Saturday, July 20, 2024

The aftermath of a collision Friday on Massachusetts Avenue in North Cambridge was shared by Cynthia Hughes, a nearby business owner.

More than 40 people who spoke Monday to city councillors about the installation of bike and bus lanes may be queuing up to do it all over again in January. Orders about the lanes were bumped to a Jan. 10 meeting by councillor Quinton Zondervan’s use of the “charter right.”

“I do appreciate the spirit of these orders before us, but I’m not prepared to vote on them tonight,” Zondervan said, before using the charter right to end discussion until the next regular meeting.

While speakers might assume councillors remember their comments from week to week, in practice public commenters seize every chance to get their stories, statistics, outrage and pleas freshly in legislators’ ears before they debate and vote. There were more than 60 people signed up to speak Monday, about two-thirds of them about bike lanes and most expressing opposition to the process – or lack of it – that saw the lanes installed and parking spaces taken away. When the number of speakers grows to more than 20, the allotted time to speak shrinks to two minutes from three per person, yet that still made for nearly two hours of public comment.

The orders from councillors E. Denise Simmons and the retiring Tim Toomey call to convene meetings to improve the lane-installation process “in the already impacted areas of the city and all new areas going forward” and to appoint a Cycling Safety Ordinance Implementation Advisory Committee of as many as 25 people. One order said pointedly that residents are asking that “the city abandon the ‘break it now/fix it later’ approach that appears to have been taken,” especially on Massachusetts Avenue in North Cambridge where businesses are citing rapid and devastating losses of customers – and even of employees who can no longer find places to park.

“I don’t believe there’s anyone on this council who is not in favor of establishing bicycle lanes. It’s beyond question that riding in Cambridge should not make a person feel that they’re taking their lives in their own hands with every trip. The City Council made the right call in voting in favor of a cycling ordinance in 2019,” Simmons said. “Where I think we erred was in what came next. The city dove in head-first, placing such an emphasis on ‘We need the separated lanes and we need them yesterday’ that it forgot about our obligation to ensure that we did this in a thoughtful, holistic way designed to minimize unintended consequences. And we’re learning more and more that there have been unintended consequences.”

While staff at Kaleidoscope Tattoo & Art Gallery at 2374 Massachusetts Ave. said they’d seen clientele drop by half since the lanes were installed in North Cambridge, Harvard Square Business Association executive director Denise Jillson said she knew of businesses where bike lanes had cut off 70 percent of customers. “The absence of engagement, the lack of communication, the complete disregard for our seniors and the dearth of respect for our struggling businesses is appalling,” Jillson said. “Businesses that were holding on by the tiniest of threads are slipping away.”

The quick-build approach to installation had worsened traffic considerably, public commenters said, shrinking North Massachusetts Avenue to single lanes clogged with cars while a bus lane went unused and creating a slalom that was confusing to bicyclists, bus and car drivers alike. It even led to a Friday collision that left the front of a $34,000 Volvo XC40 flattened and slowed traffic behind it even further, speakers said. A police report posted on Cambridge Bikes! social media didn’t show that the bike and bus lanes were involved in the crash, but involved a car merging onto Massachusetts Avenue from Cottage Park Avenue.

Some remained in support of the lanes and urged councillors to take a thoughtful approach in orders that could change how the city’s Cycling Safety Ordinance and its 2020 amendments were acted on by the Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department.

The indoor smoking ban of 2003 was an interesting historical parallel, said Itamar Turner-Trauring, recalling how councillors “talked about how business had dried up in cities that had banned smoking and people were laying off staff … And as it turns out, bars and restaurants can do just fine without smoking.”

While the ban saves lives of people who might die of heart attacks, lung cancer and asthma, “today we have people getting injured and dying in our streets,” Turner-Trauring said. “Protected bike lanes are an important part of solving this.” He urged councillors to take into account people with disabilities and the needs of businesses, but without undoing steps to reduce injuries and deaths. “Sometimes you physically cannot fit everything you want on a street,” he said.

This post was updated Dec. 27, 2021, to add police report information about a crash.