For many years, vehicle traffic in Boston, Massachusetts was recognized as something of a disaster.
Many of Boston’s streets were too narrow, they curved, they meandered and they often failed to lead anywhere one wanted to go.
These problems were compounded by the fact that there was simply too much vehicle traffic in Boston – too many automobiles
supplemented by numerous public buses and street-cars. To make Boston’s traffic woes still worse, Boston and Massachusetts
drivers in general had a reputation of being some of the worst drivers in these United State.
As many tourists have discovered, driving in some parts of Boston can be really confusing. Between
the winding curving roads and the one-way streets, sometimes it feels like you just can’t get there from here.
As legend goes, Bostonians followed cow paths to determine their roads and byways, creating a totally
irrational layout of its streets. Even as far back as 1860, Ralph Waldo Emerson took note of this, saying, “We say the cows
laid out Boston. Well, there are worse surveyors.”
There were certainly cows in Boston in the colonial days. Boston Common, today a public park, was set
aside for public purposes like militia training, chores, recreation, and grazing cows. The cows weren’t banned from Boston
Common until 1830.
The area that is Boston today was built as several small towns located around the three mounds of the
Trimountain on the Shawmut Peninsula. Some of the reasons for the confusing road layout stem from the the city’s age, the
varied topography, and the multiple original towns that coalesced into today’s Boston. People in Boston used to toast “the
crooked little town of Boston” in local taverns.
Boston was named in 1630 and settled by English colonists who built their buildings and roads near
the waterfront without having any city planning in mind. In areas of the city where Boston expanded into lowlands by using
landfills, the streets were laid out in very orderly grids. The Back Bay section of Boston even includes major parallel
streets that are named in alphabetical order.
However, even those areas of the city can cause some confusion for tourists. They may have a grid
pattern, but they aren’t laid out following north, south, east, west directions. That can make it tricky to understand what
you’re walking toward. Plus, the grids of the different sections of the city don’t align with each other.
Other sections of Boston come from towns that used to be separate, like Roxbury, Dorchester,
Charlestown, West Roxbury, and Brighton. These were incorporated into Boston between 1868 and 1873.
There is another legend that the Boston streets were designed to ward off visitors - from
Revolutionary War Redcoats to Yankees baseball fans. The streets continue to be a challenge for any tourists visiting
Boston today who aren’t already familiar with the local roads.
I am a former bike rider and appreciated being able to ride my bicycle on dedicated and safe
bike/hiking paths. In those cases, the bike paths were largely created from abandoned railroad rights-of-way. They did
not cause the narrowing of roads nor reduce the number of motor vehicle traffic lanes. They safely kept hikers and bikers
away from cars, trucks and buses without inconveniencing motor vehicle drivers. In fact, they improved the motor vehicle
driving experience by removing one driving peril from the road – the slow-moving bicyclist.
Riding a bike in Boston is generally quite different from riding a bike on a reconstituted railroad
bed. Though the overall share of people who bike to work in Boston is quite small, the city reports that the number of
Bostonians who usually commute to work via bike increased 180% from 2007 to 2016. Those
who do get around by bike enjoy the benefits of: speed, convenience, independence, affordability, health and environmental
benefits and more.
Many of the outdated meandering roads and streets in the city of Boston make motor vehicle traffic a
frequent nightmare. The problem is made worse by the large number of Boston’s notoriously bad drivers. On top of all that,
Boston suffers from an inadequate supply of parking spaces. Remember, Boston streets were laid out when motorized traffic did
not exist and parking was limited to horses and buggies.
In today’s 21st century, Boston’s antiquated streets simply cannot accommodate the number of cars,
buses and trucks that need access to the city’s byways. Now, the situation is worsening as there is a major drive to
accommodate bicycle users with dedicated bike lanes. Unfortunately, dedicated bike lanes cannot be added to the city’s streets
without removing parking spaces and/or vehicle traffic lanes. The only other alternative would be to tear down buildings in
order to create new streets – and that ain’t going to happen!
Some of the new bike lanes in and around Boston have been well thought out and implemented. They have
improved bike rider safety without significantly impacting motor vehicle traffic. But - and this is a big but - other dedicated
bike lanes have been constructed with little if any consideration to the adverse impact they have produced. They are
These Bike Lanes from Hell have put bicyclists at odds with local business owners who have
suffered from a lack of parking for their customers, as well as creating safety concerns. In some places, the city removed a
lane of motor vehicle traffic to create two-way bike lanes. The goal was to create a safe space for cyclists to travel in and
out of the busy areas. However, I contend that it has frequently made driving more dangerous.
Some streets now have become a lot more crowded because there is less space for cars. Adding to the
frustration is the removal of parking spaces.
Riding along the Boston Common on Tremont Street, I wonder why the bike lane was added in the first
place – there appears to be very little use of the bike line. On the other hand, the section of Tremont Street between Beacon
Street and Boylston Street is a motor vehicle nightmare, particularly where cars have to shift lanes to accommodate the
reduction in travel lanes at the intersection of Beacon Street and Tremont Street.
Here, along this stretch of Tremont Street, the problem is particularly severe because of the many
businesses, a major teaching hospital, theaters, a downtown university and proximity to major tourist areas that include
Chinatown, Downtown Boston, the Public Gardens and the State House. All of this traffic congestion is compounded by
private vehicles double and triple parking and by commercial vehicles live parking while making deliveries since almost no
businesses, apartments, or condominiums have off-street loading docks. It's a disaster!
A couple of years ago, then Mayor Menino endorsed and encouraged increased bike use in the city. Soon
after, we started to see bike lanes painted on the roadways and bike stations popping up all over the city. But there are risks
in Boston of which we should be aware. The first is that Beantown’s network of roads were once carriage trails and cow paths.
We then paved them, but these roads wind and twist up and down hills. They are narrow. If you were to design our roadways from
a clean slate, you would not have designed them as they are. This makes it very difficult to fit bike lanes between the parked
cars and moving traffic.
When bicycles are ridden in these dedicated lanes, bikes and their riders can be nearly invisible to
moving traffic. The position of the bike lane causes inherent risk to pedestrians and the biker. In order to fit the bike lane
onto our roadways, it must be placed in the zone where the doors of parked cars swing open.
Encouraging people to decrease their carbon footprint is a noble cause. But since the bike lanes were
painted, there has been an apparent increase in bike accidents and injuries to bikers and pedestrians. The most common accident
is the “door.” A bicyclist is cruising along the bike lane when a parked car opens its door into the bike lane. There is no
escape route because the traffic is too close on the left. The bicyclist hits the open door and sometimes the driver or rear
passenger exiting the car. There are other less common accidents, like the car making a right turn and cutting off or
side-swiping a bicyclist. Less common are the pedestrians in cross walks getting hit by bicyclists, unaware that they must
also adhere to the traffic laws.
At the end of 2020, there were reports of multiple emergency calls in Boston for cars that had rolled
striking the cement bike lane dividers which were hastily installed along the Mass Ave connector. As a result, the cement bike
lane dividers that were hastily installed in the Massachusetts Avenue & Albany Street area were removed less than a month after
being installed. These bike lane dividers caused at least 10 accidents in just under a month!
At that time, it was pointed out that bike lanes are only helpful on major roads with high speeds and
few intersections. On city streets, where speeds are lower and intersections are frequent, it is hazardous to have
intersections where the cyclist going straight is to the right of the motorist turning right. This leads to right-hook
injuries, which are often fatal, especially when a large truck is turning right.
These dangerous barriers just make cyclists feel safer where there are no intersections. But that's
not where the real dangers lie. All too often, our social-justice cyclists are more interested in victories
over motorists than in actual cycling safety.
Commuters into Boston report that driving conditions continue to deteriorate - in part the result of
added bicycle lanes. As for why the roads have gotten as bad they have, some drivers said it was an inevitable consequence of
actions being taken to combat the coronavirus, but others speculated that changes to roads have made things worse by creating
more bottleneck roads and fewer options for parking. Boston and surrounding communities have increased the number of bike and
bus lanes on the roads over the last year. That fact and the decreased number of drivers on the road during the earlier
heights of the pandemic, led some to take the streets by bike instead of a car.
“The best thing to come out of the pandemic is my desire to ride my bike to work,” said one commuter. A
poll by MassINC Polling Group conducted in June of 2021 found that 75% of Bostonians supported creating bike lanes separated
from cars, even if it meant less space for vehicles on the road. However, several readers blamed those new bike lanes for the
congested roads that drivers today are suffering through.
“Boston, a city with an already overburdened, limited, and outdated road system decided to add bike
lanes and dedicated bus lanes. Add to it, droves of people moved to the ‘burbs (who are not riding bikes or taking buses, some
of whom still need to commute in . . . New normal is varying workday schedules [and] flexibility with people on the roads at
all times. What did we think would happen?”
Things have gotten so bad on the roads that some people say they’re limiting their trips in and out
of the city to only the absolutely necessary to avoid the headaches of gridlock traffic and reckless
drivers. Adding bike lanes to Boston’s overcrowded streets does not ameliorate
the problem. Adding badly thought-out bike lanes simply worsens an already severe problem.
- Are Boston’s Streets Really Paved Over Cow Paths?, Ed Reeves, MotorBiscuit, 17 May 2021.
- Biking In Boston: What To Know Before You Get Rolling, Jack Mitchell, WBUR, 30 May 30 2019.
- BOSTON BIKE LANES: A SOLUTION OR DEATH TRAP?, Michael J. Velsmid, DPT, MS,
Medicine, Accessed 17 January 2022.
- DANGEROUS BIKE LANE DIVIDERS FINALLY DISMANTLED AFTER CAUSING MULTIPLE ROLL-OVERS, Michael J. Velsmid, DPT, MS,
Live Boston 617, 16 December 2020.
- Here’s how it went for readers who drove in Boston traffic this year, Zipporah Osei, boston.com
21 December 2021.