A “ghost bike” stands in Porter Square where bicyclist Bernard “Joe” Lavins died in a traffic collision. The square is seeing ongoing infrastructure improvements. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A law requiring construction of protected bike lanes on streets in the city’s five-year sidewalk and street reconstruction plan was voted in Monday by the City Council – a move bike advocates are calling the first law of its kind in the country.

“That’s a huge step forward,” said Sam Feigenbaum, a volunteer with the Cambridge Bicycle Safety group who worked on the ordinance with city officials. He used his time during public comment to read a text from the city manager promising that the city would work to stay in full compliance with the city’s bike plan and that less than full compliance would be “infrequent, irregular and exceptional” – only when protected bike lanes are physically impossible, and after “good-faith dialogue.”

“This ordinance gives the bike plan teeth,” Feigenbaum said.

The Cycling Safety Ordinance was voted in 7-1-1, with councillor E. Denise Simmons out of the room and Tim Toomey opposed because he found it “ironic” that a law bearing that name wouldn’t require bicyclists to take steps for their own personal safety, such as wearing helmets or lights.

Infrastructure as a default

More than a half-dozen bicyclists showed up in addition to Feigenbaum to urge passage of the law. Voices of opposition were notably absent considering a “bikelash” in 2017 after bike lanes in Harvard Square and Cambridge Street complicated parking and sidewalk access and enraged business owners and some others.

But when the Cycling Safety Ordinance was introduced in January by Mayor McGovern, vice mayor Jan Devereux and councillors Sumbul Siddiqui and Dennis Carlone, it came with data showing the lanes worked as well in Cambridge as they were reported to work worldwide. After a year, Cambridge Street had seen cyclist crashes go to two from five, while car speeds were found to have decreased to an average 25 mph from 31. There were no pedestrian crashes. The Community Development Department reported similar findings from a Western Avenue bike project, despite a doubling of riders and a 150 percent increase in pedestrians.

Riders were glad to see the law go through. 

“It’s really exciting to see the city taking bicycling infrastructure as a default instead of something that has to be fought for,” said Itamar Turner-Trauring, a bicyclist and parent who said he was disappointed only to think of how long it would take for a full connected network of lanes to arrive.

Next steps in improvements

Councillors also wondered how much bike infrastructure would be built, and how quickly, with Quinton Zondervan noting that about a mile of protected lane went in over the past year “and our goal is four miles per year.”

Joseph Barr, director of the city’s Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department, was quick to correct him that while “we do agree that we want to accelerate this as much as possible … I don’t know that [four miles a year] is a goal that we’ve ever articulated, at least from the administration side.”

An update to the 2015 bicycle plan – which bike safety advocates interpreted literally but the city considered “aspirational” – will be the best place to figure out next steps, Barr said. The work of developers such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is installing cycle track on Ames Street in Kendall Square, could be better taken into account in it.

The city is also still looking at “quick build” bike lanes, and city staff on Monday asked the council for money to cover $150,000 in design studies, traffic signal upgrades and pavement markings for lanes and other bicycle safety initiatives in Porter Square and on Mount Auburn Street in Harvard Square, from JFK Street to Putnam Avenue.

Connecting with Somerville

In both cases, some work has already been done. Improvements in Porter Square – which began after the Oct. 5, 2016, death of Bernard “Joe” Lavins from a run-in with an 18-wheeler – paused during winter, when the weather prevents permanent pavement markings. (Save for a scary left turn, the square is already much improved, said councillor Craig Kelley, a North Cambridge resident and avid bicyclist.)

“There will be some further improvements now that the weather is getting warm enough to do that painting,” Barr said. “We heard a strong message from the community about wanting to see more look at fully protected bike lanes in the Porter Square area.” Barr said the affected area would be Beech Street to Roseland and “the little stub” of Somerville Avenue that’s in Cambridge heading into Porter Square.

The stretch of Mount Auburn covered by the funds is significant not just because of the bike infrastructure going in, but because the road is used by tour buses and the MBTA’s No. 1 bus line heading to Central Square, Barr said.

Also being looked at is Webster Avenue, which connects with Cambridge Street in Inman Square – but, similar to the situation in Porter Square, goes only 500 feet before hitting the Somerville border and calls for coordination with the neighboring city. “We do have some concerns about how that will work operationally, but we certainly understand that there’s a strong desire to see better connections from what Somerville has put in,” Barr said.

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