Thursday, July 18, 2024

An op-ed by former city councillor Jen Devereux (“Wordle this: Roads that allow space for bikes and buses are safer,” Feb. 25) belittles the growing opposition of residents to Cambridge’s bike lane mandate. She likens it to a conspiracy about a word game, castigates opponents’ sky-is-falling rhetoric and admonishes them with therapeutic advice that feelings are not facts and emotions are not truth.

Her call for a return to norms and an end to what she cites as the “bike wars” rings hollow, because she ends her piece with a reminder that two people have been killed by drivers in Porter Square since 2016. This strikes me as ironic, since the bike wars she laments were touched off by cycle advocates using two 2016 cyclist fatalities as a rhetorical battering ram to advance cycle lanes in Inman Square, Cambridge Street and Brattle Street.

Organized cycle advocates doing business as Cambridge Bike Safety used this emotional appeal to shut down debate and short-circuit consideration of financial, environmental and social costs as well as alternative means to improve safety for all. Those who voiced objections were even labeled killers by association with the unfortunate and, by all accounts, blameless drivers in the fatal crashes.

It is said that truth is the first casualty of war. The same can be said of our bike wars. Facts are rarely checked and only valued for their emotional impact or clickability, and the arguments or interests of opponents are dismissed out of hand..

If we want to move forward from this situation, a good first step would be to see it not as a war but a social dysfunction, not zingers flying between partisans, but the equivalent of a heart attack of endemic mistrust in our body politic. It affects everyone and harms us all, because if we don’t trust each other, if we don’t trust our government, we won’t be able to act with the unity we need to meet the existential threats of climate change or the immediate needs of our community. We have to figure out how to work together on common solutions to critical problems, and the bike lane disputes are a distraction from the real work that must be done.

Trust cannot be restored by city councillors tut-tutting citizens for voicing concerns about the bike lanes when the actual impacts become apparent. Indeed, the councillors created the current civic mess by not involving the very people – the body politic – that they represent.

The contentious discourse and public debate that Devereux bemoans could and should have taken place before the mandates in the Cycling Safety Ordinance were enacted in 2019 and strengthened in 2020. She acknowledges that parking is the third rail of politics. Other councillors must also know. Yet to this day the majority of the City Council as well as city administrators play down the scope of the bike lane mandate, branding them as benign bicycle safety improvements. And obligatory public notices of community meetings and installation of new bike lanes were utterly ineffective, leaving most residents and business owners in the dark until the eve of installation.

But now the truth is coming out that the bike lane mandate is a big deal. It touches the third rail of parking. And the City Council’s defective process has created a giant mess.

The mandated lanes make up a 26-mile network covering 10 percent of Cambridges public streets, including Massachusetts  Avenue and other major arteries, and must be completed or in construction by 2026.

It will mean removing many hundreds of parking spaces, in some areas half or all of the parking, as well as loading zones needed for deliveries to and pickups from businesses. Costs are not known, but will be substantial. Engineering services alone for the first quick-build lanes, not including implementation, have averaged $160,000 per mile. The full design and build of just one major intersection, Inman Square, is budgeted to cost close to $10 million.

The financial impacts on local businesses are not known because the city has not asked the affected businesses. In places where parking has already been removed, some business owners report that their revenues have dropped 45 percent. As parking access and loading zones are removed over time, there are reasonable fears that commercial dead zones will spread to sections of Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge Street and Huron Avenue where there are now thriving, diverse shopping districts.

Thousands of residents who rely on street parking and access to homes, necessary services and local shops will also be adversely affected.

The scope of the bike lane mandate is so broad and complex that the City Council might reasonably have put it on the ballot for residents to vote on in a municipal referendum before acting on it. Instead, the council passed the mandate after limited public discussion and debate and deputized the director of Transportation, Traffic & Parking to inform the affected residents and owners in community meetings of what cycling safety means for them.

Now that citizens more clearly understand the grand plan and how it affects them, we are starting to see the beginnings of the kind of vigorous, contentious, factual debate that is needed for democracy to work and that we as Americans expect. These stirrings should not be discouraged or tamped down, but rather welcomed as a hopeful beginning of the civil discourse we urgently need to build trust in one other and strengthen our community.

John Pitkin, Fayette Street

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