A bicyclist heads south toward Harvard Square on Massachusetts Avenue on Sunday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

City government was in an unusual position Monday, as the city manager asked for City Council support to break the law and councillors responded in the affirmative – because a May 1 deadline to install quick-build separated bicycle lanes on Massachusetts Avenue through Porter Square can’t be achieved with the new levels of community engagement and parking mitigation demanded by the councillors.

The vote went 8-1 in support of a delay, with councillor Quinton Zondervan opposed. He objected to having no temporary protections in place for bicyclists through the square as transportation officials continued community outreach and did an analysis of the financial impact of bike lanes on businesses – including hiring a consultant to help.

There is no estimate for when bike lanes through Porter will be done, but “our goal is still to do it as quickly as we can – certainly this construction season, which means sometime this fall at the latest,” Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department director Joe Barr told councillors.

A delay in Porter Square also changed no other deadlines under the Cycling Safety Ordinance, Barr said. The law calls for 22.6 miles of protected bike lanes to be built largely by May 1, 2026. For the next segments near Porter Square that’s aren’t “quick-build,” there’s a construction schedule that must be agreed on by the end of April or the beginning of May. 

The temporary lanes Zondervan wanted would still “require making a lot of the physical changes and potential parking restrictions which we don’t even fully understand, because we’ve not had that engagement with the community,” Barr said. “We’d be having a very similar impact” to those the council was trying to avoid.

A quick-build bus-and-bike project in November cost parking spaces in North Cambridge that shocked businesses. It forced the reconsideration of community engagement and mitigation efforts, upending an approach critics called “break it now/fix it later.”

Complicated, dangerous area

Though councillors on Monday returned several times to the themes of confusion and misinformation that complicated overlapping conversations about various projects at various stages of planning, it was agreed that Porter Square was a complicated, dangerous area for bicyclists. “I support this delay, because I understand it needs to be done,” said councillor Burhan Azeem, a bicyclist who leads the council’s Transportation & Public Utilities Committee. “But imagine how difficult and different this conversation is going to be if we have an accident this summer in Porter Square and god forbid someone dies. We’ll look at this moment very differently.”

City Manager Louis A. DePasquale said staff took the delay “very seriously” and assured Azeem  “we’re on the same page when it comes to that – trust me, we have real concerns.” 

The ordinance doesn’t specifically allow for a delay, city solicitor Nancy Glowa said, which for DePasquale underlined the importance of councillors taking a formal vote in support instead of just placing his letter about it on file. “We do not want to break an ordinance. This is an unusual, uncharted water,” DePasquale said.

Learning lessons

A city sign alerts residents to upcoming meetings about bike lanes and related improvements. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Businesses suddenly bordered by bike lanes and their customers who drove had a first “bikelash” in 2017, but with the ongoing uprising of North Cambridge businesses and the political activism of those between Porter and Harvard squares, the city now seemed to have “learned the lesson,” councillor Patty Nolan said. A recent mailing that included the Cycling Safety Ordinance was a good move that would have been better “a year ago.”

The local economic analysis of bike lanes demanded by the council after businesses complained of choked-off revenue will be complicated, Barr said, and not just because it must separate out the financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic. “A lot of this is looking back at the impact of projects that have been implemented. It is challenging to make an estimate of what the impact of a new project is going to be, because every situation is unique,” he said. “We recognize that we need to hire a really good consultant to help us with that. We don’t think that we necessarily can pull together all the different pieces [without one] and do it as quickly as people are asking for.”

The city manager separately asked the council to free up $730,000 to cover additional costs related to implementing the Cycling Safety Ordinance, including the economic analysis expected by early fall and a consultant. It passed unanimously. A few of the dozens of public speakers on bike lanes – about two-thirds of whom were supporters – saw the request and wanted a full accounting of bike lane costs, which drew a rebuke from councillor Marc McGovern: “We spend lots of money, a lot more than $700,000, on repairing streets for cars. And nobody ever asks us to do an accounting of that.”

Pay to take down wires

Councillor Dennis Carlone, an architect who worked with the city on planning neighborhoods, urged the city to put even more thought and money into the lanes citywide. 

The quick-build approach would turn Massachusetts Avenue into “the ugliest Main Street around,” Carlone said, and he feared that temporary solutions would become essentially permanent. “My concern, and I’m all for safety, is that if we put up the flex posts, we will not see upgrades beyond that for a whole generation.”

Another issue was the MBTA’s overhead catenary wires: As of March 15 they will no longer be needed to power buses but could stay up through the end of 2024 – potentially hobbling solutions along the avenue for bikes, parking and car traffic. (Stretches of concrete median were played down by Barr in terms of complication, except at the state-owned bridge over commuter rail tracks.)

“It is critical that the city push and, if need be, pay to take down the wires,” Carlone said. “I’ve worked with the MBTA on three different projects, one for Cambridge, and they are many years behind. If they’re not using the wires and they’re eliminating an option for the road that you want, we have to pursue that.”