Friday, May 24, 2024

(Graphic: Marc Levy)

There was a great Twitter thread recently about the conspiracy theories overtaking Wordle following its acquisition by The New York Times last month. As soon as the Times inked a seven-figure deal to buy the puzzle from its British creator, people began complaining. Many worried the paper would put the daily Wordle behind its paywall; the company has said it won’t. Others feared that the Times – the liberal elites’ “paper of record” – would make Wordle harder. And when some people struggled more than usual to solve a new Wordle, word on the street was that the Times had erected a vocabulary paywall by adding a bunch of obscure words. It was a textbook case of confirmation bias: The highbrow Times had ruined a perfectly good thing, just as predicted. To quiet the conspiracists, the editors explained that the only change they made to the creator’s original word list was to remove a handful of words they felt might be too difficult. (“Aroma” replaced “agora,” for example.)

Some people still don’t believe them, though, because they are predisposed to dislike the Times, and it felt true to assume the worst. “Aroma” – familiar but perhaps not an everyday word – didn’t pass their smell test. And if “cynic” wasn’t proof enough of the liberal conspiracy afoot, then how about “caulk”? (Two recent Wordle solutions.)

The Wordle drama (See what I did there? “Drama” is a five-letter word) brought to mind the “bike wars” raging in Cambridge. I use that term reluctantly. “Bike wars” has been the subject line of an especially acrimonious, long-running thread on a neighborhood listserv. With an actual war brewing in Ukraine, it is past time for the group to retire this toxic thread and to reestablish some norms.

Sadly, I think that those posting flyers in store windows and whipping up others to “save” Massachusetts Avenue, mom-and-pop stores and gluten-free apple pie from impending disaster have fallen prey to fears, misinformation and confirmation bias. Their sky-is-falling rhetoric, which asserts that adding protected bike lanes and bus priority lanes will destroy the neighborhood, may feel true because it reflects their preconceived notions about the necessity of driving and their preference for the status quo. No reasoning or data will disabuse them of their notion that there will be “devastating” impacts if any on-street parking is removed or relocated. Comrades, the real “war” is over parking – in local politics, parking is the third rail in many debates. It’s gotten to the point where if the sky doesn’t fall when the flex posts and bus priority markings are introduced this spring, they will insist it has. As any good therapist, of which there are many in Cambridge, will tell you, feelings are not facts, and emotions are not truth.

The true impending disasters are the climate crisis and traffic congestion, though the climate crisis poses an existential threat that could make traffic congestion something of a moot point. To avert the climate crisis, we must reduce emissions aggressively from the transportation sector, or our great-grandchildren may need gondolas to shop on Massachusetts Avenue. Most residents are seeking ways to reduce their carbon footprint and are taking action in myriad ways, but some have a blindspot as big as the ones on their SUVs when it comes to changing their attitudes and habits around transportation. Many residents of all ages say they would be willing and able to bike more often, but the lack of a protected network holds them back. The widely supported goal of creating a citywide network of protected bike lanes is why the City Council passed the Cycling Safety Ordinance, and why voters elected a majority of councillors who pledged to support its implementation. The Porter Square section of Massachusetts Avenue where the ordinance requires quick-build protected bike lanes to be added this spring is only about 1,400 feet, and yet it has inspired people to grab their pitchforks.

The same people who would go to the barricades to defend their right to park in the public way complain bitterly about traffic congestion. As the saying goes, if you are in a car complaining about traffic, you are part of the problem. Like it or not, the area’s population is growing, and city streets cannot support the same level of growth in car use. We must transition more people from driving to other modes more of the time, or traffic will continue to go from bad to worse. Many say they would take the bus if service was more reliable. The bus priority lanes proposed as part of the Massachusetts Avenue changes will help. Yes, there are disabled and elderly people who will continue to drive most or all of the time, and some parking should be available for them. Those spaces can be on side streets within a distance no greater than people routinely walk to and from such spaces when they park at shopping centers or malls. Elderly and disabled people, along with many low-income people who can’t afford to own a car, also take the bus and ride bikes, and they would benefit from the proposed changes. Space for loading can be made available in the bus lanes during off-peak hours.

Some business owners’ claims that sales will plummet if on-street parking is altered seem based more on fear than fact. After all, the number of vacant storefronts has been a concern for several years, predating the pandemic and irrespective of parking availability. Supporting local business does not mean one must prioritize maintaining parking over increasing safety for non-drivers. Many places that have become more bike- and pedestrian-friendly have seen economic improvements, including increased customer visits and a more vibrant streetfront. One could even see such improvements to the public spaces and amenities as an opportunity to attract new customers. “People don’t come to a place for the parking, they come for the experience,” planner Jonathan Berk writes. As any good educator, of which there also are many in Cambridge, will tell you, students do best with a growth mindset that regards ideas and challenges as an opportunity to learn and grow. These students say “I can” and persevere, whereas their classmates with fixed mindsets say “I can’t” and give up quickly.

All of the perceived problems are solvable with a growth mindset. The insistence by some that protected bike lanes actually make streets less safe is baseless. Empirical data show that protected bike lanes save the lives of cyclists and can make crossings safer for pedestrians. Data also show that most Cambridge residents do not own cars, and the majority rely on transit, bikes or walking to shop and commute. Most people mix and match these modes. In fact, those who drive exclusively are a minority, especially to shop in transit hubs such as Porter Square. Bike ridership has been steadily increasing over the past decade or so as our streets have incorporated more traffic-calming measures including both painted and protected bike lanes.

Cambridge is a young city, but many older people bike and more say they would if they felt safer. Massachusetts Avenue is consistently cited as the street that even experienced urban cyclists are the most nervous to ride on. And crossing four lanes of traffic can be nerve-wracking for pedestrians, too. Two people – a cyclist and a pedestrian – have been killed by drivers in Porter Square since 2016. The next fatal crash will not be an “accident” if the status quo is allowed to remain.

No one is talking about closing Massachusetts Avenue to cars; loyal customers will still find their way there by car and a variety of other modes, just as they do now. With the addition of protected bike lanes and bus priority lanes, more will arrive by bike and bus. Hopefully, no one else will have to die to prove the status quo is unsustainable in every way.