A bicyclist rides through the first stages of a protected travel lane along Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square last month. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The city’s Cycling Safety Ordinance got an update Monday that will speed the development of new protected bike lanes within the city. The vote was 7-1-1, with councillor Tim Toomey voting no and councillor E. Denise Simmons voting present.

“This will be a really big step,” city councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler said. “There’s a lot of folks for whom this will make a tremendous difference in their daily lives – it will help them stop worrying if their partners are going to get to work safe and make it easier for their kids to get around the city.”

The update builds on an ordinance passed in April 2019 that made it a requirement to build protected bike lanes when work is done as part of the city’s five-year plan for sidewalk and street reconstruction. It intends Cambridge to have a fully connected 22.6-mile network of protected bike lanes by May 1, 2026, installing approximately 3.8 miles per year.

By comparison, Cambridge built 2.16 miles of bike lanes last year, and not all were protected lanes that include physical separation between bicycles and other modes of transportation. The city announced delays on the plan in June, citing the difficulties of working during the coronavirus pandemic.

Bicyclist deaths

But this summer saw the latest in a string of bicyclist deaths, which has been the biggest spur to action on bike lanes, including on Broadway in Mid-Cambridge and in Porter Square. Shortly after the Aug. 18 collision with a tractor-trailer near the Harvard Square T Station, transportation officials said traffic would go down to one lane in each direction from two, and a separated bike lane would be installed in the found space on the Harvard Yard side of the plaza.

“We’ve seen cycling deaths every single year for the past years in Cambridge, sometimes multiple each year, including one in Harvard Square just weeks ago, and injuries, including many that don’t go reported,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said. “I myself lost my two front teeth on Auburn Street two years ago and never reported it.”

Data has shown that protected bike lanes work well in Cambridge. For example, one year after bike lanes were added to Cambridge Street, cyclist crashes there went from to two a year from five, councillors said last year. Proponents of the amendment, such as Nate Fillmore of the Cambridge Bike Safety group, expect faster progress on bike infrastructure to benefit the whole city – that the bike lanes will not only make cycling safer, but also “improve pedestrian safety and make it easier for businesses to receive deliveries.”

Causes for skepticism

There are skeptics among the business community and even among councillors: Toomey said Monday that his “no” vote was in part for “the residents and businesses who have had no input into this at all,” and because he didn’t see how the lanes could coexist with the needs of retailers who needed customer and delivery parking, and with restaurants that found themselves in the past months in sudden need of sidewalk and street dining space.

Other councillors rushed to assure him that the lanes made design sense – Dennis Carlone called them “basic urban design 101” and Patty Nolan said there were examples of that coexistence from around the world – and that a public process would take place around every segment.

“This is not about trying to shut anybody out,” said Marc McGovern, lead sponsor of the original Cycling Safety Ordinance and co-drafter of the updated ordinance with Sobrinho-Wheeler. “The city has had this bike infrastructure network conversation going on for some time. What this ordinance is really doing is putting a timeline to have that move forward and get implemented.”

The details

The timeline can be extended by up to one year, and has provisions to account for potential financial or public outreach slowdowns as a result of the coronavirus. If an extension is needed, the City Council must be notified.

Streets slated for bike lane construction include:

  • Broadway between Quincy and Hampshire
  • Cambridge Street from Oak to Second
  • Hampshire Street from Amory to Broadway
  • Garden Street from Huron Avenue to Berkeley eastbound, and from Mason to Huron westbound.

The update contains more specific instructions for Massachusetts Avenue, given the complexities of one of Cambridge’s busiest streets. It calls for two sets of segments, with the first including:

  • Between Plympton and Dunster
  • Between Waterhouse and Roseland
  • Between Beech and Dudley
  • Massachusetts Avenue and Peabody from Church to Garden

Here, city staff must submit a block-by-block analysis by May 1 and build feasible bike lanes by May 1, 2023. For stretches where a protected bike lane is found to be impossible, the city manager must submit a report to the council within one year for approval.

The second set of Massachusetts Avenue segments includes the area between Sidney and Inman streets, where protected bike lanes need to be designed by Jan. 1, 2023, with construction starting by Dec. 31, 2025.

Carlone said he hoped to see the city move beyond temporary solutions that seemed to become permanent. “Having plastic tubes sticking up and painted asphalt should be for a two-year study period,” he said. “It’s ridiculous in Harvard Square that we’re redoing a plaza, putting in infrastructure – and having painted asphalt go through it. In front of City Hall, it’s the same thing. We have to go beyond that.”

The plan is also intended to to make it easier to get around the city by bus, Sobrinho-Wheeler said. In a statement released by the Cambridge Bike Safety group, he called the update “perhaps the most impactful local ordinance for safe street infrastructure a city has enacted anywhere in the United States.”

The public can follow updates here.

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