Thursday, June 13, 2024

A proposal would move two directions of bike lanes together and return two-way car traffic to Garden Street. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Returning part of Garden Street to two-way car traffic is less safe than the current one-way configuration with bike lanes, but it’s possible and some city councillors remain interested in seeing it happen, residents heard at a Monday meeting.

The major thoroughfare in West Cambridge got bike lanes in each direction in October, creating enough of a squeeze that transportation officials decided to turn the five blocks between Bond Street and Huron Avenue into a one-way. While the bike lanes are popular, the traffic that’s been shunted onto side streets is not.

A report on Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department efforts to ease the problems said it was “too early in the process” to undo the one-way configuration.

Councillor Paul Toner expressed disappointment that the “thoughtful suggestion” to bring back some two-way traffic, letting drivers take a right turn from Linnaean Street back to the Taylor Square fire station, wasn’t taken more seriously. “I feel like we could have had a win-win-win here.”

Instead of bike lanes on opposite sides of Garden Street, a two-way set of lanes side by side would be needed. “I realize that might not be the ideal for bicyclists. But at the same time, what we have now isn’t ideal for the folks most proximate to this, the people who live in the neighborhood,” Toner said.

Having the directions of bike traffic separated is “always better,” with more predictability and safety resulting from fewer crossings, said acting transportation department chief Brooke McKenna. Councillor Patty Nolan repeated it back immediately afterward, saying “What I just heard is that the only way [to get two-way car traffic back] is less safe than what’s currently in place” – without drawing a correction. Bicyclist deaths have been the biggest spur to the push to install a network of protected bike lanes citywide under a Cycling Safety Ordinance enacted in 2019 and amended with a timeline in 2020.

But Toner clarified again that having a short stretch of two-way bike traffic on Garden Street was possible, considering there’s an entire length of two-way bike lanes on Brattle Street in Harvard Square.

“Correct,” McKenna said. “We consider it to be suboptimal to what we have out there now. But it can be done.”

In addition to Toner, councillor Burhan Azeem and Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui expressed continued interest in returning some two-way traffic to Garden Street’s new one-way stretch.

Too early to undo

In the transportation department approach outlined in the report, “it can take three to six months for drivers to adjust” and the area remained in a “settle-in period.” Final data collection is due in the spring.

Additionally, a series of adjustments have been made or are underway to help, including getting online maps updated, making signal timing adjustments, the addition of a left turn for eastbound Huron Avenue traffic and a few new signs and markings. There was support from councillors such as Nolan for giving the complete set of mitigations time to be installed and tested, but already, transportation officials said in their report, “total [traffic] volume is within the range across side streets from October before implementation.”

Speed data collected on side streets such as Linnaean, Bond and Raymond were all up or down by 1 or 2 miles per hour, within the margin of error, and while McKenna didn’t have travel time data to present, she had peak-hour vehicle counts showing that between 3 to 6 p.m., a road such as Raymond Street was seeing an additional two more vehicles per minute. Additional congestion was “offset by additional cyclists … getting out of their cars because of the safety facilities,” she said – a belief supported by several bicyclists during public comment.

Street calming called for

There was pushback, with other residents saying during public comment that street calming remained needed urgently on side streets and expressing frustration that some solutions weren’t being pursued. Joe Adiletta, a Walker Street resident, argued that traffic data from before the changes on Garden was misleading, because Covid lockdowns had affected patterns at the time it was collected. “The implication of the data is that there isn’t really a problem and ‘don’t believe your lying eyes.’ Ask the residents of Raymond Street,” Adiletta said.

The “before” data in the memo discussed at the council meeting was collected Oct. 12, just a few weeks before the switch to one-way operation Oct. 28, said Elise Harmon-Freeman, communications manager for the Traffic, Parking, & Transportation Department.

Some councillors agreed residents on the new cut-through side streets had cause to still be upset. Friends on Walker Street “won’t even talk to me,” councillor Dennis Carlone joked. “I’m sure we believe it got better, but they don’t think it has,” Carlone said, suggesting that police be sent in for traffic enforcement.

Resident Mark Boswell, of Walden Street, agreed that traffic calming measures were needed – but with a historical twist.

“A while back I attended a small meeting of Raymond Street residents [who] had some serious concerns about speeding and traffic volume. Some residents, especially those with small children, were very unhappy with the dangers of speeding cars,” Boswell said.

“That meeting was in 2019,” Boswell said. “Traffic complaints on Raymond Street are unfortunately nothing new.”