Thursday, May 23, 2024

Bicyclists approach Porter Square in Cambridge on Aug. 24. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge is reviving its traffic board, a three-member body appointed by the city manager that has been defunct for decades and demanded by opponents of protected bike lanes.

An email sent to residents at 6:51 p.m. Monday said applications were open through Nov. 21 to become a member of the revived board, which is “established to review petitions regarding the adoption, alteration and repeal of the city’s traffic rules and regulations and to provide advice and consultation to the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department.”

The board was also listed in a document from the office of City Manager Yi-An Huang showing all boards and commissions in Cambridge – part of a discussion of new stipends for Planning Board, Board of Zoning Appeal and Historical Commission members that will begin to be paid out in 2023. (It is referred to in the document as the Traffic and Parking Commission.)

Despite the board also being discussed by a resident during the council meeting’s public comment period, councillor Paul Toner was brushed back by Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui when he tried to ask city staff about it and an email councillors got about “how you think we should go forward.”

“Is it true that this board or commission has been on the books for 30 years [without meeting], that this is a board people can go to with petitions to raise concerns or get adjudication of an issue? And if that’s the case, why would we be going forward without just having that hearing and getting it over with?” Toner asked, referring to implementation of the city’s Cycling Safety Ordinance and its bike-lane mandates, particularly on Brattle and Garden streets. “It sounds like we’re going to reinstitute the board and do it forevermore, but we’re ignoring the two current petitions that have come before it.” Toner clarified his meaning by phone after the meeting.

Siddiqui told Toner to return to the “issues at hand” of stipends and appointments. “That would be ideal,” Siddiqui said, because the traffic board was “something we haven’t talked about in public.”

Unhappy with effects

The Cycling Safety Ordinance was adopted in 2019 and amended in 2020 with specific calls for approximately 25 miles of protected bike lanes to be installed by April 2026. Adding protected bike lanes has subtracted parking in many places, leading to resident and business protests and two legal actions: a lawsuit in June; and a similar call in August by different plaintiffs using the same lawyer to stop the work. Each calls for the city to follow Chapter 455 of the Acts of 1961 in which a traffic board would be able to “under certain conditions … void regulations made by the traffic director.”

Residents unhappy with the effects of the Cycling Safety Ordinance rollout are optimistic about how a board might amplify their voices on decision-making. Annette LaMond and Karen Falb, in a letter to the editor published Monday, said they “look forward to the reactivation of the Cambridge traffic board in response to these petitions. Residents need to be heard – a fundamental requirement for ensuring trust in city decisions.” Joan Pickett said during the council’s public comment period that the board was “an important check on the decisions of the traffic director that allows citizens an opportunity to appeal decisions of the traffic director through a well-publicized public hearing process.”

One of the people suing the city over bike lane implementation is John Pitkin – identified by a publicist for the residents group Cambridge Streets for All as “former chair of the Cambridge Board of Traffic and Parking.” Toner said late Monday that Pitkin reminded the group about the defunct board, saying he’d been “sitting and waiting to be called for years” to take part in meetings. Toner recalled that the last was in 1995.

Different reading

The bike lane skeptics’ understanding of the board isn’t reflected in the Monday email looking for members, which mentions only that it would provide “advice and consultation” to the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department. The Cycling Safety Ordinance is also not a regulation by the head of that department, but a law enacted by the City Council; the posting suggests that it will operate like the Planning Board, which advises the council on certain issues, but cannot stop or undo a council decision.

Bicycle lane advocate Itamar Turner-Trauring said Monday in an online discussion that while appeals are possible for rules and regulations, the same state law that provides for the board gives the traffic director authority over “traffic signs, signals, markings and other devices for the control of traffic and parking in the city.”

“So yes, the board is a thing and you can appeal to it, but it seems pretty clear you can’t appeal against project designs,” Turner-Trauring said.