In 2012, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) set the lofty goal of tripling the rates of statewide transit use, walking and biking. Much of that shift will come from planning and infrastructure changes implemented by city DOTs. But the state DOT plays an important role too. MassDOT is in the process of updating its Statewide Bicycle Transportation Plan for the first time since 2008. Advocates see it as an important opportunity for the state to institutionalize a shift in priorities from long-distance, intra-city bicycle tourism to bicycling as transportation.
“We did great stuff 10 to 15 years ago [with rural routes]. It worked. … We would ride from town to town. Then you got into the towns and it was a nightmare,” says Richard Fries, executive director of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (MassBike).
The 2008 bike plan focused primarily on completing the Bay State Greenway, a 788-mile network of rail trails, on-road bike lanes and signed bike routes throughout the state. But now, Fries says the update will help the plan “adjust to state and local policy that did not exist back when we were doing tourism routes.”
MassDOT also recognizes that the world has changed since the last plan update.
“Think of all the things that have changed in terms of demographics, urban population, bike infrastructure, the existence of bike-share,” says Peter Sutton, the department’s bike plan project manager. “There was one mention of complete streets in the entire [2008 plan]. No real mentions about bike lanes. The huge shift in cycling culture in the past decade necessitated an updated plan.”
MassDOT is already prioritizing local transportation considerations in a way it wasn’t a decade ago. In 2009, the DOT created the Healthy Transportation Compact, which stipulates any state road that can safely include bicycle and pedestrian facilities must do so. In 2010, the department established the Bay State Greenway Priority 100, which highlights 100 miles of additions to the greenway “making additional connections to urban centers, extending existing paths and maximizing the transportation utility of the network.” In 2016, it launched a complete streets funding program that’s put $25 million toward projects across the state.
Sutton says with the new plan they want to, “do a complete 180 shift based on trends that have happened since 2008. We want to focus bicycling to dense urban areas. We’ve found areas of 3 miles or less are the cycling sweet spot. We want to build safer intersections with better crosswalks.”
Building Bike Infrastructure Connectivity
Fries hopes MassDOT’s statewide bicycle transportation plan focuses on connectivity. Not just filling in the gaps between existing bike lanes and trails — though that is also important — but connecting bike infrastructure to transit hubs, park-and-rides, commercial centers, schools, and universities.
“We want to see people living car-light. It’s really that connectivity that helps them do so,” he says.
MassDOT can only do so much on-the-ground infrastructure building, but state-level planning makes a difference to cities.
“MassDOT controls less than 20 percent of the roads in Massachusetts,” Sutton explains, “[but] any guide we put out is going to inform what local municipalities do on their roadway. They act as resource guides on how to plan facilities better.”
Bill Nesper agrees that statewide bike plans are important for local DOTs.
“Without a [statewide] plan, things don’t get done,” says Nesper, who’s interim executive director at The League of American Bicyclists. “The best state bike plans set out a vision to make biking safe, comfortable, convenient for everybody. Once you do that you have the institutionalization of this thinking. Biking and walking is no longer this special interest thing or just urban.”
That said, Nesper points out state highways often run through cities and towns as major arterials, meaning the state DOT can influence some of the fastest, most dangerous routes in a given municipality.
“To have a safe network, those big roads need to be addressed,” Nesper says. “Speed comes into this. Vision Zero comes in. The planning process is where you can talk about those things. Advocates really have to be at the table and hopefully the state DOT is engaging with them.”
In the League’s ranking of Bicycle Friendly States, a statewide bike plan updated within the last decade is highlighted as one of components necessary for bike friendliness.
MassDOT is a few months into the bike plan update process. They’re aiming for publishing the document by the end of 2017. Sutton is excited. Not only is their approach to bike planning shifting, the new plan is coming out with dedicated funding to build projects. The state’s Capital Investment Plan allocated $60 million to bike and pedestrian plans over the next four years.
“There’s an insatiable appetite in Boston and other cities for better bicycle facilities,” Sutton says. “People will switch modes and move to bicycling if there are safe and accessible facilities. All of these things are being addressed in new bicycle plan.”
ABOUT THIS MAP: The majority of existing state bike plans in the U.S. consider pedestrians too. States with a plan solely focused on bicycles include Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota, Virginia, Wisconsin and Illinois. Several states, including Idaho, Kansas and North Dakota, are incorporating bike and pedestrian needs into upcoming larger transportation plans, and many states have plans focused on one major perspective — such as Florida and Georgia’s safety action plans, Utah’s bicycle design guide, and Kentucky’s bicycle travel policy. Michigan, Georgia and others are focusing their efforts on regional plans instead. Some statewide “bike plans” released throughout the 1980s and ’90s are also misnomers somewhat. Katelyn DiGioia, Georgia’s bike and pedestrian engineer, notes of her state’s 1997 “Bike and Pedestrian Plan,” that the route network neither addresses pedestrian needs nor is much of a plan.
Kelsey E. Thomas reported on state bike plans for the map in this article.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.