pretty nasty.

Bike-car safety: 3
Bike-ped safety: 1
Bikeability: 0
Grand total: 4

The Beacon Hill Stumble-Bumble is probably the most direct route, but it fails for a variety of reasons. Mainly, it involves going down several one-way streets the wrong way, which causes Google Maps to say things like “walk your bike” in the directions more than once. Plus, these streets are steep, narrow and have blind corners. It might be fun if you are a bike messenger, but if you value your life, it’s a pretty bad option. If a car comes the other direction, there is not enough room to pass with any degree of comfort and safety. And the streets are designed to not let you through, so if you don’t know your way, you’ll wind up lost and spit out on to Charles, Beacon or Cambridge Street anyway.

Bike-car safety: 1
Bike-ped safety: 2
Bikeability: 0
Grand Total: 4

The Beacon Hill Crossover is another Google Maps suggestion, and it’s slightly better than the first. It has you cut across the Common (or you can go around on Beacon), climb Beacon Hill, and descend on Bowdoin Street. That part of the route, aside from the hill climb, is not too bad. Then you hit Cambridge Street. Outside of rush hour, this isn’t that bad. During rush hour, this backs up off of Storrow Drive, and to get to the Longfellow you have to slalom slow-moving cars, and then get through the intersection at Storrow. There, it behooves you to find the left-most lane, because most of the traffic is turning right on to Storrow with no idea that a bicyclist might be going straight. Charles Circle is bike no-man’s-land (no-bike’s-land?) and it is several heartbeats before you are in the relative safety of the bike lane on the bridge. Oh, and there are always hordes of pedestrians running across Charles Circle to get to the T stop. A variant of this route via the less-hilly but longer and more-pedestrian-mall Downtown Crossing, which scores similarly, is shown as well.

Bike-car safety: 1
Bike-ped safety: 1
Bikeability: 3
Grand Total: 5

The Storrow Shortcut is the route I actually use. It isn’t pretty, but it certainly gets the job done. The main issue is that it requires either biking a narrow, decaying sidewalk along Storrow Drive or, more comfortably, actually biking down Storrow Drive itself! Google doesn’t realize that Storrow is not officially closed to bikes, and that there is a sidewalk along that route, so I can only show this route in driving directions. And, no, it’s not as crazy as it sounds.

On the few hundred yards of Storrow I bike, the road is three lanes wide and it has a narrow-but-painted shoulder line. It’s definitely better than the rutted-and-cracked sidewalk. Traffic is usually very slow there in the afternoon, and I can usually glide past the gridlock for the couple of blocks up towards the T stop. Once there, I hop on to the sidewalk and the unused part of Embankment Road and then under the bridge before hooking a left towards Cambridge. It avoids one-ways the wrong way, it misses the thick of the pedestrians, and it requires a minimum amount of weaving through traffic (but doesn’t miss the Beacon Street Weave). It’s ugly, but it works.
Bike-car safety: 1
Bike-ped safety: 4
Bikeability: 2
Grand Total: 7

All of this, of course, could be solved with a two-way cycle track on Charles. This has been proposed, but has not seen any steps taken towards actual construction. Charles is three lanes of traffic and parking on both sides. Its shops are mostly pedestrian-oriented, and it probably doesn’t need this parking, but taking it out would cause an uproar. However, the street would, and should, function perfectly well with two lanes. And such a lane would funnel Cambridge-bound traffic from the Back Bay across the Theater District and Chinatown to the Financial District and even the Seaport. It would be well used.

10 thoughts on “Chinatown to Charles: the Bermuda Triangle for bikes in Boston

  1. Heh … had a run-in with a pedestrian today who was telling me that the sidewalk along Storrow (the one you called narrow and decaying) is off-limits for bikes. Of course, she was flat wrong and I'll continue to use this route.

    The funny bit: I only took this route today because yesterday I was accosted by a pedestrian on the Harvard Bridge who claimed it was illegal to ride on the bridge's sidewalk rather than the death-trap bike lanes. Again, she was wrong.

    Found this post while looking for the laws that govern these sidewalks. Short story: it's legal to ride on both. Just don't operate your bike like a moron and move at roughly pedestrian speed whenever they're nearby.

  2. While bikes are disallowed from some sidewalks, they aren't in either of these cases. As a frequent Harvard Bridge pedestrian, however, I would say that the bike lane is safer for biking unless you go very slowly on the sidewalks. I think there should be one lane of traffic on the Harvard Bridge in each direction, wider bike lanes, and a center bus lane (the 1 bus, the CT1 and the MASCO and MIT shuttles could all take advantage) which would have multiple entrances and exits to adjust for traffic conditions and allow buses to jump the bridge queues. Might really mess with traffic, but I'd bet induced demand would make it not-too-bad.

  3. you are so spot on with the available cycling options to the Longfellow bridge and in your proposed solution of a two way cycletrack on Charles St. I have brought up the concept of contra flow on Charles St to several of the local bicycle advocacy groups in town and they seem to be fully aware of the issue and are working with local neighborhood groups to advocate for change. Let's hope that change is coming soon!

  4. I just ride against traffic on Charles Street from Beacon to the Longfellow bridge. The street is wide and carries surprisingly little car traffic, so you generally get a whole lane of your own. So many other people do this that everyone in the neighborhood has learned to expect it.

  5. Thanks for this post. It hints at the next level of bike facility implementation. For both bikes and transit, we typically only get dedicated lanes (for bikes or for buses) in the places where we don't really need them. Examples would be all the places where "there is room for bike lanes" or where "the road is wide enough" to paint bus lanes without impacting motor vehicle space. But we can only accomplish so much by going for the "low hanging fruit" that isn't politically difficult.

    The issue is the same for both bike lanes and transit lanes. If you really want to make a difference, you need to put bus lanes and bike lanes in the places where it is most difficult politically. Your example says this well.

    Another perfect example is the Silver Line on Washington St: the South End has very little congestion but the bus spends most of its time delayed on the worst segment, in Chinatown where the city refused to install bus lanes because "traffic is bad". Unfortunately all of those cars will continue to cause traffic congestion until we promote alternatives by give bikes and buses priority in the most important places.

  6. I work near Clarendon/Boylston and have experimented with all of those routes. I too have landed on the Storrow Shortcut as the best way to get over to the Longfellow. It's crazy that the most realistic and safest route involves biking on Storrow Drive.

    From where I'm at, there's the added step of biking down Berkeley, hanging a sharp right onto Back Street (which is more of an alley), and then crossing both existing and entering Storrow Drive traffic at the Beacon St/Arlington exit, which is accomplished by either briefly turning right (going away from the river) and doing a hairpin turn at the intersection with Beacon, or by crossing directly over the median between the off and on ramps. Either way, it's very dangerous. Cars existing Storrow move quite fast and are typically surprised by any car or bike entering traffic from Back Street.

  7. @Ken, agreed on all points.

    @Ron, I've done that, too, but it's scary because if traffic flows on to Charles without a red light from Storrow or the Longfellow, they can hit a wide-feeling street and bomb along at 30 mph. If you hug the cars you are asking to get doored, so you wind up out in a lane (as you mentioned). Oh, and it's illegal. An actual bike lane, of course, would be splendid. But god forbid we didn't have three through traffic lanes. And while the neighborhood expects it, not all the traffic on Charles Street is from the neighborhood.

    @Jeremy, this is a frequent issue with the Boston bike infrastructure. The early bike lanes were low-hanging fruit. This leaves holes in the system. (See lots of maps here.) Charles Street doesn't have so much congestion that two lanes couldn't handle traffic; an issue would be policing double-parkers more. But traffic also wouldn't have to deal with cyclists taking full lanes as much if there were a separated facility.

    @anon, so I'm not alone! That sounds particularly fun from your neighborhood. And I can't think of any way around it. Full two-way cycletracks on the wide roads around the Public Garden would work wonders, wouldn't they?

  8. From Beacon St I turn right on River St wrong way, go (carefully) for 2 blocks, then River St becomes correct way towards Longfellow for 1 block, then go left 1 block to sidewalk along Storrow Drive, take a right on non-busy sidewalk and proceed to Charles Circle, under tracks and left over Longfellow Bridge.

    River St is not too busy after 7 pm. This might not work during rush hour, as River St is narrow. A track along Charles St sounds good!

    I feel that going wrong way now on Charles St is not safe for pedestrians there who don't look for you, especially at night. It also is too major of a street to go the wrong way IMHO.

  9. Boston absolutely needs a two-way cycle track on Charles St, which would result in the elimination of one traffic lane. This would greatly simplify bicycle transit through downtown. In addition, separated bike lanes should be added around the entire perimeter of the common and the Public Garden (fomring a cyclists' "Urban Ring"), with spur connections down Tremont and Charles Street to Stuart Street. This would greatly simplify the process of getting from Chinatown to Beacon Hill and back.

  10. @Anonymouses …

    1. River Street seems like an option, but the combination of wrong way, lots of turns and the final bit along the ugly Storrow sidewalk (the pavement on it is atrocious) and/or salmoning on Charles makes it less desirable.

    2. Yes, there certainly should be bike lanes around the Common and Public Garden. The City recently painted "no bikes" symbols at some Common entrances, although this is not enforced. (Biking is disallowed in all Boston parks.) The paths on the Common perimeter are certainly wide enough to allow for striped/shared bike lanes, although this would require a change in city park ordinance.

    As far as the roads around the Common/Garden, I agree completely. These roads are too-wide, high-speed thoroughfares for cars (with the exception of Beacon along the Common and Park Street) which then gridlock when the roads narrow or hit traffic lights. Taking a lane out of each for bicyclists would likely have minimal impact on traffic and a great benefit for bikes.

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