Cycling Through the Neighborhood(s)

The small street where I live is positioned between two radically different neighborhoods on the Cambridge/Somerville line in the greater Boston area.

In one direction is an affluent Harvard neighborhood with brick sidewalks, historical mansions, romantic gardens, and overarching trees.

In the other direction is a stretch of concrete lined with multi-family houses with faded vinyl siding, shopping plazas, warehouses, and unfinished construction sites behind chain-link fences.

When we first moved here, it amazed me that two neighborhoods of such different character could border each other so crisply: There is no overlap, it is as if someone drew a line between them. Over time I got used to the divide and just accepted it as a given, but having begun cycling made me hyper-aware of it once again.

Cycling towards Harvard is relatively tranquil, with roads that are in reasonable shape and motorists who seem accustomed to bicycles. I would not go so far as to call it a "Disneyworld version" of a vehicular cycling experience, but close to it.

Cycling in the other direction, the roads are covered with pot-holes, the drivers are more aggressive and impatient, and traffic patterns are chaotic. Recently, Somerville has painted "sharrows" all over the major roads and this has helped a bit with the driver aggression. A bit.

When I first began cycling, I dealt with this by staying away from Somerville and only going to destinations that could be accessed via the calmer Cambridge route. But in the long run, this was not a reasonable solution. So I started to get myself used to the area by cycling with the Co-Habitant. Gradually, the anxiety of it began to subside. And then, one morning I got on my bike and rode on my own to a hardware store that is in the very thicket of the area that used to intimidate me. It suddenly felt fine.

I know that there are many, many people who cycle through Somerville constantly and probably find my comments here ridiculous / pathetic, but so be it - cycling there used to honestly give me anxiety attacks. No more though. In some ways it is up to the person to make the area where they live accessible to themselves.


  1. Yeah, sweetie, it does sound pathetic.

    Life is hard. Wear a cup.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement; nice to feel the love : ) Next time a car brushes against my left arm on Somerville Ave., I'll just remember how easy and charmed my life otherwise is and smile.

  3. Why is it that the most pathetic people are always anonymous? I have my guesses... issues and...

    A long time ago, I stayed with friends who lived on the edge of Somerville, behind some hospital. I can't remember if they refered to it as Slumberville or Slumerville. We didn't spend much time there, but loved our time in Cambridge.

    As for different environments changing my cycling habits, I'd say yes. I ride differently Mpls than I do in St.Paul. I feel somewhat more comfortable riding in the Western suburbs of Mpls, but must assume that people in St.Paul's suburbs are not used to bikes on the roads. Live and learn.

  4. Thanks spiderleggreen. Somerville is a historically fascinating place, both in terms of early American history and the history of bicycle manufacturing. Sure it's not "scenic" in the classic sense, but the city has been doing a lot to improve that lately - which is much appreciated. I am not from here (I was raised in a neighboring state), but we enjoy living in this area very much.

  5. Too funny as the other day I rode to the hardware store in an area similar to what you described. And like you, my neighborhood is positioned between two very different areas.

    My daily bike commute takes me through a very affluent neighborhood. In my opinion, the drivers in the affluent neighborhood are clueless to anyone else on the road. It is sad when in this neighborhood, the street signs (near a school, no less) advise drivers not to turn right when there are pedestrians in the crosswalk. Really?! You have to be reminded?

    On the other hand, when I ride 'on the other side of the tracks', I regularly encounter drivers who stop and look both ways, motion for me to carry on or better yet change lanes intsead of brushing past me. Maybe this is because more commuter bikers live in this neighborhood (and by commuter, I mean biker who has to bike because a car is not an option) and are just more aware of cyclists?

  6. hey- I have minor panic attacks Driving in somerville. It's def more aggressive and unpredictable in a car, it would take me some def time on a bike. ( and of course I haven't left my suburb yet on bike either...)

    I think your posts speak to people. me and I am sure more than that. I think it speaks to the fact that with more people on bikes comes a large spectrum of comfortabilty in different traffic etc. And having your voice spoken is important and inspirational. So there.

  7. So interesting to hear about the two different neighborhoods. Such divisions are present in Chicago, too, but there is usually a physical landmark that divides the neighborhoods, like rivers or highways. I absolutely love your statement that sometimes the person has to make their neighborhood bike accessible themselves. So true! Sometimes I ride in trafficed areas that make my heart thump, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do :) It's certainly a process, though, and it took me a while to build up to it, too.

    Adding to spiderleggreen's comment re: anonymous posters, I'll add that the most rude/aggressive commenters are also male. No offense to me, but it's an observed fact. $100 on Mr Wear a Cup being male. You should feel free to delete comments that add nothing of intelligence to the discussion - I've done so a time or two :)

  8. I ride in towns all over the country. It is amazing how one area can be full of self centered egotistical drivers who could care less about another human being, and another area full of people that are more than willing to wait for someone to cross the road, even if it is against the light. And in one recent case parked his car in the traffic lane and helped the elderly woman across the street.

    I quite often look for the industrial areas to ride through, they are usually deserted after 5pm on Friday. ;-)


  9. Pay no attention to the troll behind the curtain.

    I don't bicycle much on the somerville/ Cambridge Line except for occasional forays into Union square. (aside, I have yet to find a bicycle friendly way into union square).

    However I daily experience the dramatic difference between drivers on the Cambridge and Boston sides of the Longfellow bridge. It's often surprising to me that there should be such a dichotomy, since there is such a small geographical separation. On the cambridge side, bike lanes, sharrows, tons of students biking everywhere.
    On the Boston side, cabbies. double parked delivery vans, massholes. I'm simplifying, and there are massholes everywhere (even outside of MA, I'm afraid), but it's an interesting phenomemon.

    And if you have a good biking route into Union square, please dish!

  10. Hi Filigree, your neighbourhood is what you make of it. I moved from an affluent area to an area with higher crime and lower socio-economic values when I got married. For a while, I was nervous about taking the dog for a walk by myself. Equally I was nervous when I first started cycling around here. Depending on the time of day I still have my nervy moments. But one can't live in fear forever, and most people are inherently honest and live by the law; not every person I pass is going to mug me! I don't think you were being pathetic about your anxiety attacks. I admire you for overcoming them and claiming your neighbourhood as your own. (And I do like those lovely bike lanes in the Harvard area... so nice and wide!) New places take time to learn about and get used to.

  11. I am guessing that the relatively good disposition towards cyclists around the Harvard and MIT neighborhoods is probably due to the large number of students rather than affluence. It would be interesting to run a study though looking at cycling conditions in different types of neighborhoods.

    People do have different comfort levels when it comes to cycling (thanks for your kind words Vee), and that' just that. Change to one's comfort level can only happen gradually. Oh I have fantasies of being all bad-ass, weaving between cars and hopping over pot-holes with a sexy scowl... but that just isn't me. I am uncoordinated and neurotic, so what! The funny thing is that I find it easier to cycle in Somerville than to drive, especially with all the construction happening now. I never was a very good city driver.

    Re the anonymous comments - I decided some time ago not to reject any of the submitted remarks here unless they are downright indecent (has not happened yet) or spam (happens occasionally). If being anonymous allows people to express what they really think, that's fine.

  12. Cycler - For me the calmest route to Union Square is to take Beacon, then turn on Washington. That is, if you are coming from the direction of Inman Square or Porter Square. If you're coming from Harvard, I'd go on Kirkland, which becomes Washington after it crosses Beacon.

    There is a hill on Washington St right before you reach Union Square, but it is a very short one and not too bad. Traffic is calm during non-peak hours, an easy ride.

  13. Hi Filigree,
    Thanks, that's sort of what I've been doing, at least when going home.
    That dratted hill is overpass over the commuter rail line, so I don't think you can avoid it no matter how you go.
    I'm often coming from the east and going to the west, and a couple of times I've ended up in that awful Prospect/ Webster diagonal intersection, or ended up in the chaos of Union square itself. Times like that is when it's good to be able to hop off and become a pedestrian.

  14. Yes, that is the intersection I try to avoid by going on Washington : )

    I generally stay away from Prospect St, because it always has a high traffic rate and there is no shoulder. The only time I go there is to turn from Broadway when going to Whole Foods - and then I walk my bicycle on the sidewalk those few yards. I also try to avoid Somerville Ave, but that's not always possible. It is worse in the direction of McGrath Hwy than in the direction of Porter Sq.

  15. Sorry to hijack the post with comments on Cambridge specific routes, but, may I pass along the tip of cutting through the apartment complex driveway when going from Broadway to WF. Prospect N of Cambridge street is actually pretty calm. That's the only part of it I'll bike.

  16. Interesting essay.

    There are a lot of contrasting neighborhoods in my city too, but unlike yours, there's usually a bit of overlap.

    Also, when I first started riding there were some streets I avoided like the plague. Now I ride them during rush hour, no problem.

    Your writeup is quite interesting. I thought you did a great job.

  17. Bravo to you Filigree on both matters... printing anon's rather rude remarks AND riding out of your (initial) comfort zone!

  18. doohickie, i keep finding you all over the 'net, and now you're even in my neighboorhood! :-)

    as a somerville resident who works in cambridge, i can attest that both cities have some bike-hostile streets, perhaps more so in somerville, but that is rapidly changing as somerville is following cambridge's lead with making streets more pedestrian- and bike-friendly. all major road reconstruction efforts in the 'ville are incorporating wide pedestrian crossings and bike lanes.

    that said, somerville still has a way to go and it will take years before they catch up to cambridge. i'm very curious to see how the somerville ave reconstruction turns out, since i have to ride that daily and have been hit before on that free-for-all of a thoroughfare!

  19. loved this post - your last sentence totally spoke to me and answered a nagging question that has been keeping me from making the leap from driving to riding. THANK YOU!

  20. I realize this post is old, but it made me nostalgic for the year I spent living at Kirkland and Beacon on the Somerville/Cambridge border. One of my first "biking victories" came when I made it up the little Kirkland hill from my apartment on the outskirts of Harvard to Bloc11, solidly in Somerville. I have long since moved to Brooklyn, and that bike has long since been stolen... but I'll never forget that ride.

    Thanks for the reminder :)

  21. Hi sweetie,
    Just came across your blog whilst looking for panniers and came across your blog post. Thank you for sharing what it feels like to take your bike and literally cross the comfort zone. This was very refreshing to read and on point! =)
    I have not ridden a bicycle since I was 11 years old. I'm 40 now and felt really nervous about getting on a bike again. Not only have I not rode a bike for 30 years, as a child, I was not allowed to bike past the edge of my flat street lined block. I do remember feeling so happy and free as a child, a feeling I longed to capture - one marriage and tons of responsibilities later. So I set out, and bought a brand new bike...and at first could barely drive the thing. I practiced in the late evening with my husband, traversing the hills and streets near my home. Using hand brakes instead of my feet to slow my bike down. Using gears to climb seemingly impossible hills for the first time. I have had the bike for almost two weeks now. I have just experienced biking in a street with cars in all directions, maneuvering around crowded beach boardwalks and enjoying this feeling of childhood happiness once again.


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