Although data on cycling is spotty, surveys indicate that only 2% of Boston commuters bike, which is much lower than cities like Portland, Oregon, Boulder, Colorado, Washington, D.C., or even Cambridge and Somerville. Although this is not entirely scientific, a routine visual inspection of the city’s bike lanes suggests that many of them are only lightly used — except for several well-traveled lanes, including along Massachusetts Avenue and in certain parks.
City officials maintain that such anecdotal evidence is deceptive and that ridership has been steadily increasing. But it’s not at all clear whether, on its current trajectory, the city will meet its goal of having 8% of all commutes by bike by 2030.
Reaching this goal is vital to the health of the city. Increased bicycle use usually means decreased car use, which will reduce a city’s carbon footprint and its need for expensive parking spaces. At a time when T is slow or unreliable, cycling can not only fill gaps in the transportation system, it can also be the most efficient way to travel.
Moreover, bicycles add to the liveliness of street life, and are a potential boon to neighborhood shops, restaurants and cafes. And let’s face it, we could all use more exercise.
But here’s the rub: At some point, it’s going to take more than just infrastructure to get people on bikes.
None of this is to say that building that infrastructure is a waste of resources or valuable pavement, as many critics assert. “When we talk to people, the thing we hear most often is, ‘I want to ride a bike but I don’t feel safe,'” said Jascha Franklin Hodge, the city’s chief of streets, transportation and sanitation.
So having safe bike lanes that connect residents to work, shopping, schools and parks is the logical first step to expanding bicycle use. That’s exactly what the city is trying to do by adding lanes in places like West Roxbury, along Boylston Street in Back Bay, and in Mattapan.
But now is also the time to push for new and innovative approaches to encourage, persuade and motivate more people to try the bike. This is a task that the city can lead, but it should not undertake alone.
The League of American Bicyclists, a national nonprofit organization that promotes cycling, asserts that more cities should include bike training in elementary school physical education classes. In Washington, D.C., for example, every second grader learns how to ride a bike. The district has its own range of exercise bikes for young people who don’t have their own bikes. About two dozen other cities, including Rochester, Minnesota, and Jersey City, New Jersey, have similar programs. Boston Public Schools should take this into consideration as well.
Adult classes should be more widely available as well. Boston sponsors a course to teach women and people of all genders how to ride a bike. (Men use bicycles more often than women.) Many local bike clubs sponsor group rides that can build confidence in novice cyclists. But more communities can sponsor bike-oriented classes and events, such as the annual Mattapan On Wheels bike race.
Electric bikes should also be part of the equation. E-bikes can make cycling an attractive alternative for people who commute long distances, older or disabled commuters, or people with children or goods to transport. The city is looking to start a program to defray the cost of e-bike for seniors and people with disabilities. The state may follow its own support program. This plan should be open to all e-bike buyers.
There are a range of other strategies that have shown promising results elsewhere. Some states allow tax deductions for the cost of commuting by bike or to help pay for Uber rides home when bad weather strikes.
Finally, the development of Bluebike software is critical because it allows people to be comfortable cycling in urban areas without spending $500 or $5,000 on equipment. The city is looking to add 400 new docking stations.
Many of these efforts — especially those involving so-called road diets that squeeze vehicle lanes and parking spaces — are certain to face continued opposition from residents and business owners. Their concerns should not be ignored, as many people have no choice but to use cars to reach distant jobs, and many companies depend on customers who depend on cars.
But we firmly believe that a safer mix of cars, pedestrians and bicycles — as well as scooters and other micromobility devices — will make Boston’s streets greener and more enjoyable places.
Amelia Neptune, director of the League of American Bicyclists’ Bicycle-Friendly America program, points out that even in Amsterdam — where more than two-thirds of commuters and students travel by bike — cars once dominated the streets. It took a series of car crashes that killed children in the 1970s to catalyze a mass movement for better bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.
“It wasn’t always this cycling utopia,” she said. “They made a conscious decision to become more bicycle friendly.”
For cyclists, there is comfort in a crowd. The more cyclists there are, the more visible they become to drivers, and those drivers learn to accommodate them on the road. Here to build those crowds.
Editorials represent the opinions of the Boston Globe editorial board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.