Share the Road!

When Bike Lanes Contribute to the “Tragedy of the Commons”

June 24, 2014

Principal, NBBJ

I recently attended a public meeting to review plans to install the first Cyclotrack in downtown Boston, near North Station. The meeting was packed with articulate and outspoken bike supporters ready to proclaim and defend the ascendant urban bike movement. Mothers brought their small children to emphasize their right to kid-safe bike routes in the heart of the city.

The plans, displayed by the most progressive bike engineering consultants in town, showed an intricate pattern of one-way bikeways separated by buffer zones and vertical curbs, safely segregated from other lanes of roadways and further separated from pedestrian zones. Each mode of transit was optimized for its own particular needs. There were many questions: Why not have the bike lanes wider, so we can ride side-by-side? Why not make holding areas bigger so that bikes can collect at a red light and get a faster start? Why not synchronize the lights for the benefit of bikers? Why not separate cyclists from hapless pedestrians so they don’t walk in the bike lane?

Despite some rhetoric about the balance of streets for a wide range of users, I was struck by how single-minded the group was in optimizing the city for its newest set of users, long ostracized by the automobile. And yet how strangely devoid the conversation was of the importance of sharing public space, or any discussion of the visual quality of that public space. Or even the fact that pedestrians (yes, those who still walk) will number in the tens of thousands (the proposed lanes are adjacent to a major train station and sports arena) while cyclists will likely number in the hundreds.

Which brings me to the commons. The frequently cited “tragedy of the commons” is when individuals exploit the public realm for their own purposes without regard to the rest of society or the common good. In Boston, we have a Common, and it is a generously open place where one can stroll, ride a bike, skateboard or sit on a lawn. The project I observed in the presented drawings was no longer a common: it was a public space balkanized into rigid zones for special groups to satisfy their own specific needs.

Much federal funding is now focused on enhancing livability in the city, and this particular cyclotrack circling downtown Boston was to be funded by a TIGER grant application. But remember the last time we built infrastructure because it was practically free? We built ill-advised highways through our cities and cleared slums because, well, it was all paid for by the feds. Who could turn it down? Now there are funds for bike highways, but that doesn’t mean we should build them just anywhere.

I would argue for the “woonerf” approach to public places, where cars, pedestrians and cyclists must negotiate the “common” with mutual respect and courtesy, rather than each group fencing off a little piece to defend to the teeth against the others.


Dewey Square, Boston (Image courtesy Flickr)

Dewey Square in Boston is one example of a public place that — while not a woonerf per se — beautifully works for all modes of travel. Yes, there are places for vehicles and places for pedestrians and bicyclists, but the design and paving allows for a seamless public place to emerge, rather than separate places for individual modes. Today thousands of pedestrians and bicyclists pass each day through Dewey Square safely — without a dedicated bike lane.

I am a regular bike commuter, and while I am of the adventurous type who doesn’t mind mixing it up with traffic, I also love bike lanes. They’re great. But not every place is the place for a Cyclotrack. There are some locations where that approach defeats the purpose of creating a great public space. After all, the value of the “commons” is that it is shared — it is common to us all.

Banner image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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