Getting into gear

The grad student’s survival guide to biking in the Boston area
July 2020
Tatiana
N.
Biological Engineering

Living in the south of the US for most of my life, where the distance between locations of interest are large and biking infrastructure is almost non-existent, biking as a primary form of transportation never seemed like a serious option. Moving to Boston, I knew I wouldn’t be able to bring my car which I was accustomed to driving everywhere, and would instead have to rely mostly on walking and public transportation to get around. 

Three years after arriving in Boston, I moved from my apartment conveniently located near a red line subway stop to one in Inman Square, a neighborhood directly northeast of MIT campus. The tantalizing proximity to campus, paired with the lack of multi-lane, car heavy roads that I would have to travel on led me to purchase a sleek, seafoam blue road bike. This was a shock to most of my friends and co-workers; both had heard me compare biking in the greater Boston area to an extreme sport. But life is too short not to live a little dangerously, right?

Fortunately, many of my friends have been avid bikers for years and have been very gracious with their tips and tricks, which have helped along the way in my journey from total to somewhat novice at biking. So with that, I want to share with you a few tips I either received from friends, or I learned in (oftentimes physically) painful ways:

  1. Biking around Cambridge is your best bet for a safe biking experience; Boston, on the other hand, is basically the wild west. 

For the record, you should always be on the safe side and bike defensively, no matter where you are. I have found that in Cambridge, drivers are usually cognizant that they are sharing the road with bikers and will check their mirror before making a turn or opening a car door. Of course, there are still incidences where you will have to make a quick break or swerve in order to avoid the errant car door a handful of times a week, but for the most part biking around Cambridge is not a highly stressful endeavor.

Boston, on the other hand…the thought alone makes my blood pressure spike. You will find a myriad of dangerous driving behaviors for the picking: from the clueless Ubers lingering in the bike lane on Commonwealth Ave, to the parallel parkers who seemingly tune out the world around them as they toggle back and forth in their spot (also in the bike lane). After reviewing the empirical evidence, I am convinced most Boston drivers would have no qualms about smashing into you with two tons of metal and plastic. Proceed with caution.

  1. Splurge on a good helmet and bike lights. 

Make sure to get a helmet you won’t be hating every second of your ride. I got one that is on the pricier side, but has plenty of breathing holes to prevent the dreaded, sweaty helmet hair look. Also, get some bright lights for the front and the back of your bike for when you’re riding to and from campus at night because you planned the timing of your experiment poorly (from personal experience). Anything shiny and bright that you can wear when it's dark out is highly encouraged – a giant, glittery disco ball is the look you should be going for.

  1. Check the weather before you head out, and make sure you have the right equipment.

Nothing ruins your day more than a torrential downpour starting in the middle of your bike journey. And I am not talking about the wetness factor here – I am typically not fussy about getting wet in the rain. I mean water eventually dries, right? What gets to me is the sheer amount of mud from the road that will accumulate from the tips of your shoes all the way up to your waist, concentrating at a very noticeable stripe on your backside. No amount of dainty dabbing with a wet paper towel in the restroom will save you. If you are still stubborn about wanting to ride your bike on a potentially rainy day, I would encourage only taking this approach for the ride home where you can immediately toss everything in the washer, not for the ride to campus before your yearly thesis committee meeting. There are also nifty backpack and pant covers you can buy to protect your textiles from being coated in a thin layer of road gunk.

  1. Bike racks are wonderful for hauling your stuff around town.

When I asked my local bike shop if a metal rack could be installed on the back of my bike, my boyfriend groaned, “ugh, but you’re giving up so much SPEED when you do that!” My boyfriend has an extremely elegant and aerodynamically favorable bike that looks like it is straight out of the Tour de France; so if you have a very fancy bike, it may be valid that a bike rack would just cramp your style. For the rest of us biking plebeians, having a rack on the back is best for running errands and toting around multiple bags without the fear of having a sweaty back at your destination. I usually put my backpack and a roomy grocery tote on my rack, which is the perfect size for when I go to the Somerville Target for two items and come out with thirty, or I am trying to take a tray of sandwiches from a seminar home. 

With these basic tips, I hope I have inspired you all to run to your nearest bike shop and hit the streets. But carefully, of course…with a helmet on, and don’t forget your lights!