Revive the Cambridge traffic board
Over the past year the city’s Department of Traffic, Parking & Transportation has been at the center of controversy related to its implementation of the Cycling Safety Ordinance (adopted in 2019, and amended in 2020) mandating 25 miles of separated bike lanes. Many residents have written to the City Council and the department asking for a voice in the implementation of the separated bike lane mandate – essentially a major redesign of our city’s streets – by submitting letters and at least one petition with more than 1,000 signatures. One group has even filed a lawsuit. Although the department has held “informational” community meetings on Zoom, questions and concerns have been answered only with generalities and minor modifications.
Throughout the process, many residents have come to feel disrespected, their observations – about streets that they know very well – ignored. But it didn’t need to be this way. There is an avenue for the expression of concerns open to Cambridge residents who are concerned about department proposals: a traffic board, as provided for in state law.
More than 60 years ago, the act of the state Legislature establishing a city department of traffic and parking (Chapter 455 of the Acts of 1961, Section 1) also established a traffic board, consisting of three citizen members to be appointed by the city manager. The city includes the act and traffic board on Page 53 of the Traffic Regulations it posted in October 2019.
As described on the city website, the purpose of the traffic board is to hold a public hearing upon petition of 50 registered voters relative to any rule or regulation proposed to be adopted, altered or repealed and not yet in effect, and approve or disapprove the proposed action. The board is also available to the traffic director for advice and consultation. As for petitions, the law states that the traffic board shall hold a public hearing thereon within two weeks of filing.
Although a board could play a valuable role in promoting better roads for all users, it has gone unused by the director of the traffic department for years, and consequently has been forgotten by residents. Given the controversy surrounding the installation of separated bike lanes, it is puzzling that the traffic director has not sought the counsel of a board.
Our interactions with the traffic department were around the proposal for a separated two-way bike lane on Brattle Street, a proposal outside of the 25-mile network in the city’s ordinance. We and other neighbors have argued that Brattle Street is not a good candidate for a separated two-way bike lane because of the number of side streets and driveways, particularly when e-bike riders can travel at speeds of more than 20 mph. Nor is the plan supported by the numbers of cyclists or accidents involving cyclists on Brattle, based on our analysis of Brattle Street accidents in Cambridge Police Department’s crash database.
Its removal of half of the street’s parking will also create hardships for visitors to churches as well as nearby schools and hospitals. The availability of parking on Brattle from Mason to Sparks streets also supports stores and restaurants.
The plan comes with a revision of the intersection of Brattle, Craigie and Sparks that is opposed widely by residents. Among those expressing concerns are the many senior citizens who live in apartment buildings west of Fresh Pond Parkway. Similarly, residents of the side streets, particularly in the Half Crown–Marsh district filled with small houses – many without driveways – would find parking even more challenging when spaces on Brattle are removed. In short, the proposed separated bike lane would be disruptive.
Last month, when we learned of the traffic board, we decided to submit a petition of 50 registered voters asking for board review of the Brattle Street project. The petition with some 100 signatures was submitted Sept. 29 to the city clerk; the next day, the city’s election office verified 97 registered voters. (We gathered signatures over 36 hours from neighbors who have followed the traffic department’s proposal. If a greater number of signatures had been needed, we could easily have produced them.)
Since our proposal was filed, a group of Garden Street neighbors has filed a petition regarding the traffic department’s proposal to make Garden Street one-way eastbound from Huron Avenue to Concord Avenue by Arsenal Square.
We 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. We hope that the results will spur the traffic department in the direction of 21st-century mobility solutions rather than one relying on a 19th-century invention that is not an option for many older and disabled people and that is not the best mode of transportation in inclement weather or when the roadway is made hazardous by ice, fallen leaves or debris.
Please do not interpret this letter as favoring city streets lined by parked cars. For the safety of all – pedestrians, cyclists and drivers – we look forward to a future with better street design, better public transportation, fewer private vehicles, fewer parking lots and garages, less asphalt, more street trees and more parkland. What is the way to a meaningful drop in private car ownership and use? A future with far fewer cars will depend on the development of shared and coordinated mobility services. The traffic department’s most impactful actions in terms of shifting people out of their cars would be to promote such services.
Annette LaMond, Riedesel Avenue, and Karen Falb, Brattle Street
The authors have been Cambridge residents since the mid-1970s. Annette LaMond is a Ph.D. economist who has written a number of papers on Cambridge history and advocated on issues of street safety in the 1990s and 2016. Karen Falb is a biologist by training with a certificate in landscape design history from the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Her focus on Brattle Street traffic began 25 years ago, when she worked with a citywide group studying truck routes through Cambridge.