As we do every year, here is the updated and expanded back to school guide for cycling in Boston. Now that you have moved into your new place, figured out the basics (food, shelter, parties), its time you learned how to ride your bike around town.
(editors note: this is a re-post from last years bike guide, with additions)
Unless you have recently pulled up stakes and taken up residency in a cave you will have noticed that the kids are back. Thats right, the annual tradition I like to call “U-haul derby” has come and gone. Hippie Christmas has come and gone (you know the holiday where you can find anything you have ever wanted lined up to be collected as “trash” in front of every apartment complex in the city). And now our fair city is once again populated by thousands of new, eager to learn (and drink) college students.
Let me be the first person to welcome you to your new home! Boston is a fantastic place and you are going to love it here. I am also pretty stoked that many of you seem to have brought your bicycle with you! Excellent! You will also find that getting around Boston by bicycle is the fastest and easiest way to do so. For those who are still clinging to the stubborn idea that somehow owning a car will help you, let me disabuse you of that idea right now. Owning a car in Boston (especially if you have to park it on the street) is a nightmare. Tickets, endless hunting for parking that simply doesn’t exist, dings, scratches, damage from snow-ice-salt, traffic jams, theft, gas, oil, new brakes, tolls, AHHHH! Give up the car, send it home with mom and dad, get them instead to buy you a new bike.
Because you are probably new to the city, and because I myself would have wanted someone to give me a hand when I first got here I have collected a couple tidbits of wisdom to share. I present these in the hopes that they will make your time biking in this city, happier, faster, safer, and more rewarding. So in no particular order here we go…
Boston drivers are known for their excellent communication skills. They will often greet you with a “hey fucker, get out of the fucking road” or “get the fuck out of my way” or even “Fuck you, you stupid fucking, fuck!” Sometimes they skip the words all together and just lay on the horn, as if it is a magic button that when pressed will solve all problems (note to drivers, it isn’t). Unless you are from New York City, or a war zone, you may not be used to this. If you are following the rules of the road (see tips below) then you can safely interpret this screaming and the honking to mean “hey buddy good to see you utilizing this fine road way with me, have a good day, and be safe!” I suggest you wave and smile back.
If you moved to Boston to go to school from say…anyplace else, then you need to know about Boston roads. The roads here are much more interesting than where you grew up. They contain elements of adventure, excitement, and mystery. You may ride down a road one day, only to find that the next morning several gaping holes have been cut into it, and replaced with pavement that is 3 inches too shallow. Enjoy the ass shattering holes, as they serve as a testament to efficient construction techniques. Boston roads are a layer cake of history, if conditions are just right you will actually see the old cobble stones poking through the potholes. Enjoy the free history lesson. You will also notice, that like any fine cake, it is better with frosting. In the winter time the roads become even more fun with the addition of ice, mush, slush, snow, black ice, brown ice, white ice, invisible ice, predator cloaking device ice, and my personal favorite, walked on snow that turns into mini-ice moguls from hell ice. You have been warned. Your best bet here is to pay very good attention to not only what is in front of you, but what is under you as well. In the winter go much slower, and move a little further out into the street (where it is better plowed).
You know that experimental noise rock band you went to see last night? You know the one I am talking about, where they take bags full of cats and toss them down steps, while running fingernails over chalk boards and playing that sound a TV makes when it is turned on? Imagine that band playing their loudest set, while people cough illness, and babies cry, and people press up against you and drunk bums look at you funny, and you have your daily experience riding the T. Oh and the green line is slower than watching paint dry (I really can not stress enough how much this is true, the green line schedule is measured in Epochs not hours).
There are a certain kind of people in Boston who only know how to get places by taking the T. They don’t actually know the city or have a metal map of the city, they just know “this stop, then two blocks down” or “this line to this stop then this line, then this stop….” Since I have started riding my bike I have gotten a much more profound mental idea of how the city is shaped, how it flows. I have discovered dozens of amazing new places, magical little hidden gems that make living in this city so much more enjoyable. I can now comfortably get around town only getting lost once in a while (which is a big accomplishment in Boston).
So the next time you think to yourself that you will take the T instead of taking your bike, be aware of what you are getting yourself into. Only your bicycle will provide you with the speed and freedom you both deserve and demand.
One Way Streets:
I know, I know, what the fuck right? They only go where you don’t want to go. Down town is like a maze, and why why why couldn’t they have just built a grid! But here is the thing, take the extra time to learn the streets. The streets are the veins of this city, and you on a bicycle are its blood. Don’t be a nasty bit of fat and clog up the veins by going the wrong way. Not only will you be putting yourself into the path of oncoming cars, who honestly are just going to turn the wind shield wipers on after they splatter you, but you piss off other bikers as well. Learning the street layout is both a point of pride, and fun. As you explore more you will not only learn how to get from point a to point b as fast as possible, but you will also discover new clubs, bars, shops, parks, paths, etc. Boston is an amazing city, you can explore it forever and always find something else hidden away. Plus when your buddies are drunk and can’t figure out how to get home, you will be their hero.
Riding On The Wrong Side Of The Street:
This is not England, we do not do this here, also see One Way Streets above.
I will put this as simply as I can. You know where you grew up in Iowa, the place that had endless flat expanses of nothing but corn and soybeans? You know how you used to ride your bike around all day long and never see another car? This is not Iowa. You will be in the streets with hundreds of cars, crazy suicidal pedestrians, opening doors, bus and truck traffic, dogs, cats, and once I even saw a boat, wear your freaking helmet. I know it doesn’t look “cool” I know it doesn’t match your hipster jeans, I know you don’t want to ruin your hair, so what. When you get your skull cracked open because grandma decided it was her turn to walk into the streets and you being the nice person that you are, ran into that parked car while dodging her, you will be very thankful you had that helmet on.
All that being said, you will almost never ever need your helmet, in fact riding your bike in Boston is about as dangerous as walking around in Boston, but trust me, that one time when you do need it, you are going to be really happy you have it on (so, by the way, will your mother).
Locking Up Your Bike:
Boston has two things that make locking up your bike interesting. One, the weather, and two bike thieves. Leaving your bicycle locked up, outside, overnight, is a sure way to allow both of these forces to wreck your bicycle. If you leave your bike parked outside every night (even if it’s in your back yard) it is only a matter of time before either mother nature, or some mother fucker destroys or steals your bike. Store your bike IN YOUR APARTMENT. I know it’s small, I know you don’t like the three story walk up, trust me, it is worth it. Keep your bike safe and sound IN YOUR HOME.
So that pretty much covers what to do with your bike at night, what about when you are out on the town. Two words, U-Lock (is that two words?). That thin little cable lock you got, that’s not a Boston lock. That thick cable lock you have, also not a Boston lock. You need a U-lock, a thick hard to cut, hard to bend, metal shackle that bolts to your bicycle with a cross bar and a lock. Anything less and you are asking for trouble. Also remember if you lock up your front wheel to something (even with a u-lock) thieves only have to remove the front wheel and then can run off with the rest of the bike. The same goes for just the back wheel. If you can, slide the u-lock through a wheel and the frame, and if you are really serious about keeping all the parts of your bike get a cable lock to thread through the wheel that isn’t locked up. Also lock to something STRONG, locking your big hefty u-lock to a piddly ass chain link fence kind of defeats the point. You can also go to any local bike shop and get the quick release levers (the things that let thieves easily steal your wheels) replaced with harder to remove bolts, the same goes for the quick release seat post things (honestly who adjusts the seat height often enough to need this?). You can also put your U-lock in your back right pocket while riding for instant street cred points.
Stop Signs And Red Lights:
Yes in the past, I have run red lights, yes in the past I have run stop lights, and yes I am sure you will do the same. But I plead with you DON’T! Many car drivers in Boston have a very relaxed sense of when a light is red, I have seen them blast through many seconds after the light has turned, they also seem to have a hard time reading, as many stop signs are flat out ignored. The bicycle riders seem to have been infected with the same illness. 50% of the time you can run a red light and be fine, 40% of the time you can run a red light and while close still be fine, 10% of the time you are relying on the judgment (and brakes) of another human being to save your life. Do you really want to put your life in the hands of people who can’t even figure out the difference between yellow and red? No you don’t. Stop at that light, just do it.
Also remember that just because the light is green doesn’t mean that you are somehow magically safe. People do dumb shit all the time, making left hand turns when they are not supposed to, making right hand turns without signaling, speeding, pulling out of spots backwards without looking, making u-turns, etc etc. In a very real sense it doesn’t matter if you “had the green” or were legally “right”, if you get in a fight with a car you are always going to lose. Pay attention, and always keep your eyes on the road at intersections. (and every other moment).
Riding On The Sidewalk:
Are you 10? No you are not, get off the sidewalk, you are going to hit some pregnant mother and cause a nation wide uproar. If you must ride on the side walk, well now is the time to see just how slow you can ride your bike, if you are going faster than the peds, you are going to fast.
Lights and reflectors
So here is a quick physics lesson for all you English and art majors. The human eye can only see colors (any colors) when some light source is first bounced off that object, these little photons (that’s science for “chunk of light”) then go into your eye and a little wizard analysis them then tells the monkeys on a treadmill in our brain what is in front of us. The monkey then drives the human accordingly. So if you are riding around at night…and you don’t have blinky lights, guess what. All the people in the cars, going very fast, wont see you till they are right on top of you and their headlights bounce off you (thus alerting the wizard, who alerts the monkey). A much more preferable situation would be one where you are seen well down the road so that all the little brain monkeys have enough time to move around you and thus increase your safety. I would suggest you also get some reflective objects (most bags and bikes come with reflectors for a reason, leave them on there) as these will also help make you stand out from the inky blackness of night better.
Also remember that it is also hard to see you when it is dusk/dawn conditions, or (and this is the one everyone forgets) it is VERY hard to see you when it is REALLY SUNNY out. If the sun is lower in the sky, and all the drivers can see is a giant ball of light, the tiny wizard and monkey combo get overwhelmed and they can’t see anything. During these conditions be VERY careful. Especially when coming up hills, or riding towards the sun, as these will be locations when drivers are most blind.
Riding In Traffic:
Boston has narrow, winding streets, that are full of cars. This might sound like a meat grinder just waiting to kill you, but wait! The poor poor bastards stuck in these cars yearn to go fast, but can’t. They are trapped in a system that was built for people on foot, and this makes them cranky. It also makes them slow, and because they are slow they pose little risk to you if you follow a couple of easy tips. On a bicycle, you are the perfect size for Boston streets. You are fast and mobile, you can go much much faster than the poor souls in cars. Take advantage of this by riding on the street where your maximum speediness can shine!
So here are some tips I have learned from riding in this city and it’s traffic.
1. Watch for the right hook: The right hook is where cars suddenly turn right (while you are next to them) without signaling. If you stay far enough behind a car you should have enough time to slow down should they decide to be a jerk and take a phantom right. Over time you will start to get a feel for when cars are going to turn right, you can see the driver looking left (looking for cars to see if right turn is do-able), you can see the car start to nudge over to the right (this is very subtle but they do it), and you can see that they are pumping the breaks slowly in anticipation for going right. Once you learn to read the signs you will avoid the right hooks. In an emergency (lets say the car in front of you just suddenly turned a hard right), make the same hard right as the car, 9 times out of 10 you can make the turn with them and avoid running into the side of the car. But of course if you were being safe and were riding a little back and paying attention which gave that car enough room right? Right?
2. Watch for the left cross: The left cross is when some asshole who wants to make a left hand turn thinks it is a good idea to wait for a gap in oncoming traffic then floor it to “shoot the gap” This most often happens when you are going through a green light with a bunch of other cars, the people waiting to turn left think that you are a gap instead of a human. They can’t see you because maybe a truck or something is blocking the way so they think there is a nice big opening they can shoot through. To avoid this situation you can do several things. Hang back far enough behind the car in front of you that people turning left can clearly see you. Or, and this is more of a pro-tip, get up real close and to the right of the car in front of you and use it like a shield as you go through. This is more dangerous because you are going faster, and you have to make sure the car you are using as a shield doesn’t suddenly need to turn right (into you), but it does work.
3. Don’t hug the side: People think they need to be as close to the right hand side of the road at all times. This is not true! You are allowed to be in the lane, in fact it’s the law. You can take the entire lane if you need to. If you need to move into the lane, be sure to look behind you first (to make sure someone else isn’t already there) then signal with your left hand that you will be moving over. You can take the lane to avoid hazards on the side, or to keep cars from passing you when you feel it would be unsafe for them to do so. Whatever the reason you took the lane, when it is safe again to move over, you should this lets the cars go by you and makes everyone have a better day. Also hugging the side when there is a row of parked cars is a sure way to get “doored”.
4. Don’t get doored: Getting doored is when someone opens a door in front of you. This will hurt more than anything else in your entire life, and can kill you dead. If you are close enough to parked cars that, if a door was to be opened, you would smash into it, you are too close. Ride at least 3-4 feet away from parked cars. Pay good attention.
5. Don’t get pinched. Watch out for streets that narrow, or that suddenly have parked cars on them. You don’t want to get pinched between the traffic and the side. The best situation here is to take the lane, or hold your position and let the cars go around. Don’t worry if they honk, that just means they see you.
6. Watch for big trucks and buses: Large trucks and buses can be more dangerous than cars because you can get into the wheels. It is best to give them a wide berth and hold your line (ride in a nice straight line) as they pass. For the most part they are going to be moving very very slow (like everyone else) so this is not a problem, but when they get moving they can produce a good wind that can make you wobble on your bike, just keep a good grip on the bars and try to maintain a good straight line.
Guess what, you don’t even need to own a bicycle to have one to ride around town. With the new Hubway bicycle rental service a bike to ride is only a short walk from where you probably live. Check out the Hubway system here. Just be sure to follow all the same advice as above, and GET YOURSELF A DAMN HELMET! The money you save on not owning a bicycle will be more than enough to get a helmet. Once you get hooked, you can go buy yourself your own bicycle.
Riding your bike is fun. While everyone else is having the most stressful time of their day trying to get from point a to b, meanwhile you are chillin. Don’t stress out, take your time, and have a good time, you are still going to get to where you are going ten times faster than that guy in a car.
New To Boston Bike Resources
Ok so you have made the choice to be awesome and ride a bike here are a couple links to help you get what you need to know.
Bike shops: See the map link above to find a bunch of them, if you need one near your house ask in the comments I will tell you the closest.
MassBike: A great place to learn about bikes, bike laws, bike safety, and their website has a great calendar if you want to get involved in advocacy stuff. They also have a volunteer night once a month where they give out FREEEEEEE pizza and BEEEEEEEER. (I have highlighted the relevant details for your convenience). Plus student membership is only 15 bucks, which gets you a discount at most bike shops, pays for itself almost immediately.
Bikes Not Bombs: A fantastic organization that will actually let you build a bike for free if you volunteer enough hours. They also run a sweet bike shop, and in general do amazing things.
BostonFixed: Want to know when the next alleycat is? Want to ask questions about your Univega conversion? Want to hang out with cool people? Check out this forum.
This site: There are a bunch of great advocacy groups that blog here, AB Bikes, Dot Bike, JP Bikes, and others, we have all sorts of interesting and creative people who blog here, I am constantly learning new and interesting things from them, you could even get a blog for free and add your voice to the mix.
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If you are a veteran of the Boston streets leave your tips in the comments below. If you are new to Boston and want to ask a questions drop those in a comment as well and we will do our best to answer them.
Tags: back to school, guide, helmets, ride your bike, school
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