A look at the future of bike lanes in Cambridge

More and more Cantabrigians are commuting via bike. Backyard Cambridge reporter Melissa McNickles explores what steps is the city taking to support bicyclists.

A leisurely ride down Memorial Drive. Visiting Harvard Square without worrying about parking. Loading up and pedaling across the river to work. More and more Cantabrigians are taking advantage of the benefits and convenience of bicycling, and from the years 2002–2012, the number of people commuting via bicycle in the city tripled.

In fact, Cambridge has one of the highest rates of residents who walk or bike to work in the United States. About 7 percent of residents bike to work. That means Cambridge is ahead of cities like San Francisco and Washington D.C., where 3.1 and 2.6 percent of residents commute via bike, respectively. We’re also leading the pack among nearby neighbors — in Boston, a only little more than 1.5 percent of residents commute via bike. In Somerville, it’s about 4.5 percent.

“The number of people using bicycles as a mode of travel is growing in Cambridge and in the region, which helps our goals to address climate change, support healthy lifestyles, and reduce congestion,” said Iram Farooq, Assistant City Manager for Community Development, in a response, with input from the Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department.

Indeed, bicycles transit continues to gain popularity as fewer people are choosing to rely solely on vehicle transit. Household car ownership is decreasing as household bike ownership is increasing. The Eco-Totem in Kendall Square counts passing bicyclists and averages over 7,000 riders per week.

Given those numbers, it does makes sense that the city is taking more steps to support the rise of cycling. One of these steps includes increasing the availability of separated bike lanes — bike lanes with physical separation from vehicular traffic. They are also sometimes referred to as protected bike lanes.

“Separated bike lanes play an instrumental role in enhancing the safety of city streets for all modes of travel by adding protective barriers between cyclists and vehicles and lowering the speed of travel on city streets,” said Martin.

However, adding new protected bike infrastructure isn’t a top priority on everyone’s list, including some local business owners and concerned residents. The issue sparked intense debate last fall. Installing separated bikes lanes can mean a loss of parking spaces, which may deter some shoppers and visitors with vehicles, particularly those visiting from outside the area. Some also expressed concerns over the new configurations, which be confusing and difficult to navigate, presenting challenges to pedestrians and motorists.

“While public safety is a major City priority, we are also committed to supporting local business owners, who contribute greatly to Cambridge’s vibrant community,” said Martin. She said the city also makes an effort to maintain the number of metered parking spaces when new bike infrastructure is installed — even increasing the number of spaces when possible.

But some felt out of the loop about the new project. Last August, members of the Harvard Square Business Association were outspoken opponents of the new bike lanes that were installed on Brattle Street. A lane of traffic on the one-way street was removed to install the new two-way bike lane. City councilors received numerous complaints from business owners, some of whom said that they “were not aware that the bike lanes were being installed and that they were having a negative impact on their operations”, reported Wicked Local.

In September, the installation of a separated bike lane on Cambridge Street caused another round of public outcry, when a good deal of parking spaces were removed for the project. One local business owner expressed concern over a long-time customer, who relied on curb-abutting parking get into his wheelchair after parking his vehicle. The new bike lane, running between the curb and parked vehicles, meant the customer was unable to do so.

On the other side of the debate are those who applaud the city’s efforts to support safer cycling. Many wrote letters to the city after the installation of the new lanes last year, saying they felt safer and more comfortable riding in the new lanes, without having to worry about being hit by a car door suddenly opening or sudden traffic merges.

Even though the mixed responses to new projects can heat up quickly, bike lane planning and implementation is a multi-step process, and it often takes a good deal of time, votes and allocated budget funding before the first line can be painted on the pavement. How are areas selected for new projects? What long-term plans does the city have for adding to its bike infrastructure? And what’s on the city’s docket this year for planned bike projects?

A connected future

In October 2015, the city released its Cambridge Bicycle Plan, in which the main goal is enabling “people of all ages and abilities to bicycle safely and comfortably throughout the city.” Through building upon and improving the existing network of bicycle facilities outlined in the plan, the city has a target goal of 10 percent of all trips being made by bicycle in 2020, and 20 percent of all trips in 2030.

According to the 2015 plan, “Most primary roads in Cambridge that provide access to commercial, institutional, and employment centers do not provide a comfortable biking experience (BLC 3, 4, or 5). These streets, such as Massachusetts Avenue, Broadway, Cambridge Street, and Concord Avenue, are in high demand by all modes of traffic, but may act as barriers for people who are not comfortable riding in such conditions.” BLC refers to a numerical BLC (bicycle comfort level) ranking, ranging from BLC 1 (most comfortable using) to BLC 5 (least comfortable using). BLC 1 and 2 facilities have separated bike lanes.

“Streets are prioritized for separated bike lane consideration based on a rigorous evaluation of safety and technical conditions paired with an extensive public input process,” said Martin.

She said the city will rely on the Cambridge Bicycle Plan will be used for selecting “future corridors” for separated bike lanes, with the ultimate goal of creating a network of BLC 1 and BLC 2 pathways throughout the city, making bicycling a safer and more comfortable option for more residents and visitors.

A safer future

After several fatal bicyclist/vehicular crashes in 2016 and 2017, the community and city pushed for implementation of new safety measures and improved bike facilities. Like many cities around the country, Cambridge committed to a Vision Zero plan in the spring of 2016. Vision Zero is a strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries. The full action plan was released on February 8. One of the action steps is growing the city’s network of separated bike lanes.

“They [separated bike lanes] increase safety for all users, especially by encouraging lower travel speeds on the roads, which is one of the greatest factors in reducing traffic-related injuries and fatalities,” said Martin.

In addition to more separated bike lanes, Vision Zero also calls for traffic calming measures in an effort to increase safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. A lower citywide speed limit (25 mph) has already been in effect since the city council approved it in 2016. The current plan also calls for lowering the speed limit to 20 mph at the city’s five major squares (Central, Harvard, Inman, Kendall and Porter).

On the docket for 2018

Long-term plans aside, what projects can residents expect to see implemented this year?

One eagerly anticipated project is the reopening of the Longfellow Bridge in May. Currently, MassDOT plans to build a protected bike lane on the Cambridge portion of the bridge. The Boston Cyclists Union is fighting to have the protected bike lane continue through to the Boston side of the bridge, where a regular marked bike lane is planned.

Within city limits, the next area the city will be looking at is South Mass Ave, from Sidney Street to Memorial Drive. The project will include significant bicycle improvements as well as improved pedestrian crossings. Taking the mixed feedback from last year’s projects into consideration, the city plans to rely on input from a Stakeholder Working Group, composed of area residents, business owners, representatives from MIT and members of the local bicyclist community.

“Change is rarely easy in the short term since it affects what people are used to. Going forward, we remain committed to having an open and robust process with broad community engagement ahead of making changes, coupled with public information so that people are not surprised by the changes. We will also continue to be open to making adjustments, post installation, to respond to issues that may not have been identified during the planning and design process,” said Martin.

If you’re interested in receiving weekly updates about bicycle news and projects, the city has an email newsletter that residents can sign up for.

Founder @GlowDotFM, believer in a robust media & the power of storytelling. Obama & Hillary alum. Creator of the Backyard Cambridge podcast.