SEPTEMBER IS Bay State Bike Month, where riders from across the state come together to join a variety of community events promoting all the joys of bicycling throughout Massachusetts, including town-wide rides like the Tour de Newton, a bike commuter breakfast in Holyoke, a Cub Scout “bike rodeo” in Worcester, a fundraiser ride for connecting the pathways around New Bedford, and bike giveaways in Mattapan.
Over 65 bike-friendly events are happening all across the Commonwealth this month. These events bring encouragement and community-building. But this year, we have an opportunity to do something more. Now is the time for legislators and the Baker administration to make progress on transportation policy that will contribute to solving our climate crisis, improve public health and safety all across the state, reduce roadway congestion, and improve equity for disadvantaged communities.
We can do all these big things by recognizing that the humble bicycle is a core element of our future transportation network, not just an “alternative” form of transportation. Bay State Bike Month should encourage state leaders to start checking off the list of legislative, regulatory and infrastructure actions that are overdue to improve transportation safety and connectivity across the state.
Of course, as the pandemic has clearly shown, bikes are great for recreation and physical and mental health. They are a clean, enjoyable way to get outdoors and exercise, especially for older adults, youth, and families. So we can and should make recreational cycling more abundant and accessible.
But bikes are historically and primarily intended as transportation; indeed, the original bike advocates were pushing for paving roads in the 1890s, decades before the first automobiles were hitting the streets. And history has caught up to the need for non-polluting, efficient, and economical transportation that only bikes can deliver. Bikes are not toys to be given up when someone turns 16 and can get the keys to a car. They are a key element of a serious transportation strategy.
Our coalitions are working with fellow advocates, state legislators, local leaders, and the governor’s team to pursue better biking for work, school, and daily living. Here are five ways Massachusetts can and should create a safe and sound transportation solution for our residents.
Electric assist bicycles are a game-changer for so many people. They allow riders to travel greater distances and over more difficult terrain than conventional bikes, and provide assistance to those who may have physical limitations. On an e-bike, a 10- or 20-mile commute is not just feasible – it’s attractive, especially to the millions of residents who live within easy access to a rail-trail and other protected bicycle infrastructure. A bill relative to electric bicycles (H.3457and S.2309) will define electric bicycles and standardize regulations across Massachusetts. This law will clarify the laws around how these e-bikes are defined, better allowing jurisdictions to regulate the various classes of e-bikes, and match Massachusetts with 46 other states and federal standards.
Electric bicycle rebates (H.3262) will help lower the cost barrier for electric bicycles by providing tiered rebates up to $750 for low- and moderate-income earners, potentially provided at the point-of-sale or through a voucher program similar to the state’s MOR-EV program. Not only would it help those most in need of an electric bicycle (and help them choose biking over driving), but local bicycle shops would benefit from increased business.
If we as a Commonwealth truly want to encourage biking, we need at a minimum to have parity with driving, not just with infrastructure but also with financial incentives. A bill relative to commuter transit benefits (H.3088 and S.1890) adds bicycling to pre-tax benefits claimed for commuting, specifically costs for bike share membership, purchasing a bicycle, repairs and upgrades, and storage. Today, anyone that drives to work can have their parking subsidized through tax policy, but the same incentive does not exist for people taking clean, sustainable, and active transportation to work. By enacting these two bills, the state would provide a minimum economic benefit to people who bike to work.
It’s undeniable that this summer’s extreme weather events, and the tragedy and devastation to communities across the country and around the world, are made worse by climate change. Transportation carbon emissions are now the leading contributor to global warming, and account for 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. As a non-polluting mode of transportation, it is urgent that we make it safe, attractive, and convenient for each of us to choose a bicycle to replace a car trip.
We know that bicycling is a low-to-no-cost form of transportation, and provides a multitude of health and wellness benefits. However, like much of our transportation system, the safe bicycling infrastructure and resources for education and encouragement are not being shared equitably.
So as a matter of transportation justice, if we are going to “Build Back Better” as a Commonwealth, policymakers and political leaders should dedicate American Rescue Plan funds to make tangible progress in our underserved communities, using many of the bills already mentioned. We also need to mandate safe bicycling and driving conditions by creating streets with protected bike lanes through Chapter 90 funding and MassDOT’s Complete Streets and Shared Streets programs.
Safety is a paramount concern for cyclists, and is often cited as a reason people don’t ride. We get it: if you fear for your life due to unsafe infrastructure, you won’t want to ride! This is a solvable problem, and the state has taken steps over the years to enact policies and funding mechanisms to support Complete Streets, Shared Streets and Spaces, and investments to expand our pathway networks.
Legislation filed by Rep. Michael Moran of Boston and Sen. Will Brownsberger of Belmont will help improve conditions for cyclists on our roads. An act to reduce traffic fatalities (H.3549 and S.2273) will finally legislate for Massachusetts riders the safety of three-foot distance from passing motorists, require side guards and improved mirrors on large trucks, standardize crash reporting, allow for lowering the speed limits on roadways, and generally make our roads safer in a common-sense bill with widespread support. It’s past time it became law to increase safety for vulnerable road users.
We have proven successes already in place this legislative session, with support from the Baker administration and the Legislature for allowing funding for rail-trails using local Community Preservation Act funds, greater investment in MassTrails and Complete Streets, and proposing $100 million in Federal ARPA funds for trails and parks.
Looking forward, we believe that progress on these five issues will help everyone, and support each individual rider to bike more places, more safely, and more often. We need the Legislature to step up by passing these crucial bills. This is where everyone can make a difference, whether by participating in Bay State Bike Month, or asking your elected officials to support this bike-friendly legislation.
Galen Mook is the executive director of MassBike, a statewide advocacy organization working since 1977 to supportbetter bicycling for everyone in Massachusetts. Josh Ostroff is the interim director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition of over 100 member and partner organizations working towards equitable, clean, and modernized mobility across the Commonwealth.