Friday, July 22, 2011

A week-end adventure: Boston

July 1st was Canada Day, so dear hubby and I decided to take a full five day week-end to explore Boston.

We toyed for a while with the idea of bringing our bicycles along but, fortunately, we decided against it. Because it would have been the hassle of hassles. As car-free people, we would have had to either rent a car, and then struggled the entire week-end to find parking for both car and bikes, or haul them with us in the bus which looked like a pain, as per what we observed from the two people who did it in our group. Another option would have been to rent some there.
But we quickly realised that Boston was not a city in which we could cycle. This, by the way, is no judgement with respect to those who can, it's only a factual statement.

Boston is a highly acclaimed place in Montreal and rightly so.
First because it is pretty close and easy for us to come and go. Second because it has the reputation to be "similar in body and spirit". Unfortunately I have to disagree with that one.
- Boston is definitely a New England Beauty with this very old Brit touch. Montreal's older areas are totally Vieille France,
- Boston has a je ne sais quoi that is very bourgeois, typical of wealthy successful cities such as Bordeaux, in an old money type of way.  Montreal is heavy on blue collar heritage, with a bohème flair.
- Montreal is very multicultural, Boston seemed very WASPy.
- Montreal is a city with lots of cookies, weirdos, bozos, zozos, kekes, name it, we have 'em. Boston on the other hand looked dignified, pulled together, with an elite club type of vibe. If I did not know better, I could have believe that this place was conservative...
- Montreal is decently cyclable and totally walkable. Boston was... not.

Now, of course I am totally biased, and I perfectly realise than in five days, you do not get to see enough to pass judgements. But boy, were those pedestrian push buttons pissy!!
No wonder people j-walk left and right with a fury: how can such a civilised city organise its traffic so that it is up to pedestrians to do the push-button legwork, wait to no end that the lights finally turn green for a miserable few seconds, all of that to have people squirrel on the crosswalk like mice as cars roared in impatience at those annoying pedestrians wasting their time. Car traffic is absolutely demented, folks speeding like their lives were at stake.

I guess the problem is mine. I take full responsibility for it. I allowed myself to get sucked into the whole Boston/Montreal sisterhood thing which is a myth. And then I did not research it enough, basing my decisions on the perception I had of the city from the abusive consumption of nice blogs such as Lovely bicycle, a wonderful one that I consult everyday. Had I been more attentive and more discriminating, I would have realised that Montreal's cycling reality, i.e. active and vibrant cycling downtown vs. dead suburbs does not necessarily transpose to other cities. Made that mistake in Chicago years ago as well and boy! was that week-end boring. Well, that template could not be applied to Boston either. 

We stayed in the South end, a lovely hip neighbourhood with a subtle and toned down gay twist... Could never figure out whether this was the official gay village (I did not investigate, mind you). Montreal's gay village is promoted as such and things could not be clearer once you've stepped into the territory. Major social mix as well which is always nice unless you like golden ghettos.

We walked the entire "downtown": Back Bay, Commons, Chinatown, Seaport, Beacon hill, West end, North end/Little Italy, Charlestown, and we metroed to Cambridge. Utilitarian cycle paths were practically non-existent, with whatever existed narrower that the skinniest fixie handlebar and squeezing you against the curb! Some nice recreational ones along the Charles river.
Cambridge, Harvard area, was another surprise. Campus was as stately and impressive as I expected, but again students did not seem to be avid cyclists. I know, it is summer recess... Cliché comparisons between McGill and Harvard did not hold water either: Harvard seemed way too formal and serious a place, while McGill is all about Frosh, pyjama parties, and rez showdowns these days (bias!). Ok, I can never take this Alma Mater of mine too seriously, despite all these years. Cycle traffic around McGill campus forced the school to ban bikes on-site and the city to create all kinds of (crowded) lanes around campus and in the Ghetto, including one fully segregated to connect with the Claire Morissette lane. Did not see any of that around Harvard, despite the school's Ivy League status and alleged influence over the State and the city.
Big surprise and slight disappointment.

Other that that, nice hot week-end. Lots of deliciously maintained refreshing parks (now, there Montreal could take a lesson or two). We walked our feet out. Dear hubby categorically refused to try the rickshaws, fearing for his life.
We saw maybe a hundred-ish cyclists in total. Over five days.
Local Bixi, the Hubway, was launching that very week-end and received a warm welcome of some sort. Will to have follow up on it.
Finally, on the very last day, we stumble upon Urban Adventours which nicely provided us with the much sought after "best of Boston by Bicycle" map, which confirmed what we intuitively figured: whatever bike paths there were we actually touring trails. nothing utilitarian.

We came across a cookied fellow who owns a bike shop downtown, makes customs bikes, and spent his entire time insulting European bicycles, especially Dutch ones (Gazelle, not to name any brand), calling them toys and detailing how shitty they were. Of course, we all know that the Dutch et al. do not know the first thing about bicycles, right, with their lousy and pathetic bike culture. On the opposite, Boston has great lessons to give to Europe, right, with its vibrant bicycle industry and its extensive market base. Ahem...

On Beacon Hill, we took a picture of a sample love letter the city left to several of its cycling citizens:

Now, all bikes on the street had this sweet notice attached to them. All were nicely tucked and secured, no anarchy or dumpster-like parking like we have. All were very fine bicycles, "fine" as in clean and nicely maintained, nothing like Montreal's dreadful clunkers that the police either auctions out (when salvageable) or sends to eco-social recycling (when complete junk). No alternative parking accommodation was to be seen anywhere. It is reasonable to assume that the apartments on that streets were either too small or too cluttered to welcome these bikes. What is a cyclist to do really?
What is this about, honestly? What is the point? How is it that city officials have so much time in their hands?

All in all, nice and highly educational weekend. Wonderful time. Next time we shall try Cape Cod.

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