Saturday, May 18, 2024

Cambridge is a bike-friendly city, and that’s a good thing. Cyclists who use public lanes for commuting, exercise and recreation deserve a safe route where they can move about unimpeded and without fear of being hit by a car or truck.

On the other hand, vendors, small businesses and places of worship argue that ubiquitous bike lanes make it harder for individuals to access their place of work, leisure or worship. In other words, the issue isn’t black and white. But here’s the thing: If Cambridge is to remain a haven for local retailers, service providers, restaurants, bars and cultural, ethnic and religious organizations, we need to do more to ensure safe access to communal spaces for all. Making Cambridge a space that is inviting to all means maintaining a delicate balance, and right now the city is actively alienating large swaths of people by taking a concept intended to promote safety and accessibility and pushing it too far. This is not balance.

Construction of bike lanes in Cambridge began in 2004 with a project on Vassar Street, with another on Concord Avenue following soon after. Now, almost two decades later, Cambridge is ranked 123 out of 1,236 cities worldwide by People for Bikes, a nonprofit that ranks cities based on a variety of factors including presence of bike lanes, traffic and safety. You don’t have to be a data analytics expert to see that Cambridge is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world.

This is something to be proud of. With climate change posing more of a threat to our planet now than ever before, focusing on alternatives to car-centric city planning should continue to be a priority for lawmakers.

But there’s a question of balance. A city is made up of countless pieces and components, each making it the unique place that it is. Cambridge is no different, and the diversity of this city in all its forms remains its greatest asset. Almost 30 percent of Cambridge residents were born in a foreign country, more than 40 percent are people of color, more than 20 percent speak a language other than English and 4.5 percent of people under the age of 65 identify as disabled. The city is also home to more than 5,600 private businesses.

And there’s solid evidence that poorly planned bike lanes can be harmful to the community. Take North Cambridge barbershop Fast Phil’s, which was founded in 2004 by longtime friends Cindy Hughes and Philip Soccorso. With 90 percent of customers driving to their appointments, Hughes’ and Soccorso’s livelihood is dependent on accessible parking. But when parking spaces were removed to make room for a bike lane on Massachusetts Avenue, Fast Phil’s saw its business plummet by roughly 40 percent. City Paint, a local paint shop with two Cambridge locations that has been in operation for more than 40 years, has also experienced a drop in business because of the way bike lanes are configured on Massachusetts Avenue. With the City Council having approved a plan in 2020 for 25 miles of new bike lanes by 2026, there aren’t any signs things are going to change.

Places of worship can also be affected. Cambridge is home to multiple churches, synagogues and mosques, including the Islamic Society of Boston, the largest mosque in New England; the First Church in Cambridge, which was founded in the 1630s; and the Holy Trinity Armenian Church, one of only a handful of Armenian churches in the area. With 68.7 percent of Cambridge residents possessing a car, it’s inevitable that a significant number of worshippers, especially those who are older, rely on nearby parking to attend services and large events such as weddings and funerals. In a city as religiously diverse as ours, we should be doing everything in our power to allow worshippers in all denominations to access their places of worship safely and enjoy religious freedom.

Cambridge isn’t the only city in the United States experiencing challenges and growing pains over bike lanes. In 2015, the United House of Prayer in Washington, D.C., was involved in a dispute about accessibility to parking close to the church.  In neighboring Belmont, bike lanes on Concord Avenue have completely changed the safety dynamics of the town’s busiest street.

Cambridge is a sanctuary: a sanctuary for cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, a sanctuary for immigrants, a sanctuary for small business, a sanctuary for cyclists. Maintaining a sanctuary such as ours means maintaining a balance – making sure no one group’s interests are given more weight than another’s. Advocating for the interests of any one part of our community doesn’t have to mean advocating against those of another; it’s just a part of keeping that balance. Bike lanes in Cambridge aren’t inherently bad. Damaging the livelihoods of small-business owners is. Placing seniors and disabled persons at risk is. And disrupting safe access to places of worship is.

Vasken Kouzouian is pastor of the Holy Trinity Armenian Church of Greater Boston on Brattle Street in West Cambridge.