Fitchburg, a Cycling City
FITCHBURG -- Planning and engineering to make the city’s streets more accessible to bike riders could build on the city’s cycling history that dates back more than a century.
“We have a pretty good idea of where we’re going from here,” said Mayor Stephen DiNatale. “We’re getting there and could certainly improve what we’re doing to make Fitchburg and the region more bike friendly.”
Tom Skwierawski, executive director of the Community Development Department, said about 40 years of city planning has favored cars for street infrastructure, but Fitchburg is moving toward making them easier to use for bicyclists and pedestrians.
“Rome didn’t build its bike lanes in one day,” he said.
The city has worked on projects to improve cycling through the state’s Complete Streets program and MassWorks funding from the state.
Streets that have bike lanes or are wide enough for cyclists to share the road include Rindge Road, River Street, and North Street, said Public Works Commissioner Lenny Laakso, whose department maintains the city’s roads.
The Water Street bridge replacement and the Summer Street project that runs through the city, Leominster, and Lunenburg, will include bike lanes, he said. Boulder Drive could eventually have bike lanes, too.
″(Bikeability) is something we always look at when we’re rebuilding a street to check if the lanes are wide enough,” Laakso said. “It’s part of our checklist.”
He said the main challenge with adding more bike lanes is the city’s hills.
The state Department of Transportation is working on a draft to update the Massachusetts Bicycle Transportation Plan that includes suggestions for how communities can increase their biking potential.
About 1.4 percent of Massachusetts residents make daily trips on their bikes, but some communities have higher rates, like Cambridge or Provincetown, according to the plan.
Fitchburg is one of the municipalities that has a high potential for increasing biking on city-owned and state roadways, according to an analysis.
“Many more people would bicycle for short daily trips if only there were safer, more comfortable, and better-connected routes they could use,” MassDOT Secretary Stephanie Pollack wrote in a letter accompanying the plan.
Benefits of bike riding include increased physical activity, support for economic development, and less environmental impact.
Shared pathways or bike lanes are ways communities can increase biking, the report says. Bike networks can also connect people to transportation centers, like bus service or the Commuter Rail.
Skwierawski said it would be nice for Fitchburg to have a network of connected bike lanes in a loop or in a way that allows residents to travel across the city.
“That’s the sort of thing you have thing you have to connect the dots and piece together,” he said.
An example of that is a 4.5-mile rail trail that will connect Fitchburg and Leominster. The project is funded through MassDOT and a public hearing about the design is expected next month, Skwierawski said.
The rail trail project follows one of MassDOT’s goals, which is to make biking comfortable and convenient for everyday use, DiNatale said.
Once the rail trail is up and running, Skwierawski said the city could consider bike-sharing. The system allows people to borrow or rent bikes for short-term use and return them to a docking system.
Cities and towns across the state have started their own programs or have worked with companies to bring bike-sharing to their communities.
In Fitchburg, the library lends bicycles to residents over the age of 18 for one week.
Ward 3 Councilor Joel Kaddy, who helped implement the program, based it off one at Keene State College in New Hampshire.
Fitchburg’s cycling history dates back to the late 1880s. Iver Johnson, a city resident, had a manufacturing plant on River Street that made bicycles, including a line named after the city.
“This was before any towns saw a bicycle. Fitchburg was on the forefront of the bike craze,” said Peter Capodagli, an owner of the Boulder Art Gallery, who has studied the city’s cycling history and collects Iver Johnson bicycles.
He is part of Fitchburg Rides, a group of residents who promote and support that cycling history. It also has been hosting an event in June that coincides with the Historical Society’s Iver Johnson Bike Show.
Building on that cycling history is the Longsjo Classic, which has drawn racers from around the world to Fitchburg and Leominster.
The two-day summer race has been around for nearly 60 years and honors Olympian and Fitchburg native Arthur Longsjo. In 1956, he competed in the Summer Olympics as a cyclist and in the Winter Games as a speed skater, making him the first athlete to compete in both Olympics in the same year.
Capodagli, who is a bike rider, supports efforts to develop more bike routes in the city. Building them could be a way to keep Fitchburg’s cycling history alive and encourage people to visit the city, he said.
“I think biking will be a large part of Fitchburg’s future,” Capodagli said.
Follow Mina Corpuz on Twitter @mlcorpuz.