Improved cycling infrastructure is a must for the streets of Dorchester
On May 20, 2022, as Boston celebrated National Bike to Work Day, coronavirus cases continued to rise and fall. Since the start of the pandemic, I have cycled from Dorchester to my job as a frontline provider. On my ride, the city looks very different than it did in March 2020, but importantly and disappointingly, it hasn’t changed at all.
If the mayor is serious about addressing the health disparities and transit injustice laid bare by Covid, she should act quickly to improve cycling infrastructure in places that need it most. , like Dorchester.
Why? Well, we know that black and Latino Bostonians have suffered disproportionately from this coronavirus. We know that communities with lower incomes, less insurance coverage, higher unemployment, and more essential workers have been hardest hit. And we know that if we want to tackle the root cause of these disparities, we need to look beyond hospitals and health systems and focus on the social determinants of health.
These include structural elements of our city that may seem unrelated to health at first glance, but nevertheless contribute to differences in death and disease, not only from Covid, but also from many other conditions. These include, for example, how people from places like Dorchester get to work.
Basic inequalities in transit existed before the last pandemic, but once it hit, they worsened. The majority of transit riders were essential workers, mostly women and people of color in lower-paying jobs, with limited access to cars and no ability to work remotely.
The reduction in public transit service in Boston has led to dangerous levels of overcrowding which, in turn, has led to an increased risk of Covid transmission among low-income drivers despite increased precautions.
It is no coincidence that the same people who made up our essential workforce were the same people who crowded trains and buses, living in the same neighborhoods who bore the unbalanced burden of infections.
Now consider the bicycle. The bicycle is particularly well suited to traveling in the event of a pandemic. It’s physically distant, supports mental and physical health, reduces crowding on buses and trains, and doesn’t take up valuable parking. Cities around the world have expanded their bicycle infrastructure and budgets in response to the pandemic; bike sales surged and Boston was no exception.
Having more essential workers cycling to work would be a good thing. Only a fraction need pedal for us to reap the beneficial multiplier effects of decongestion. But to make cycling a viable option from Dorchester, it needs to be safer and far less stressful than it is now. We need better protected bike paths that connect our neighbors to their jobs – and more.
Sadly, the bicycle is often seen as a white, elite mode of transportation and a harbinger of gentrification. Cycling infrastructure is better in affluent and affluent neighborhoods and neglected in poorer neighborhoods where the majority of cyclists are non-white. In 2019, Boston earned one of Places for Bikes’ lowest possible scores on “Reach” — a network’s ability to serve its citizens equally.
The reality, however, is that nationwide, people in poorer, lower-income neighborhoods cycle to work more often. The people who dominate the conversation about cycling may not always be representative of the majority of real riders.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that while Boston has built new bike lanes since March 2020, they weren’t in the neighborhoods that needed them the most. We were lucky enough to build safer bike lanes for the hardest hit communities during the first wave, when traffic was at its lowest, but instead chose to focus on downtown corridors.
The move perpetuated the myth that bicycling to work is something only rich white people can do. By inscribing this meaning in the infrastructure, he transformed the myth into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So if we want to learn from our mistakes, we should build more protected bike lanes in Dorchester, Roxbury and East Boston, where the majority of essential workers live. They have fewer bike lanes now and fewer planned future bike lanes, compared to more affluent neighborhoods. Improvements to the Blue Hill Avenue Corridor are a start, but not enough. They also take too long.
Dorchester is the most racially and economically diverse neighborhood in the city. Dorchester Avenue serves over 50,000 people and has long been identified as particularly problematic for cyclists; Yet no improvements have been made for them on the avenue during this pandemic, and nothing is in the works.
If we act quickly to create a more accessible cycling network in Dorchester, we will do more than protect workers from Covid and whatever pandemic comes next.
We will send the message that the city is serious about creating the lasting structural change needed to address the root causes of health disparities. We will demonstrate our commitment to making urban cycling more inclusive, thereby mitigating some of the systemic racism inherent in our city’s transportation system. And we will make it clear that the goal is not just to help vulnerable communities survive a pandemic, but also to thrive in its wake.
A fairer Boston is a healthier, more resilient Boston. If this is the city we want to see tomorrow, we need to start building it today, starting with Dorchester.
Lucas Marinacci, MD, is a Cardiovascular Medicine Fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a former Op-Ed Public Voices Project Fellow. The opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect those of his employer.