May 2021

Thursday, May 20, 2021 - 7:00pm

Minutes of May 2021 Meeting

The purpose of this meeting was to share and gather information about the recently submitted report of the impact of options for installing bike lanes along specific stretches of Mass Ave. The report is available here:

Representatives from Cambridge Bicycle Safety, Cambridge Local First, and business owners along Mass Ave shared their concerns. The report presented an option that eliminated parking entirely, which alarmed business owners and residents, and was not what cyclists were seeking.

What the report should have offered and what it actually did

About halfway through the presentation by Cambridge Bicycle Safety, Samuel Feigenbaum, who wrote the ordinance and negotiated it with the city, provided much needed context and clarification of the content and significance of the report, which opened up a very productive discussion.

Subsection E of the Bike Safety Ordinance requires submission to the City Manager on May 1, 2021 of a block-by-block analysis, in close coordination with the community, of the impacts of installing separated bike lanes along these sections of Mass Ave:

    • Between Plympton St and Dunster St
    • Peabody St northbound from Church St. to Garden St
    • Between Waterhouse St and Roseland St
    • Between Beech St and Dudley St

Unfortunately, other than being submitted on time, the report did not achieve the stated objective. Instead, it presents the impact of two possible solutions that could be applied to all sections. It does not account for abutting land use, including different mixes of parking, loading, bus improvements, and turn lanes.

Feigenbaum stressed that the submitted report is just that: a report, not a plan. Subsection E requires the city manager get city council approval of an actual plan for bike lanes by May 1, 2022. There is no requirement in the ordinance that this plan has anything to do with the report. However, if the City Manager cannot get a plan approved, the quick-build lanes that the cycling community favors would not be an option. (Later in the discussion, it was speculated that report was intended to signal that installing bike lanes of any sort would not be easy. Still later, it was observed that it reflects what they feel is the city’s preference for a major redevelopment solution rather than a quick-build solution.)

That the report—with the complete loss of parking—was not an actual plan came as a great relief to the business owners. Many of them serve customers throughout Greater Boston and New England, and they depend on parking. All said that without parking, their shops would have to close within a year; a couple felt their businesses would fold entirely.

After much discussion and clarifications, the cyclists and the business owners found several areas of agreement:

  • A major redevelopment project to install protected bike lanes was not the desired solution. The disruption would cause further loss of business, which has suffered during the pandemic, and would delay the installation of any sort of protection for bike lanes even further. What might be viewed as a perfect solution would be the enemy of a very good one.
  • The cyclists want these local businesses to thrive as much as the owners do. Having largely abandoned their cars for their bikes, cyclists depend on the commercial ecosystem that lies within a mile of their homes.
  • Eliminating parking entirely was neither feasible nor a desirable solution.  What is needed is a “road diet,” in which space devoted to automobile traffic is redistributed to accommodate other modes of transport and uses that are desired be residents and have been used to create the sorts of public spaces that people flock to and patronize.
  • The repurposing of parking spaces as dining areas has improved the experience of the avenue. All love dining outside and are happy to help keep the restaurants going through the pandemic. However, the parking is still needed, and the non-restaurant businesses really need it.


The elephants in the room (but not, alas, in the analysis)

A bit of context: In discussions of how to improve the performance, experience, and safety of Mass Ave over the decades, two options eventually surface: 1) removing the median to obtain more space for bikes and other modes of transport and 2) permitting non-residential parking during business hours (e.g., 10 am to 6 pm) within 100 feet on streets that abut Mass Ave to supplement the metered parking that is in short supply.  A third is making a frequent appearance in recent years: The removal of a lane of automotive traffic in each direction.  

The report does not deal with any of them.

Councillor Carlone, who was able to join the call briefly toward the end, observed that things change. For example, he had recently learned the median was installed originally to make it safer to exit the trolley (a bit of information that had never come up in any meeting about its fate in the aforementioned decades!)

The Cambridge Bicycle Safety representatives made the case that safety matters more than ever. The unsafe conditions on major streets are a high concern of two-thirds of respondents to a recent survey by the City. And these conditions are the biggest obstacle to greater use of bicycles (and even tricycles) by residents who would happily do so otherwise.

The changes to what Mass Ave must accommodate since the median was first installed are significant. Cars, busses, taxis/Uber/Lyft, an assortment of pickup and delivery services, wheelchairs and walkers, bikes, skateboards, scooters, scooter boards, street furniture, and outdoor dining. (Flying carpets may be in the mix eventually, perhaps offering another rationale for repositioning the catenary wires that power the trolleys.)

An objective of the Bike Lane Ordinance was to develop the information that the City could use to respond to this change creatively from the perspective of systemic safety for all. And the close consultation with the community it specifies would require engaging those who want to preserve the median, the residential parking, and the two lanes of vehicular traffic as is.

Some attendees expressed a desire to participate in a process that would improve conditions and the streetscape itself. Others expressed skepticism that the City is genuinely interested in the input it collects in such processes, citing previous experiences in other areas of town where imposed solutions are expensive, disruptive, and fail to yield commensurate improvements. One attendee, citing the history with the median, felt the current administration doesn’t think in terms of complete systems anymore; how to handle the median is a complex issue that affects crosswalks, safety, traffic flow, and enforcement, issues that it seemed fair to infer that that the original purpose of the report was intended to address.

The takeaway from a very interesting discussion

The “hostility” of Mass Ave to the uses and users it now serves is impossible to ignore.

A process that participants could trust would become the plan the City would implement might encourage all to surrender something of what they hold dear to make it happen.