Biking in Newton

Biking is a great way to get around Newton, and nearby towns.  I’ve been biking here the entire time I’ve lived in the area: to visit friends as a kid, to get to Cambridge or Boston as a teen-ager, and to get anywhere, including commuting downtown, ever since.  Sometimes you can see me towing a kid or two now.

Biking here has never been simpler or safer: there are more bike lanes marked on the streets, more bike racks to lock up to, and even some separated cycle tracks – not all cycling advocates favor them, but I enjoy them.  We also have Bike Newton, a non-profit advocating for biking and safety for cyclists in Newton, and which runs the Tour de Newton, which is a blast.  Most importantly, people driving cars in Newton and in the Boston area now have much more awareness of and respect for people riding bikes (or people driving bikes, as some cycling advocates say).  If you haven’t been on your bike in a while, take it to a local shop, or tune it up yourself, and go try it.  I think you’ll find that riding around here has gotten much better.

There’s always room for improvement

But we should always be looking for ways to improve.  Here are a few of my thoughts on improving bike safety and making Newton more inviting for cyclists of all levels.

  • Sweep the streets.  Run street sweepers more often throughout the year, especially on major biking routes.  Leaves, sand, road debris are no obstacle to any car.  They are deadly to people on bikes, and this is relatively inexpensive.
  • Fix potholes and level storm drains.  Bicyclists tend to ride near the curb, especially on busy streets.  Potholes there may not get many complaints from people driving cars, and the same goes for storm drains that aren’t flush with the road surface.  To a car, those are an annoying bump.  To a cyclist, they’re deadly.
  • Mark wider bike lanes, and on more streets.  Making narrower travel lanes gets car drivers to slow down, increasing safety for all car drivers, for pedestrians, and for cyclists.  And having a space marked off for cyclists makes car drivers aware that bikes are on the road.  And note that bikes aren’t required to stay in bike lanes, but cars aren’t supposed to be in them.
  • Have the Newton Police ticket car drivers, and double-parkers.  Hang out at a few intersections with a squad car, and people will drive more carefully, with improved safety for everyone.  And the City will bring in some revenue.  Maybe we can put some towards sweeping the streets and fixing potholes…
  • Prioritize bicycle traffic along major biking thoroughfares by installing bike-specific traffic lights at intersections.  Giving bicyclists a head start of even a few seconds while cars are stopped at a red light saves lives.  Cambridge has installed some, such as on Western Avenue (Boston Globe article).  With all the focus on reducing car trips, shouldn’t we do this to make biking more attractive?
  • Make roadway changes to major bike routes.  The Commonwealth Avenue carriage lane is a premier bike – and jogging – route running east-west through Newton.  The cobblestone “rumble strips” in the carriage lane are were a deadly hazard to bikes.  Bike Newton’s recent blog post details that some have been removed, along with other improvements to the carriage road (which is great, as years ago I was told by the transportation coordinator that they couldn’t remove them).  If we need to slow traffic, consider large raised crossings that are easy for bikers, walkers, runners, and people with strollers to navigate, and more effective than speed bumps at slowing cars down.  And at the intersection of Comm. Ave. and Beaumont Ave., we can do better than making bikes swerve into traffic.
  • Finally, my dream: let’s build a protected cycle-track on Washington Street, from Newton Corner to Wellesley.  It’s a perfect road for it: currently four wide lanes, with parking on each side, there’s plenty of right-of-way to work with.  It’s a nearly flat route.  And it would connect half of Newton to Wellesley, Watertown, and the bike routes along the Charles River.  And what a nice way to get to and from a Ted Kennedy Greenway!

A few resources

I couldn’t write this without suggesting a few resources.  First, if you haven’t been on your bike in a while, consider speaking with an experienced cyclist about how to ride safely in traffic, or reading a book (such as John Allen’s Bicycling Street Smartsor taking a class.  Pick up a bike map or two, and read them before you ride to decide on your route.  Bike Newton makes a Newton bike map, which you should get – and you should also look at Rubel BikeMaps for Boston and all of Massachusetts, and other resources.  And check out some local bike shops, such as Harris CycleryFarina’sLandry’s BicyclesCentre Ski & Bike, and Eastern Mountain Sports.

I’d be glad to hear your thoughts on biking in Newton.  Favorite or least favorite routes?  What changes would you like to see?  Happy trails!

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Matt YospinBill RoesnerDoug CorneliusJulia Malakie Recent comment authors
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Lynne LeBlanc

LOVE biking Newton! It is a great way to get around.

Though clearly it’s not for everyone (e.g. families going to school, work, and back to school; disabled – whether physically or psychologically; some seniors who may feel unsafe bicycling) and clearly there is still a need for cars; but for those who choose to bike, it would be a pleasure to do so more safely. Having roadway accommodations could encourage more people to consider biking instead of driving and help ease traffic congestion.

FYI – my understanding is that it only takes a small change to make a big difference. A reduction of 5% of cars on the road, for instance, can make a significant dent in congestion. I can easily imagine that 5% change in Newton.

Elaine Rush Arruda

Great Post, Matt! I love to bike as well, but not so much in Newton because I just don’t feel very safe. Growing up in St. Paul/Minneapolis, I was truly spoiled by the amazing bicycle infrastructure there. Last Saturday I rode from Bedford’s Depot Square to Davis Square in Somerville along the Minuteman trail. Absolute joy! Separating bicyclists from cars is crucial to safe biking in a city. (Bike tracks or paths much preferred over bike lanes.) Obviously, the land is not always available to do this, but where it is, this should be a priority. I love your idea about Washington St.!! If Newton is serious about being bike-friendly and attracting younger residents, bicycling infrastructure is key.

One other plea is for the school committee to consider bike-ability for students when districting for schools. My kids could have EASILY biked to Newton North from Auburndale, but were districted for South which is fairly impossible to bike safely. Had they been able to bike to school, it would have saved 1000’s of car trips across the city.

I used to bike all over San Francisco but did not feel safe riding around Newton when I moved here in 2000. Between your article and my biking neighbor, I just might just have dust off my bike!

Julia Malakie

A lot of good ideas, Matt! And it reminds me that I really want to get one of those folding British bikes at Harris Cyclery that I admire every year at Tour de Newton, so I could get safely to rail trails like Minuteman. I’d love a dedicated bike lane on Washington Street, too; I could bike to the Y. But a lot of those parking spaces are needed for the commuter rail stations.
The head start in feet and time for cyclists at traffic signals is something I’ve read about before and makes sense, but I hope along with that, cyclists will actually stop at signals which they don’t always do.
I have to add a tree comment. Trees along roadways, besides their other benefits, also make roadways feel narrower, and have been show to have the traffic calming effect of slowing traffic in that way. So it’s another reason to continue the progress that has begun on rebuilding our street tree canopy.

Doug Cornelius
Doug Cornelius

Newton has some great cycling resources. The city needs to do a better job of linking the resources together.

You would think it was ridiculous that street would just stop, or suddenly narrow form two lanes to half a lane. Yet much of the cycling resources in newton do just that.

I think this picture is of Walnut Street. What does this bike lane connect to?

Bill Roesner
Bill Roesner

Matt, a great posting.
I write as an inveterate cyclist as a means of getting around on a pretty regular basis. I also write a senior on a bicycle who rides in constant fear of being run down by a texting motorist, or a distracted soccer mom. Half a dozen years ago, riding on Centre Street opposite Crystal Lake I hit a rut on the street which took me down, bloodied my face and broke my wrist.
I now ride, as much as I can, off the street on sidewalks or carriage lanes. It’s not the fastest way to get around but it’s a lot safer than on our city streets, including the bike lanes. The bike lanes seem to get almost more use by joggers than cyclists.