Saturday, April 20, 2024

Fast Phil’s Haircuts in North Cambridge, seen April 13, 2022. Owners complain about a lack of parking since the installation of bike lanes. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge business owners are dissatisfied with parking and with the progress of a study meant to look at the economic impact of bike lanes – the upshot of a Tuesday meeting of the City Council’s Economic Development and University Relations Committee.

Fifty-nine percent of business owners rated the ability to park in the city as poor in an online business and nonprofit survey held Feb. 7-20. Many attribute parking problems to the recent proliferation of bike lanes, a topic expected to be handled comprehensively in the separate study.

The survey was meant to be equivalent to one from 2022 for residents that some business owners, because they are not residents, were not able to complete, city councillor and committee chair Paul Toner said. The new one was advertised in city emails, on the city website and on social media, and 229 business owners and organizational leaders responded. The survey respondents were not selected randomly, and according to the presentation, “results should be considered within that context.”

The survey asked about everything from transportation and parking to overall satisfaction with Cambridge government: 53 percent rated the overall performance of city government as excellent or good, while 20 percent rated it poorly; 56 percent rated Cambridge as an excellent or good place to do business, and 15 percent rated it poorly.

One commenter, Kelly Dolan, called the figures “terrible … the lack of approval rating for the city’s economic environment from small businesses on the survey is telling and concerning and should be a wakeup call.” She called it “distorting” that the presentation emphasized survey positives, such as 70 percent of respondents giving the ability to get around town by bicycle excellent or good rankings, and 80 percent saying the same about getting around by foot.

Parking problems and worries

Frank’s Steakhouse in North Cambridge on Nov. 20, 2022. The owner worries about customers who stay away because of parking confusion. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Business owners were very negative when it came to parking in the city, with 59 percent rating the “ability to park when you travel around town” as poor; a much lower 33 percent of the general populace in 2020 rated their experience with parking as poor.

“I spend all day long on the phone try to explain for people where to park,” said Cynthia Hughes, a barber and co-founder of the Fast Phil’s Haircuts in North Cambridge, with public comment echoing statements she made in 2021.

Comparison data from the 2022 survey is unavailable, even though a city news release said a report would be released by the end of the year.

Tuesday’s meeting was also meant to address the ongoing efforts to put together a study on the economic impact of bike lanes in Cambridge, the result of a City Council policy order passed Feb. 28, 2022. An update described little progress and seemed to emphasize studies from other cities, even as public comment from business owners described the urgency of the problems caused by having fewer parking spaces and more confusing roadways after the addition of bike and bus lanes. “My customers are so aggravated that they’re going elsewhere,” Hughes said, followed by George Ravanis at Frank’s Steakhouse, where there aren’t bike lanes yet. Still, he said “every day we get calls, and that’s plural, by potential customers who see the restricted avenue asking where they can park because they see what’s going on. God knows how many of them don’t call and just don’t bother coming in.”

Struggles to get started

Some of the business owners said they’d been collecting their own data on customer transportation but hadn’t been asked for it by the city – or been contacted by staff at all.

“By the time you guys finish your studies, by the time you find the right data set, it doesn’t matter, the ship has already sailed,” said Patrick Barrett, a rare Central Square business owner amid comment largely from North Cambridge and the stretch of Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Porter squares.

Councillor Patty Nolan was alarmed.

“This policy order passed more than a year ago,” Nolan said, “and we’re just now getting a little bit of data.”

The Community Development Department has struggled to find a consultant, and only recently partnered with the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Kendall Square, Toner said. Meanwhile, the department has been in a long struggle to get meaningful data, and said that the references to studies in other cities were largely about looking at methodology.

A question of data

The state Department of Revenue has useful data the city can’t see evades of privacy restrictions, assistant city manager for community development Iram Farooq said. “We have spent a lot of time and tried all kinds of suggestions, like ‘Hey, could we attach a release in our survey and if people sign off, would DOR then give us the information? We have spent months with them in just trying to negotiate this,” Farooq said. “After a lot of consultation amongst lawyers, we’ve gotten the no, they will not share information.”

Other cities have more granular data available to them. New York City collects its own taxes, so it has data on sales it can use; Cambridge does not. “We will have to rely on things like people actually sharing their sales or other information,” Farooq said.

The city says it will mail invitations to a second business survey to address the economics of bike lanes. Staff initially described an emphasis on ground-floor businesses. Concerns were raised about the letters missing especially the many health providers who didn’t have pedestrian-facing storefronts, and Farooq said the point was well-taken.

A presentation about the study by Pardis Saffari, the city’s director of economic opportunity and development, covered the the lack of strong, consistent sources of data available for it and mentioned looking at changes to sales revenue since 2019 as a pre-Covid baseline, which drew objections from business owners and leaders. The more pertinent comparison was to revenue before bike lanes were installed, they said. Staff agreed. Nolan also suggested finding a way to parse meaning from 229 written responses from businesses. “There’s 229 answers, but it’s not 17,000,” Nolan said.

“As the urgency hits us, we need to do a better job of figuring out a way to get this done more quickly,” Nolan said.

A sense of urgency

Bike lanes are being installed on city streets – many of them old and narrow – in response to a City Council law passed in 2019. An amendment the next year laid out a timeline for rapid rollout meant to avoid more bicyclist deaths.

At an April 25 meeting of the Cycling Safety Ordinance Advisory Committee, attendees learned of three lane installations coming to Massachusetts Avenue from this year to 2026, starting with quick-build projects on Hampshire Street and Main Street this summer; a full-construction project next year in Harvard Square between Plympton and Garden streets; and partial construction on Massachusetts Avenue between Waterhouse Street and Alewife Brook Parkway – some overlapping with other construction on Massachusetts Avenue and in Harvard Square.

“So you can imagine what kind of impact that is going to have,” said Denise Jillson, executive director of the the Harvard Square Business Association. “[It] really ought to be looked at before construction.”