Sunday, July 14, 2024

This sign warning bicyclists off sidewalks was taken in 2006. Cyclists, pedestrians and the city officials among them complain such rules are spottily implemented and little known. (Photo: Salim Virji)

Bicyclists may soon have to register and pay excise taxes on their gear to roam Cambridge, said City Manager Robert W. Healy, giving in Monday to a regular sounding of alarms from residents, City Council candidates and city officials.

“We are hearing the people, we are hearing the councillors representing the people,” Healy said at Monday’s council meeting. “We will spend more time on bicycle enforcement. It’s never going to be perfect — you’re always going to see a bicyclist, just as you can see a motorist, violating the law and there isn’t an officer right on the scene to write a citation. But it is certainly something officers are instructed to enforce.”

There are changes to laws that will have to be made and questions that need to be addressed, Healy said, including making bicyclists show identification when stopped and how best to redirect law enforcement from other tasks.

But in one of the “10 Best U.S. Bike Cities of 2011,” where bicycling is up 150 percent since 2002, according to Community Development Department figures cited by councillor Sam Seidel, and where between 140 and 210 bikes have just been added as part of the Hubway rental system, there was no question on the part of the council that such steps were necessary — and would become even more so as more bikes arrive.

“This is a problem we want to have,” Seidel said.

“That’s what I want,” vice mayor Henrietta Davis agreed.

The approach could be considered a victory for Craig Kelley, a councillor and avid urban bicyclist who has been complaining about a lack of enforcement for bicyclists for months, much of it based on his own misadventures getting around the city (including getting “doored” recently when a car door was opened just in front of Kelley, who had no time to brake his bike or steer it elsewhere). So adamant is Kelley to get increased and consistent ticketing in place that he has twice publicly recounted his son’s own bicycling traffic infraction. “He got a warning,” Kelley said Monday. “I wish it had been a ticket.”

It is also a victory for James Williamson, who is seeking a seat on the council in the Nov. 8 election and has been an equally loud voice for bicycle reform, albeit from the pedestrian point of view. It has especially bothered Williamson that bicyclists are allowed to ride on sidewalks in some parts of the city and not in others, but that the geographic rules change with no warning or notice — and that people are expected to hunt through the city website just to learn of the rules, details of which are woefully out of date.

At the Oct. 17 council meeting, he even set public officials and anyone watching a challenge: to see if they could find the city’s bicycle zoning maps online and, if successful, to spot what’s wrong with the map showing Central Square. (For those not up to the challenge, the maps are here and the Central Square map is here, showing a street configuration that hasn’t existed since Jill Brown-Rhone Park, also known as the Lafayette Square Plaza, began construction several years ago. The plaza, which rerouted Main Street traffic, opened in June 2008.)

Education was a persistent theme Monday, with councillors such as Leland Cheung (another frequent bicyclist) and Ken Reeves (a neophyte) noting that Cambridge bicyclists are just as diverse as its universities, with people coming to Cambridge from around a world speckled with all sorts of bike rules, or lack of same, and languages.

“We have students coming from all over the world who wouldn’t necessarily know what the bike rules are. Where do you learn this?” Reeves asked. “Even I am not sure in Central Square where I can’t ride on the sidewalks or must ride in the street. I wind up simply walking the bike because I know there are some rules, but where they are and where you learn them is not a given. I’m not sure where everybody’s just supposed to know this from.”

In a sign of the difficulty, Cambridge police launched “a coordinated traffic enforcement and roadway safety campaign across the city” on Sept. 19, deploying officers to busy intersections and stopping and citing bicyclists, drivers and even pedestrians, according to a press release from Police Commissioner Robert Haas. But this wasn’t widely known to councillors.

As a result, Reeves endorsed the idea of licensing bicycles, which would demand training beforehand, and Davis endorsed the idea of bicycle registration.