A Tropical December? And Some Thoughts on Trails as Transportation

Hallelujah! Yesterday everything finally fell into place and I was able to go on a long ride: I had time in my schedule and it was neither pouring rain nor pitch black out.

Velouria was happy to finally get some exercise beyond just going to the same old neighborhood spots.

The weather yesterday threw everyone for a loop. After weeks of frigid November dreariness, things suddenly turned tropical. It was over 65 degrees F (nearly 20 degrees C) in Boston yesterday, only somewhat counteracted by gusts of balmy wind.

The heat was especially weird in combination with how bare the landscape has become. This tree was practically the only one along the Charles River Trail with foliage.

One thing I can say after this ride, is that the past few weeks have taken a toll and I feel seriously out of shape! Throughout the summer and early Autumn, it became normal for me to cycle an average of 10-20 miles per day, often more. But after the traveling I did for work in November and then the additional traveling over Thanksgiving holidays, I guess it's been almost a month since I'd been on a really long ride. Now I see that cycling 2-5 miles per day for transportation is quite different from cycling 20 miles per day. Let's just say I had to switch to a lower gear for parts of the way than the one I had grown accustomed to.

Being on the trail again has also made me think about Dottie's recent post on Let's Go Ride a Bike, in which she described being grateful for her pleasant and stress-free commute along Chicago's Lakefront Trail. In theory, Boston's Charles River Trail is similar in that it connects peripheral neighborhoods to the city center. However, I honestly know no one who uses the Charles River Trail to commute to any of those destinations; the cyclists I know use the roads instead. Most of the cyclists I do see on the trail seem to be there for recreation, or for very short distance trips if they happen to live in a nearby location.

To some extent, I think the preference for the roads in Boston has to do with time. The Charles River Trail is car-free and fantastically scenic, but it takes considerably longer to travel on it than to travel through the city. When commuting to and from work - or when going on a date, rushing to a meeting, or dropping children off at various activities - I imagine that people want, and in some cases need, to save valuable time.

But perhaps what really keeps the Charles River Trail from becoming the commuter route it could be is the lack of lighting. In Boston it now gets dark shortly after 4pm. Most people cycle home from work after 5pm. Cycling on a pitch black trail along the river is probably not their idea of a safe and relaxing commute - especially as trail conditions become more wintery. If I remember correctly, Dottie has mentioned before that Chicago's Lakefront Trail is lit the entire way, which means that it is not impossible to do the same to Boston's Charles River Trail. Is it not done here for financial reasons? Or because the city figures there is not enough demand to use this trail for commuting? I wonder.

I love the Charles River Trail, and it has been particularly enjoyable to watch it change from Spring to Summer to Autumn and now to its current pre-Winter state. It would be nice to use it to go grocery shopping after 4pm, as I used to earlier in the year, so I do miss that part. I am looking forward to seeing what the trail will be like in the winter, and I am curious whether it will be at all possible to cycle on it once it starts snowing. If anybody local has done this, I would love to hear about it!


  1. Here are a few problems with the trail:

    1. It follows the winding Charles River. It thus doubles the distance between any two points along it. (I need 17 minutes by bike to get to Harvard Sq. from where I live if I take the direct route. I need 55 if I take the river trail.)

    2. The surface is bad. All the asphalt is cracking and there are potholes everywhere. In Watertown, there are some places where the trail is so narrow and uneven that I almost gave when I tried to ride through it on my road bike.

    3. There are frequent interruptions. For example, at the BU bridge you have to get off your bike and navigate a narrow and *EXTREMELY* dangerous pedestrain crossing. (I say *EXTREMELY* because it is difficult to overstate how dangerous the Cambridge end of the BU bridge is for cyclists and pedestrians.

    4. The trail is noisy. Except for the esplanade, I find the level of noise too high to enjoy the trail. (Compare this to the Minuteman Bikeway, for example.)

  2. Portland has a waterfront path on both sides of the Willamette river (which splits Portland into an East and West), and both paths are well kept up, lit all along the way, and heavily trafficked. The one on the west side is also a park, and has fountains, benches, large grassy areas, shops, restaurants, etc (and it used to be a freeway).

    I live in the NE, and work in the SW, so I ride down to the river, over a bridge (almost all of which have wide separate bike/ped facilities), and then along the waterfront trail directly to my work. It would also allow easy access to all of downtown, as you can just ride it north or south as far as you need, then leave the park and head west on the roads to get where you need to go.

    This is one thing that's been talked about a lot here lately - in order for a separated bike/ped path to work, it has to take you where you want to go. For instance, in Copenhagen originally they built separated paths that took long, winding, out of the way routes, and nobody used them, so they decided to put them on main roads instead, and bang! Instant increase in cyclists, because it became convenient.

  3. I use the CRBP every day to commute in and out of the Copley area from roughly around the Harvard Sq. area. The Cambridge side is definitely less hospitable due to having to stop at every road crossing, being bumpy, the BU bridge area as Giffen mentioned; which is why I jump over to the Boston side at earliest convenience... that side is much better to travel along.

    Yes, it does take about 5-10 minutes longer than if I were to go straight down Mass Ave but that Central Sq area is ALWAYS a mess. I nearly get in a collision with a car/pedestrian/other cyclist every time I ride down that road during commuting hours no matter how careful I am being, it's a free-for-all. I had initially switched my route to go down Broadway, but this added extra time anyway, and was still through a lot of traffic (though much more reasonable than Mass Ave); so the extra few minutes it takes to ride along the river is a welcome sacrifice in exchange for a little serenity before and after work.

    I will agree though, that further out towards Newton/Watertown it is a bit more treacherous, especially in the dark; but thankfully my route does not carry me along that stretch.

  4. Giffen - I can believe the 55min vs 17 min. When we finally got up the nerve to cycle to West Newton on the roads (coming from the Cambridge/Somerville city line) we were amazed at how much faster we got there than via the trail. It took about the same as getting there by car would, amazing. They seem to be working on improving the trail in Watertown; this summer they paved a huge stretch of it and I think more improvements are coming.

    What do you mean by noisy? The cars, or the other people around, or construction?

    Portlandize - The Portland waterfont path sounds nice, and of course I agree that paths need to take you where you need to go. I still don't quite understand how the paths in Copenhagen deal with intersections. I have not yet seen an entirely satisfying intersection design in any of the cities I have been to.

    Astroluc - Interesting that you commute from Harvard to Copley via the trail. Assuming that you do not live far from it, that is actually a good route that does not take that much longer. However, I would still not be able to cycle there in the dark. I've gone a couple of times to Trader Joe's after dark and even with the exuberant lighting set-up on my bike I was juts not completely comfortable.

  5. Honestly... I went up and down Mass Ave and/or Broadway for years and it started to stress me out. I like my "river route" these days :D

    The South (or, Boston) side of the trail is not so bad as the North (or, Cambridge) side as far as lighting goes. A lot of the light from Storrow Dr. and Soldiers Field Rd. fills in the gaps when it does not have it's own illumination. The only part where I have any trouble seeing is around the Harvard footbridge.

    The North side, however, is a different story entirely... no lighting AND you get all the headlights from incoming cars from Memorial Dr. coming at you, making it more difficult.

  6. Filigree,

    By noise, I mean the constant roar of cars on Memorial Drive and Storrow Drive. For some reason, car noise doesn't bother me that much in other places. It must be the combination of that with watching out for pedestrians and potholes that makes the trail so tiring for me to ride on.

    I generally favor dedicated bike paths, but often (almost always) I find that on-street routes are so dramatically faster and straighter that they make for a more pleasant trip.

  7. What beautiful weather! I'm glad Boston finally gave you some bike-riding sunshine. So weird for December, though.

    Chicago's lakefront trail is completely lit. Some spot are darker than others, but it's totally usable at night without any special, high-powered bike lights. Lots of people use the trail to commute and in the winter it's pretty much only commuters out there. Since it's a straight line with no stoplights or stop signs, taking the trail could be faster for someone than streets, depending on how far they live from the lake.

    I'm surprised Boston's trail doesn't have lights, just as I was surprised to hear from Freckled Diaries that DC's trail doesn't. That's too bad.

  8. Not only does it not have lights, but some parts of the Charles River trail have signs restricting access after certain time of the day. So, it's a far cry from a true 24/7 commuter artery.

    What gets me though is not just the potholes nor the lack of city lighting, but the crazy number of dark-clad cyclists running through the trails with zero lights and zero reflectors, the path in front of them illuminated by the warm glow of arrogance that riding fixed gives them.

  9. MDI - If they are so hard to see how do you know they are riding fixed? : )

    But I agree that the trails are full of "ninja" cyclists. I will never ride on the Minuteman after dark again for example; the one time I did it I thought I would have a heart attack. Pitch black. Woods. Cyclists with zero lights and zero reflectors. Aaaaah!!

    I did not know the Charles River Trail is restricted at night; that adds a new dimension to the limitation of its usefulness.

  10. astroluc,

    i commute through cambridge via mass ave, broadway, or hampshire streets from somerville all the time, and it stresses me out as well. i try to vary my commute by taking as many side streets as possible, but staying on one of the aforementioned arteries means getting to and from work faster, so i take them the most often. i would love to find a more relaxing alternative route!

  11. MDI - If they are so hard to see how do you know they are riding fixed? : )

    Because I have lights, of course. :)

  12. this probably doesn't go here, but I've been reading your blog on and off for the past few months and I love you and your cohabitant's sense of style! really awesome bikes.

  13. I feel like taking by bicycle up to Boston now for a little riding around now. Maybe in the spring. it looks like quite a delight!

  14. I adore these pics, the saturation and how it makes the familiar places look.

    I am going to let the cat out of the bag. Yes, the cat is escaping the bag now. Woops, it's gone.

    Our (Filigree's and mine) new compact digicams are awesome! Yay!


  15. What beautiful pictures! How I long to be in Boston again!

    Our trails (in Orlando) also have no lighting, which makes them absolutely spooky. I don't mind riding in the dark so much, but many sections of the trails are isolated and surrounded by woods--giving off a "no one can hear you scream" kind of vibe. It's all the more frustrating because, as I understand, much of our trail system was built using transportation money.

    Our trails are also very much for recreational use in that they twist and turn and are clearly meant for giving you the most amount of exercise. For my work commute, I do go two miles out of my way to stay on the trail--it's not a big enough difference for me to justify riding on the (awful) alternate roads. There are many times, though, that trying to take the trail simply isn't worth it because it adds so much distance.


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