Biking in Lowell picking up speed

Jessie Paskiewicz
Connector Staff

Gaining ground throughout Lowell isn’t all that hard when you’re gliding around on two wheels. Within the past few years, biking in Lowell – especially within the UMass Lowell community – has evolved into a more cyclist-friendly experience, thanks to transformations in college cycling resources, city bike lanes, and support from the community at large.

The school’s initial bike sharing program, RecCycle, began in 2007 after receiving a grant to purchase its first eight bikes. The program has since grown into the UMass Lowell Freewheelers program, averaging about 30 bike rentals a day.

Peter Murray, UMass Lowell’s Campus Recreation Director, has seen the program grow from the very beginning. When asked about the inspiration for the program, Murray said, “We started it because we wanted to contribute a healthy program to campus life.”

According to Murray, changes on campus have lead to a noticeable increase in bikers and bike commuters alike. “We’ve definitely made it easier for students to ride to campus, but we also have so many more students,” he said.

Recent developments to the program have included greater bike parking alongside new and renovated campus buildings, as well as infrastructure improvements and safer roads around the university. A bike repair and maintenance shop – located in the Campus Recreation Center on East Campus – was also created and features workshops on how to change a bike tire and basic bike maintenance.

The program’s strides have gone on to receive national recognition. After receiving an honorable mention last year from The League of American Bicyclists, UMass Lowell made adjustments based on the league’s feedback and was granted the bronze medal in 2015. Harvard, Tufts, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are the only other universities in Massachusetts to receive this distinction.

As the UMass Lowell biking community has grown, cycling improvements have been cropping up throughout greater Lowell. In 2011, the Downtown Evolution Plan was created by the city as an initiative to “promote healthy transportation options.” The plan included the creation of bike lanes, the conversion of existing lanes to shared lanes, and a connection to the Bruce Freeman and Bay Circuit trails.

More recently, the Complete Streets Policy requires any renovated or new infrastructure to meet buildings requirements that meet the needs for all methods of transportation around the city. Nicholas Bofonato, a Lowell Community Development engineer on the policy, explains that “by having a multi-modal transportation system, you’re including everyone.”

Implementing the policy has also led to the involvement of MassBike, a Boston-based coalition that helps to assess the bikeability of communities and offer solutions. Their partnership with Lowell has lead to suggested improvements on School Street and Pawtucket Street, which the city hopes to break ground on within the near future. In terms of the Pawtucket Street corridor, Bofonato says that the city of Lowell has been collaborating with UMass Lowell on making the street safer.

However, these changes were not always met with open arms. In April 2015, members of The City Council voted to remove the lanes because they felt they were underutilized and confusing. Many local biking enthusiasts turned out to support keeping the lanes. The vote was later overruled, while a recent vote to enact the Complete Streets Policy showed a unanimous nine-to-zero in favor of citywide improvements.

One of the attendees that supported keeping the lanes was owner of City Bicycle Co., Jim Hill. As an avid, lifelong biker, Hill saw the lanes as a step in the right direction.  “A lot of the roads are dangerous. Some people want to potentially start riding, but there’s no space,” says Hill. “The main thing is really to make riding safer and more accessible.”

Amid all the growth, Hill feels the biggest issue with biking is still safety. “There is not enough education on bike safety. “Motorists think it’s all their space,” said Hill. “The education of drivers includes everything about how to deal with other vehicles, but not bicycles.

Despite all the changes, there’s still work to be done. Murray reiterated Hill’s sentiments, saying, “One of the big things I hope to see is that more and more students will develop a community around biking and an increased education in biking safety.” Aside from safety, Murray hopes to create an automated bike sharing system throughout campus, similar to the increasingly popular Citi Bikes.

As changes continue to sweep through UML and Lowell alike, the future looks bright for the city’s biking community. But like anything else, they take everything in stride, one pedal at a time.

If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions about UMass Lowell’s bike program, you can reach Peter Murray at 978-934-2327 or at peter_murray@uml.edu.

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