City speeds Inman Square improvements after bike death rattles residents, officials
The death of bicyclist Amanda Phillips in Inman Square has focused political will for change and, as requested by a City Council order, resulted in the fast-tracking of changes planned for a chaotic and crowded intersection of five city streets, city officials said Monday.
Money being released Friday to the Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department will allow for small, short-term changes to better direct and restrict modes of traffic in the square, where bicycles and cars compete for space, and even allow for the distribution of “watch for bicycles” stickers for use on drivers’ rearview mirrors, department director Joseph Barr said. But the more significant step is that a physical reconfiguration of Inman Square has been moved forward.
It may now be feasible to “identify funds for construction and start building next spring, with a lot of ifs along the way and the need to clear various hurdles. But if there are no [serious] flaws, we’ll be building in the summer,” Barr said. Without the death adding pressure, “construction might have started in 2018 or 2019.”
As though to add urgency, the $9 million reconstruction of Somerville’s Beacon Street with protected bike lanes is expected to be done in late 2017, and local bicyclists warn that it could feed hundreds more bicyclists a day into Inman Square as it turns into Hampshire Street at the Cambridge line.
Phillips, 27, reportedly rode into an open car door and was flung into the path of a landscaping truck at 12:17 p.m. Thursday near Hampshire and Cambridge streets, where councillors had already identified the need for improvements. She was pronounced dead after being taken to Massachusetts General Hospital. Councillors actually encountered the scene in Inman Square: “Some of us were returning from a service and we were coming down Cambridge Street and came upon this,” said councillor Tim Toomey, who introduced an order for Inman Square improvements a month earlier, and noted that a meeting discussing changes was held the night before Phillips’ death. “Everyone’s been very affected by this.”
One of the 20 voices of residents heard during public comment told an even more harrowing story. Lumina Gershfield Cordova said she was there at the time of the incident after volunteering at her young daughter’s Inman Square school – luckily taking a rare walk home alone.
“I heard a scream that is very distinct to a mother’s ear, of somebody getting hurt,” Gershfield Cordova said, trying to get through her story while being overcome with emotion. “I saw Amanda Phillips’ bicycle at the back of a landscaping truck’s trailer and then I saw Amanda Phillips’ body under the truck that killed her. After that scream it was silent. She wasn’t moving. I knew that it was very bad. I turned around and I called 911.”
“I’m telling you this story because as a mother, to see someone else’s child killed, I feel compelled to speak,” she told councillors. “Please do something to protect the good people of our cities that are bicycling. I hope my children will be the kind of person Amanda Phillips was. I hope my children graduate from Harvard like she did. I hope my children are able to live to be older than 27.”
Bike safety math
But the city was courting more tragedy among the hundreds of students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School who ride their bicycles to school, said Laura Borrelli, a science teacher at the high school who runs a campus bicycle advocacy group. Neither of the major streets surrounding the high school, Broadway or Cambridge Street, have bike lanes or even shared-lane markings known as sharrows. As a result, she’s seen students get “doored” into traffic in front of the school, and it’s made her reluctant to support students who want to organize bike convoys to school. “It’s really hard for me to wholeheartedly support something that I know could kill them,” she said.
One of Borrelli’s students, Ezra Rudel, spoke to underline the threat and ask for protected bike lanes. “It would be taking away parking, and I know that’s sort of a hard issue for Cambridge, but Broadway has two parking garages,” he said, noting that surveys showed there would be far more student bicyclists if parents weren’t afraid to allow it.
He wasn’t the only speaker touching on the obvious math of increasing bicycle safety by eliminating parking lots, and when it came time for city councillors to speak, some made the same calculations – and acknowledgements of the political difficulties of demanding the change.
“We’ve been giving essentially very mixed messages … On the one hand we endorse [bike] policies enthusiastically and we talk about incentivizing people to get out of cars and what can we do to walk, bike and travel sustainably, and on the other hand we have parking requirements for developments and in the past have been afraid to fight back against people who say we can’t lose street parking,” said councillor Jan Devereux, who introduced an order fast-tracking Inman Square changes with councillors Dennis Carlone and Nadeem Mazen. “This is in a sense a turning point for us on the council to summon the political will to direct [policy] better.”
When councillors drafted their goals, Devereux hoped she could “get the agreement of the majority of my colleagues to say we do want to see our streets truly transformed into multimodal, safe, protected spaces for all types of users.”
Mazen was already there. After telling of his own experiences at being doored and thrown into traffic, he said that creating a citywide protected network of bike lanes was “unequivocally the correct way to do this” despite the kind of parking pushback encountered during the November 2014 debate over the reconstruction of Pearl Street.
“It will come at the cost of parking on major thoroughfares, but I am done measuring the value of parking in human lives,” Mazen said.
Cambridge has been a leader in changing to reflect the growth of bicycling, yet has still been taken by surprise by a surge in ridership over the past five years, City Manager Richard C. Rossi said. City staff has also been shaken by Phillips’ death.
“You will not find city administration saying, ‘No, we don’t want to spend money on that.’ We will certainly go full-bore into trying to do that,” Rossi told councillors, urging staff and elected officials to remake not just Inman Square, but the city, by being “on the same page policy-wise … We’re going to have to adapt and adjust, because this is the city of the future, and this is what people are asking of us.”
Angry cyclists said during public comment that, especially in the short term, officials had to prioritize enforcement of safety laws as well as the engineering of bike lanes. “It’s a war zone,” Brad Bellows said, advocating fines of up to $10,000 and charges of manslaughter or negligent homicide for when a car driver fatally doors a bicyclist. In a gentler approach, said Toomey, also a state representative, there is a proposal by local state Sen. Pat Jehlen to adding to drivers license tests a question about checking for bicyclists before opening a car door.
The Boston Cyclist Union and family and friends have planned a vigil for Phillips at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Inman Square. Early arrivals can listen to or join in with sacred harp singing planned to start at 6:30 p.m.
A public hearing to discuss safety issues for cyclist and pedestrians in Inman Square is scheduled for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. July 19 with three council committees: Transportation and Public Utilities; Neighborhood and Long-Term Planning, Public Facilities, Arts and Celebrations; and Public Safety.