Active transportation in Boston

Student

May - June 2020

Two months

Design brief

 

It is the summer of 2020, we are living in a post-COVID world, and are anticipating cities across the US to open up. Businesses, schools, and universities are getting ready to welcome incoming crowds with the new safety norms in place. An important factor in a city's ability to bounce back to the "new normal" is its transportation system. 

Boston's public transport has been its backbone in managing daily commute for thousands of Bostonians. However, Boston's public transport is densely packed in rush hours and can be a public health hazard even if citizens are wearing masks. This lends an opportunity to promote active, green, and solo transportations like biking and e-scooters. These are safer to use, can work in narrow Boston roads, and will keep lesser cars on the road. And of course, it's healthy!

I worked on this project for my class in Geographical Information Systems, under the guidance of Prof. Glenn Hazelton, Northeastern University, Boston. I used Arc GIS Pro to create the geographical visualizations and analysis of Boston's biking infrastructure for active transportation. Some of the research questions I wish to answer through this project includes – 

  1. What is the transportation usage in Boston?

  2. What does the bike lane infrastructure in Boston look like?

  3. What are the different types of bike lanes?

  4. How safe are the bike lanes?

  5. What is the shared bikes infrastructure in Boston?

  6. What is the distribution of work and residential areas in Boston?

  7. How well is the bike network connected in these areas?

  8. What does it look like to travel from a residential area to an office area in Boston?

Background

Half a million people use MBTA transport systems daily in Massachusetts*. As you can see in the chart on the left, most traffic in Boston is auto traffic followed by public transport. Bicycle traffic is the lowest on this chart, however, as seen in the chart on the right, it is steadily growing.

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Exploration

Below you can see all the designated bike infrastructure in Boston.

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Boston.gov describes the following categories of bike lanes. I used these categories to visualize the safety and comfort of each of these on the existing infrastructure. 

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To give an example, the bike lane on Seaver Street, Roxbury is a dedicated one and is physically detached from the main traffic. While the bike lanes close to where I live in South Huntington, the bikers have to share the road with traffic. This lane is particularly unsafe because the bike lane is used as a parking lane along with the green line (train) and MBTA buses.

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Using this categorization, I used three colors to indicate the saftey-level in the bike lane visualization I showed earlier.

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It can be observed that the "green" lanes are often the recreational bike routes like the one on Boston Harbour, Deer Island, and around Frankin Park. However, there are red routes which connect large distances which would be used frequently by folks traveling for work everyday.

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To visualize the areas where Bostonians live and where they work, I used the publicly land use data for Massachusetts and trimmed it for Boston city. I then took the relevant subsections and visualized them as shown below. Broadly, as expected, there are commercial centers around Park Street, South Boston, and the various universities spread across the city.

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Next, I overlapped the bike lanes on land use visualization. I observed that while we have some connectivity across residential areas and commercial ones, we are missing the interconnecting lanes, which could potentially distribute bike traffic across lanes and neighborhoods. 

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I also wanted to see the bike-sharing infrastructure in Boston given that many individuals might just want to rent a bike and not own and maintain it. Thus, I visualized the bikes stations for Blue Bikes (a bike-sharing network) in the city, which looks well distributed across neighborhoods.

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When I visualized the same data by the number of docks, it looked promising beacuse the larger ones can be seen around Downtown, Boston.

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Now imagine a scenario where you are traveling to the city from the suburbs. If the travel is a long-distance – It is possible that in this case, a Bostonian takes public transport halfway and uses a bike in the more densely packed routes. Below you can see the distribution of MBTA bus and subway lines, overlaid with the bike routes. 

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We can use certain bike routes that run parallel to subway routes to determine if the usage pattern has changed since COVID. For instance, below you can see the southwest corridor park that runs parallel to the orange line. This will however require further research and is beyond the scope of this project. But it does provide opportunities for public policymakers to observe commute patterns at scale.

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When one thinks of biking safety it's also important to note where all the biking accidents have happened. Below are all biking accidents recorded officially between 2015-2020.

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Next I overlaid the accidents on the bike lanes coded by their safety.

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Couple of things to note –

  1. While I don't have the exact numbers, it appears the green routes are as likely to have accidents as the red ones.

  2. There are also a significant number of accidents in the intersections joining the main bike routes, where there are no demarcated lanes to separate bikers from the road traffic.

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To illustrate how someone would use the existing bike lanes, Consider the starting point in Upham's Corner, Boston. Say someone who lives here works in the Park Street area (the destination in Downtown Boston) and would like to ride a bike to work. It is a 30-minute ride in one direction according to google maps.

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If we carefully inspect the start point(1,2) and the destination point (3), we can map the area that the individual will have to cover to reach the destination at Park Street. However, if you carefully see 4 you will notice that there are few connecting bike routes that this individual can take. 

In this case, either someone staying in Upham's Corner will choose not to ride a bike or might risk taking the non designated routes which are not safe to ride.

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2. Zoomed out view of the same

1. Example area in Upham's corner

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3. Possible area to one might cover if they want to reach Park street

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4. Bike routes in this area

Insights and Opportunities

 

While the biking infrastructure has significantly improved in the past 5 years, Boston is still not ready to handle an influx in solo biking traffic.

There are neighborhoods like the Upham’s corner which don’t have a biking infrastructure at all.

 

There is a need to introduce biking interlinks between the current plan to distribute cyclists to low traffic roads.

 

The blue bike network is well distributed, and they should encourage more people to take up biking because it’s safer and a healthier way to commute every day as part of health insurance??

 

In addition, they can install sanitizers and provide cleaning materials for frequent rider’s hygiene.

Biking has to be seen not just as recreation but a safer and greener alternative of travel in a post-COVID world.

 

Biking in brutal Boston winter is still an unanswered research question!


 

Tools/methods used:

Arc GIS, Microsoft Excel