Art is the Handmaid of Human Good

Life in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA


Progress! (Sorta. Kinda. Maybe.)

So, as I mentioned before, the City of Lowell has recently painted bike lanes and sharrows on a bunch of our streets. This morning, on my way to work, I noticed this new signage that clearly states that bikes have the full use of the lane. And I was happy. Until…
…This ironic (in the Alanis sense) interaction took place.

Me: On my bike, on the road, at that very light prior to taking the picture. You’ll notice the sign is right next to the light, so basically right where your gaze would rest while waiting for the red light to turn green.
Fifty-something male driver in some kind of late-model sedan: “You should be on the sidewalk, honey. Roads are for cars.”
Me,using a friendly tone: “Check out that sign!”
Driver: “You can’t believe everything you read.”
Me: Totally and completely speechless.
The light turns green, and we go our separate ways.

The moral I took from this interaction: signs are great but education and outreach is better (also, jackasses are everywhere!) This was an annoying blip on an otherwise lovely commute to work – cue a picture of said loveliness:


And the fact that I love riding my bike to work, and I am confident when I ride because I’ve been riding in cities for 20 years now, means that an interaction like the one above will become a blog post and a funny story that I tell to my co-workers when I arrive in the office: basically something I can roll my eyes and laugh at. I’ll keep riding, and not worry about the jackasses.

BUT. But, but, but, but, but. If things were different, if this were me trying out my first commute to work or school because seeing all of Lowell’s new bike-friendly infrastructure made me feel like ‘Hey, I can do this!’ and this is what I experienced… Well, all the signs, sharrows, and lanes in the world probably wouldn’t convince that riding a bike for transportation is something that is either safe or fun to do. And that’s a problem.

If Lowell is serious about encouraging people using bicycles as transportation, there needs to be education for both cyclists and drivers. Riding on roads is neither easy nor intuitive, and that needs to be recognized and those skills need to be taught. Drivers need to understand that bikes can (and should) be on the road and what sharing the road means. Boston, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Portland have all done a lot of visibility events and provided educational materials along with their infrastructure improvements, and more people are cycling in those cities. And while Lowell is not nearly as large as those cities, if someone from one of them were to come to Lowell after hearing that it is bike-friendly, they would be disappointed.

Signs, lanes, and sharrows are great – they raise visibility and get people thinking about the implications of sharing the road with cyclists. But they are not enough: without outreach and education attitudes won’t change, and we’ll have spent a lot of money for no reason. If Lowell really wants to become more bike-friendly the education piece won’t get left behind.



Bike lanes in Lowell!


It’s exciting to see that Lowell is on the way to becoming a more bike-friendly city! At the beginning of the summer, the city manager posted on his blog that bike lanes and sharrows would be coming to 17 local streets. About two weeks ago, a friend tweeted that they had noticed new bike lanes on Chlemsford Street. After work that day, I rode home via Varnum Avenue (not my usual route) and noticed the new lanes there. Since then, I have used Varnum for my commute home in order to take advantage of the lanes (I only use Varnum on my way home because even without lanes, Pawtucket Boulevard is the easiest way for me to get to work.)


The Varnum Avenue lanes aren’t bad (and they are certainly better than nothing!) They are a bit narrow, and they abruptly end, and there are definitely parked cars and garbage cans blocking the lanes in places, but drivers do seem to be more aware of bikes on the road.

I haven’t seen the Chelmsford Street lanes yet (I don’t often travel out that way) but Gist told me that they are wide and very visible, and that they looked safe. And one of my-co-workers told me that she noticed them and didn’t know what they were, but that it was very clear that she shouldn’t drive there. The fact that a driver would understand that they can’t drive in the lane is great, but some additional signage letting motorists know they are bike lanes would be better. I am especially excited about the Chelmsford Street lanes because they provide a connection between downtown and the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail.

I heard via Twitter that there are sharrows on Westford Street, and I’ve also noticed that it looks like lanes/sharrows are going to be painted on Merrimack street, one of my usual routes home. There is an outline of a bicycle painted right in front of the library/city hall and there are dotted lines that I am hoping will become actual bike lanes.

I don’t know if this is true or if it was planned, but it seems that Lowell is focusing more on commercial streets when painting bike lanes. Downtown obviously has a lot of businesses, but both Chelmsford and Westford Streets have businesses/business districts and Varnum Avenue is home to Lowell General Hospital. I know that in Portland OR*, the city focused on putting lanes on residential neighborhood streets because they are quieter and the traffic tends to be calmer. I can see benefits to both methods, but I personally lean more towards putting lanes on streets where you can get to businesses, entertainment, etc. (but I am also very comfortable riding my bicycle on urban streets, lanes or no, and 99% of my rides are for transportation.)

In addition to the bike lanes, Lowell will also be getting a bike share program through Green Bikes New England, and City Bicycle, a repair shop that specializes in vintage bikes, just opened downtown (soon Ariel will be making a visit for some upgrades 😉 ) I am really excited to see these new bike-friendly developments in my city. I really hope that they encourage more Lowellians to get out and get biking!

* If you’re writing a blog post about bicycle infrastructure in the US, there has to be at least one mention of Portland, right 😉