Sunday, June 23, 2024

Late last year, on Massachusetts Avenue near the Arlington line, a city quick-build project added nine blocks of separated bicycle lanes, created bus lanes and removed curbside parking, using paint, bollards and signs. The cycle lanes represent about 2 percent of the total new lanes required by the Cambridge Cycling Safety Ordinance.

There was a storm of protest to this project from North Cambridge residents and business owners. In response, the City Council voted in January to create a Cycling Safety Ordinance Implementation Advisory Committee to address community and business concerns about cycle lane projects.

At that council meeting, there were scores of public comments on both sides of the cycle lane divide. One commenter lamented the deep disagreements that the current process and outcomes have fostered among segments of the Cambridge community, another the rage of residents, drivers and walkers against cyclists that is obvious on Nextdoor. One made a plea for solutions that will dial down the anger.

The controversy about the North Massachusetts Avenue cycle lane is neither new nor surprising. The same issues and divisions surfaced in 2018 after the first quick-build cycle lanes were installed on Cambridge Street, Brattle Street and Massachusetts Avenue near the Common. At that time the city manager and mayor jointly proposed a Cambridge Bicycle Safety Project Review Committee on how to improve the engagement process for future projects, and the city hired a consultant to interview community members, staff and city councillors who had participated in reviewing these projects.

Almost all of those interviewed reported that participants had been mistreated, intimidated, called names or even physically assaulted for their views on bicycle infrastructure, parking or cars and were subjected to personal attacks and demonization.

A year earlier, in 2017, when the first quick-build projects were started, memories of two fatal cycle crashes on Cambridge Street were fresh, and there were demands for the city to do something to prevent more young cyclists from dying grisly, public deaths. This prompted the city to make implementation of existing long-term plans for cycling infrastructure a priority, and officials described the projects as safety improvements.

This new, simple framing of complex infrastructure projects has shaped the later discourse in public meetings and media. In this context, as the city’s consultant reported, any dissent was seen as anti-safety. If you objected to the removal of parking spaces, voiced concern about the loss of street access or questioned other impacts or even the design of the project, your opinion could be dismissed as anti-bike, endangering cyclists lives or worse.

Then in 2019 and 2020, the City Council institutionalized the novel branding of cycle infrastructure in the Cycling Safety Ordinance. The sole effect of this law is to set detailed deadlines for the city to create a network of 26.2 miles of separated cycle lanes by 2026. It is about cycling safety in only a narrow and unusual sense: It is about infrastructure and does not address other obvious measures to improve cycling safety. Also, it has other important aims, to reduce motor vehicle trips and motor vehicle ownership by Cambridge residents.

So far this ordinance has led to piecemeal, neighborhood-by-neighborhood installation and review of new sections of cycle lanes. The process in North Cambridge and elsewhere has been less than transparent and flawed by poor communication with affected residents and businesses. The city manager is now forming an advisory group to meet the need identified by the city’s consultant three years ago:

These projects are considered by most stakeholders to be high impact of the community and therefore deserving of a meaningful level of engagement. The chief finding of this assessment is that efforts to inform and involve the public and the city’s quick-build projects to date have mostly fallen short of these expectations.

Future projects, including Massachusetts Avenue from North Cambridge to Harvard Square; Cambridge Street east of Inman Square; and Broadway from Quincy Street to Hampshire Street seem certain to have greater impacts and be more complex than the already completed projects, and there are high expectations for meaningful community engagement in decisions.

As a commenter at the Jan. 10 City Council meeting put it, democracy requires that everyone must have a voice.

John Pitkin has been active in Cambridge civic affairs since 1971 and served as chair of the Cambridge Transportation Forum, which was created in 1972 by the City Council and city manager to coordinate citizen participation in transportation planning.