Special-interest politics: How single-issue lobbying undermines community
I love Wordle, but not the way it, and facts, have been twisted (“Wordle this: Roads that allow space for bikes and buses are safer,” Feb. 25).
Here are the facts: Dozens of businesses have already reported to the City Council losses of revenue of ranging from 20 percent to 60 percent or more due to removal of the parking for protected bike lanes. These include long-standing businesses; even the franchise of the iconic Dunkin’ Donuts in Central Square has lost 45 percent of revenue and is in the process of closing.
Those who support removing parking from Cambridge commercial districts have no understanding of the operational constraints of small business. It’s a myth that locals carry the majority of small businesses, except perhaps in high density areas such as New York City and San Francisco. Most rely on people from other areas to thrive, and most do not have margins of anywhere near 45 percent – most small businesses’ payroll alone is between 20 percent and 40 percent of sales, depending on the business, and a 45 percent drop in sales means a business cannot continue to exist.
In the case of my business, Violette Bakers, which has not yet suffered the removal of parking, we’ve been doing a survey of every customer for more than a month. We ask how they arrived at the store and from where, and we record their spend. Our survey shows that 21.2 percent of our revenue comes from customers who walk, bike or ride public transport. These customers come from a maximum of four cities daily and an average of two. Drivers make up the rest of our revenue and come from a daily maximum of 40 cities, with an average of 21. Even on days when the number of biking, walking and public transport customers closely approximates the number of driving customers, biking and walking revenue has been only one-third or less for the day, because most are buying something small to eat in the moment, whereas drivers buy for families, weddings, birthdays and other celebrations. That 21.2 percent does not cover our weekly payroll, not to mention rent, utilities, ingredients, supplies, fees and charges, maintenance and repair, marketing, health insurance, 401(k) payments, and the list goes on. With no street parking we would close quickly. And no, this is not an anomaly of winter months – summer is the slow season in Cambridge, as many businesses can tell you. Our sales in the summer are one-third of the amount they are in our busy fall and winter months. This story is repeated at almost every business in Cambridge’s commercial district.
Nor is this, at its heart, about safety. In the past 30 years, five souls have died in bike accidents in Cambridge. In the three most recent, no driver was found negligent. Many Cambridge cyclists say they don’t like these “protected bike lanes” because they make it hard to avoid inattentive bikers, and so will continue to bike on the open road. There is no activity that is perfectly safe from harm, and human error on the part of drivers or bikers will not be solved with these lanes. Real training (including regarding opening parked car doors and who has the right of way in right-hand turns) and enforcement of safety measures is what is most needed for the safety of the entire community.
Nor do any serious environmentalists argue that bikes will save the planet from global warming, or even make a dent in solving the problems. Real solutions that will help reduce our carbon footprint include reducing consumption, using solar and electrical options and developing products such as mobile phones meant to last a decade rather than a year. Where are the city incentives to help and encourage lower- and middle-income drivers to convert to electric cars? Why hasn’t the city started an electric ride share program rather than putting Bluebikes on every corner? Why hasn’t the city used its resources to develop a “carbon score card” that residents can use to calculate their entire carbon footprint and make informed decisions about where they want to use their carbon points? An older person who drives several times a week to the grocery store in all likelihood has a smaller carbon footprint than a young bike rider who buys the most recent bike, gadget, clothing and the like.
The real problem, as demonstrated by “Wordle this” author Jan Devereux, a former city councillor, appears to be that special-interest politics has come to local government. Politicians are being elected with the targeted aid of special-interest advocacy groups. A politician who engages in single-issue advocacy obviates their duty to a democratic process that engages and addresses the needs of all resident stakeholders. They’ve pre-concluded the results they want to achieve. That’s both anti-democratic (the needs of all stakeholders are not addressed) and bad governance. With single-issue advocacy, there is no notion of a comprehensive approach to community goals; only an attitude of “I want what I want, and I don’t care how it comes about.” It’s the essence of entitlement. And often, as we’ve seen on our TV screens and in our local communities, those engaging in single-issue advocacy use guerilla tactics. In Cambridge, businesses that have publicly opposed removal of parking have been targeted by bike advocates who engage in attempted (but thus far failed) boycotts and illegally target review sites to leave false one-star reviews, even though they are not customers. They rip down residents’ flyers that have a different opinion than theirs as well as make statements that, in their most charitable light, are fibs.
Take Devereux’s assertion that the majority of people in Cambridge don’t own cars. This “fact” has been repeated ad nauseam by bike advocates on the social media platform Nextdoor. But it simply isn’t true. Census Bureau data shows that only 33 percent of Cambridge households don’t own cars, while 66 percent own one or more. Perhaps bike advocates are including all infants in their calculus or perhaps they are repeating what they have heard informally without researching the underlying data themselves. Advocacy around guns, masks, vaccine and bikes all use the same faulty yet seemingly successful repetitive process to make their arguments. Businesses aren’t using scare tactics – they are simply informing the City Council and the public that they can’t survive without a diverse customer base, and until there is comprehensive public transportation, that depends on drivers.
In a democracy there shouldn’t be winners and losers. Good governance demands that the City Council solicits the opinions of all constituent stakeholders, listens to their needs and works hard, sometimes impossibly hard, to come up with solutions that meet the needs of all. For instance, an obvious solution would be to install an interconnected bike lane system that traverses the city and connects with the amazingly long protected lane network on Beacon Street, but avoids commercial streets such as Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge Street and Broadway. Why do bike advocates think they are entitled to ride “comfortably,” as they like to put it, down a commercial corridor, even if it means they will deprive hundreds, if not thousands, of people of jobs and a livelihood – and local residents of the benefits of same?
Leesteffy Jenkins, Upland Road
Leesteffy Jenkins owns Violette Bakers, a gluten-free bakery near Porter Square.