Sunday, June 16, 2024

Joe Barr, director of Cambridge’s Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department, attends a Dec. 18, 2018, meeting about bike safety at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Stratton Student Center. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge’s director of Traffic, Parking & Transportation since 2015, Joe Barr, announced on Monday that he plans to step down to become director of network development for the Eastern United States for Amtrak. Barr expects to continue work through mid-October, with a last day still to be determined.

“Serving as the director … has been an amazing privilege and something that I have enjoyed tremendously over the last seven and a half years,” Barr said when reached via email.

Barr’s tenure with the city brought changes and challenges. When scooter company Bird illegally dropped scooters on city sidewalks in 2018, Barr threatened to impound the scooters or sue the company (the company later backed down). He launched a redesign of chaotic Inman Square that defeated previous planners but gained urgency – though not without some pushback – after the death of bicyclist Amanda Phillips in June 2016. Over 2019 and 2020, the City Council passed a Cycling Safety Ordinance and an update that saw the department install miles of protected bike lanes. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 through the present brought the activation of outdoor dining throughout the city and created new spaces for pedestrians under a Shared Streets initiative.

News of Barr’s departure spread quickly Monday. It was raised by one resident as a rumor during a meeting of the council, then addressed directly by Burhan Azeem, chair of the council’s Transportation and Public Utilities Committee. “I wanted to say thank you Joe Barr so very much for all the work he has done for the city, safe streets and public transit. It’s a hard job and you get a lot of negative feedback, but he handled it with grace,” Azeem said when contacted for comment.

Provoking a “bikelash”

The quick-build bike lanes overseen by Barr in Harvard Square, on Cambridge Street and in North Cambridge erased parking spaces and changed traffic patterns in an approach meant to fix problems after the fact, and it provoked a “bikelash” from the start. Denise Jillson, president of the Harvard Square Business Association, decried a failure to get neighborhood input beforehand that “bordered on egregious,” and city councillors and the city manager expressed their regrets. “We did the right thing the wrong way,” then-mayor E. Denise Simmons said in 2017. “We have caused this problem. We have to be held accountable.”

Yet the approach didn’t change significantly over time, as the city backed it as necessary to protect the lives of bicyclists, prompting so-far unsuccessful legal actions this summer from two groups of residents and business owners. In addition to saying city officials weren’t properly enacting the Cycling Safety Ordinance, the plaintiffs said Barr lacked authority because he isn’t a registered engineer.

Barr graduated with a Master of Science in transportation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1997 and began a five-year stint with the city as a transportation planner under Susan Clippinger, who led the department for 20 years before him, leaving in November 2014. From there he held roles at Parsons Brinckerhoff, an engineering firm now known as WSP, and the New York City Department of Transportation, according to his public Linkedin page. Barr returned to Cambridge in March 2015 to take the director role.

Off to Amtrak

His departure coincides with the arrival of a new city manager, Yi-an Huang. “Although I am very excited about the energy and leadership of our new city manager and the acting deputy city manager and was very much looking forward to working with both of them, this was a unique and exciting opportunity that I simply could not turn down,” Barr said of Amtrak via email. The acting deputy city manager is Department of Public Works head Owen O’Riordan, who was appointed by Huang only shortly after stepping down as acting city manager, filling the gap between the previous city manager’s departure July 5 and Huang’s arrival Sept. 6.

A memo from Huang designated the departments of Public Works; Water; Electrical; and Traffic, Parking and Transportation as responsibilities of the deputy city manager. O’Riordan has been with City Hall for more than 25 years.

The recent federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed in November, will direct $66 billion to Amtrak in the coming years. A fact-sheet shared at the time by Amtrak suggested new train cars, modernized stations and other megaprojects will soon improve the experience for train riders. Barr, based in Boston, will play a role as the agency brings these plans to fruition.