Tuesday, April 23, 2024

A northbound bike lane on Garden Street seen Tuesday, one of a set of changes there made Oct. 28. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Transportation planners are being asked to consider giving Garden Street two-way car traffic again for the five blocks between Bond Street and Huron Avenue, but city councillors emphasized Monday that it was just one of several correctives worth considering since bike lanes were installed there.

Recommendations on that and other proposals are expected Dec. 19, with a long-term report to evaluate changes by March 27, councillors affirmed in a unanimous vote after a sometimes bewildering series of amendments.

As recently as last week, staffers from the Traffic, Parking & Transportation department were telling residents that Garden Street changes needed to be assessed over as much as six months; the councillors’ vote upends that expectation, though in language that avoids a direct challenge.

“I want the city manager and Traffic & Parking not to feel like they need to wait six months to address concerns if they can address them sooner,” said councillor Paul Toner, the author of the policy order. 

Questions swirled over timing, whether the order was too prescriptive and if some of the language was “a dig at the traffic department.”

A car stops on Walker Street at Linnaean, which residents say has seen more traffic since changes on nearby Garden Street. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A phrase was inserted by councillors to acknowledge that “many residents were not aware of the proposed changes” to Garden, even as they raced to reassure staff that the department “did an outstanding job reaching out,” in the words of vice mayor Alanna Mallon. “There were signs everywhere. There were big signs … Is that ever going to be enough? No.” That there are residents left out of planning “happens no matter how much we try,” councillor E. Denise Simmons agreed, insisting that the order’s added wording was “not about laying blame.”

The messages in the hourlong debate were sometimes contradictory and bogged down in questions about process, with councillor Burhan Azeem asking at one point if there was a way to clarify on the overhead screen what was happening. “There’s so many amendments floating around,” Azeem said.

Design changed in October

This second week of discussion followed the Oct. 28 addition of two-way bike lanes on Garden Street – a road that serves as the border between West Cambridge and Neighborhood 9 – on the stretch between Huron and Concord avenues. For cars, Garden Street was suddenly a one-way heading eastbound toward Harvard Square and Cambridge Common, part of changes citywide resulting from a Cycling Safety Ordinance passed in 2019. 

The Garden Street changes sent vehicles to nearby roads such as Raymond and Walker, where some residents were shocked to suddenly find traffic and the hazards that came with it. “The safety issue has now moved from Garden Street onto the side streets. While you may believe the bikers to be safer, our children are now less safe,” said Joseph Adiletta of Walker Street.

Traffic officials held a meeting Wednesday to hear from affected residents, and there are two more listening sessions planned: in-person on Nov. 29 and online on Dec. 13.

Lanes here to stay

Residents gather at the Graham & Parks School on Wednesday to talk with transportation officials about Garden Street changes. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Between 100 and 150 people attended the Wednesday meeting, and almost 90 residents submitted comments on the issue to city councillors for Monday’s meeting, with around 30 calling in or taking the mic in City Hall during public comment. Even among the dozen-plus speakers with complaints such as Adiletta’s, none called for the bike lanes to be taken away.

“We are not asking the city to get rid of the new separated bike lanes – we enjoy them too,” said Judy Bright, who lives at Upland Road and Huron Avenue. “We are simply asking for a reconfiguration of a small section of Garden Street that will open Linnaean back up while keeping the separated bike lanes, and we are asking that we not wait six months to review this. The danger is now.”

Conversely, bicyclists were sympathetic to residents affected by the traffic changes even as flex-posts on the lanes went in Monday and traffic patterns began to be locked in on Google Maps. “It just takes time for human beings to adjust to these things. We’ve seen this in every other project,” said Chris Cassa, a bicycle advocate who lives on Gore Street in East Cambridge. “It’s a completely familiar experience to anyone who walks, bikes or takes transit in the city that many car drivers are unsafe and distracted. I’m completely supportive of identifying ways to improve the experience for these neighbors. We have tons of traffic-calming tools in the arsenal, including curb extensions, raised crosswalks, intersections, precast planters to narrow the road and hardened turns.”

Ongoing issues for debate

The question of how long to wait before tweaking the road design signaled early in the night by Bright and Cassa returned with council debate. “For us to quickly try to make adjustments now to this configuration wouldn’t allow for enough time to evaluate how this change is working,” councillor Quinton Zondervan said. “It’s premature for us to even mention specific remedies. “We should be focusing on making sure that the traffic department and the city manager are engaged with the residents and are measuring and evaluating what is happening there.”

The order was merely asking for a report on the feasibility of any mitigating changes, including the potential of “reverting to two-way if that’s the best solution,” Toner said. The specificity of the suggestion merely assured the idea wasn’t missed – and “sometimes our staff need cover or permission to think about things,” Toner said.

Councillor Marc McGovern agreed, saying that specific ideas the city should consider could be missed if they weren’t named.

New bike lanes have caused a conflagration in many parts of the city over lost parking spaces; this stretch of Garden Street already had less parking, which Toner said could make it a good candidate for returning to two-way car traffic. 

But councillors – debating without transportation officials present – even disagreed on this, and Zondervan and Azeem warned that transportation officials might return with news that changing the configuration again made the trip more dangerous for bicyclists and perhaps “impossible to extend the bike lane further.”