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Nicole Freedman: Boston's new bike czar

Nicole Freedman

Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston hadn’t ridden a bicycle in more than 40 years. But two months after purchasing a silver three-speed Trek, the mayor was rising at 5 a.m. for a ride through his Hyde Park neighborhood and appointing former Olympic cyclist Nicole Freedman as Boston’s new bike czar.

“I was ecstatic,” says Freedman recalling the mayor’s offer. “Boston has the potential to be a world class cycling city. It’s compact, flat and has a strong cycling subculture. We have the raw materials for a very successful program.”

Freedman brings a unique pedigree to her new post with a decade-plus run in professional cycling (including two U.S. National Championships and a spot at the 2000 Olympics), a degree in urban planning and experience as a bicycle planner in California.

“The combination of knowledge from the real world of riding plus my academic and professional experience is my strength,” says Freedman, who estimates her cumulative miles cycled to equal a trek to the moon. “I’ve ridden all over the country and in 13 different countries. I’ve seen first hand what works.”

Her expertise is sorely needed in Boston. Notorious for its potholes, narrow and congested streets, and drivers-versus-cyclists mentality, it has consistently been lambasted as one of the least bicycle-friendly cities in the country.

This past October, Freedman convened the Boston Bikes Summit, a three-day gathering of local and national experts to share ideas and develop recommendations for improving cycling in Boston.

“The key is not recreating the wheel,” says Freedman, citing the summit as an incredible learning experience. “It’s about designing programs that are modeled on the best practices in the world but tailored to the specific needs of Bostonians.”

So far the mayor has committed to installing 250 new bike racks, as well as an online bicycle map of the city. Other potential improvements include additional bicycling lanes, connections between existing trails, and creating safe parking and shower facilities.

Freedman On Bike

While the response has been largely positive, some urbanites remain skeptical. This isn’t the first time Mayor Menino has instigated cycling reforms: In 1999, he convened a Bicycle Advisory Committee, and in 2001 he appointed a bicycle program manager. Both measures were ultimately abandoned due to budget cuts. Freedman argues that the mayor’s efforts this time around are grounded within a larger vision.

“Yes, it’s about cycling, but it’s also about quality of life and the environment,” Freedman says. “The Mayor’s bicycling initiative is an initiative to create healthier citizens and healthier communities."

The timing may also be ripe for sustainable change. From the mayor’s office to neighborhood projects and a Food & Fitness Initiative grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, efforts are under way to align and advance promising approaches happening around the city.

“It’s a much bigger picture,” Freedman says. “It’s about walking out of your house to go get a video, biking and walking to school, and incorporating activity in everyday life—that’s what we’re after. That’s the ultimate vision.”

Related Links:

Boston Globe highlights Mayor Menino’s appointment of a new bike czar

Read up on the Boston Bikes Summit

Boston has a vibrant subculture of cycling advocates. Local experts include MassBike, LivableStreets, Bikes Not Bombs, and Urban AdvenTours.