Saturday, July 20, 2024

A permanent “Eco-Totem” bicycle count station was installed in 2015 on Broadway in Cambridge’s Kendall Square. (Photo: Cambridge Community Development Department)

Studying the economic effects of bike lanes has been slower than Cambridge during rush hour, but the City Council added more areas of study Monday anyway, reflecting newer arguments around whether having bike lanes is safer than having none.

The motion calls for two committees and city staff to come together around reviewing the lanes’ “effectiveness and develop recommendations on methods to collect data and establish measurable benchmarks and standards as it relates to the Cycling Safety Ordinance,” a 2019 law that calls for nearly 25 miles of protected lanes citywide.

A version was introduced a week ago by councillor Paul Toner but put on hold by councillor Burhan Azeem, who proposed changes this week with councillor Marc McGovern adding that the order “is not meant to delay CSO projects” and eliminating a reference to groups that have been most critical of the lanes. It was to “clarify the intention” and “be a little bit more neutral,” Azeem said.

Toner supported the changes, revealing that he’d come in for criticism from bicyclists worried about a potential moratorium on adding lanes during a study. “Reach out to me directly,” Toner suggested.

The new version passed 7-1-1, with councillor Quinton Zondervan opposed. (Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui was absent from the meeting.) “I don’t understand the need,” Zondervan said. “We collect lots of data. We have lots of hearings on that and we should continue to do that. But I don’t think we need to collect separate additional data around the CSO.”

Already a study

It was just last month that residents and councilors were expressing frustration over the limitations of data gathering, as Toner chaired an Economic Development Committee hearing around city staff efforts to look at the economic impact of bike lanes.

The results were limited, as staff had been frustrated in finding useful data in the face of state privacy issues and had struggled to find a consultant, only recently partnering with the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Kendall Square. And that was since McGovern wrote and won unanimous support for an economic study in February 2022. 

Toner called the work so far “not perfect, but it’s a start.” Councillor Patty Nolan expressed more alarm: “This policy order passed more than a year ago,” Nolan said, “and we’re just now getting a little bit of data.” Pardis Saffari, the city’s director of economic opportunity and development, said a fuller report could be expected in the fall.

But as the opponents of bike lanes have struggled in court to turn around the CSO, they have found reason to change tactics.

More dangerous than traffic

Complaints about the effect of separated bike lanes on businesses, seniors and the disabled have focused for years around the parking spots that may be lost when the lanes are added to narrow roads. More recently there are allegations that they are more dangerous than having bicyclists riding in traffic, though progress on bike lanes in Cambridge sped up after a series of bicyclist deaths.

The studies, statistics and conflicting versions of common sense have played out in essays and comments published in the media, starting with an April 14 report by members of Cambridge Streets for All – one of the groups that tried suing the city to undo progress on the CSO.

People that “probably shouldn’t be biking are being coaxed” into using the lanes and putting themselves at risk, author John Hanratty said, and the group believes that a Cycling Safety Ordinance should pay more attention to safety. “We don’t want people to get hurt unnecessarily.”

Nate Fillmore, a co-founder of the Cambridge Bicycle Safety group, said he was concerned that the group was “amateurs with an agenda” and pointed them to an approving recent Federal Highway Administration report on the safety of protected bike lanes.

That work was “conducted by professionals experienced with the data sources and methodology needed to correctly conduct a study of this sort,” Fillmore said.

The story drew nearly two dozen comments of back-and-forth around the validity of the analysis and related topics. 

Facts under fire

Cambridge Bicycle Safety responded in May with an essay by advocate Itamar Turner-Trauring saying it was “no surprise Cambridge roads are getting safer” and turning again to the federal study of data from Cambridge and four other cities, as well as state guidelines from 2015 that said “separated bike lanes improve safety for all road users.” Turner-Trauring included graphics showing “a stark reduction from 2016 levels in crashes resulting in emergency medical transports” as the lanes were installed, seemingly corroborated by police data.

It drew more than two dozen comments, many of them further analyses, and a response in kind this month from Serenus Hua – who said he was not a litigant against the CSO – that critiqued Turner-Trauring’s analysis and suggested flaws in the federal study. In the 26 comments that followed, it was Hua’s turn to be evaluated for his work.

“This is why you don’t just spend five minutes opening an excel spreadsheet to analyze data,” Turner-Trauring said, citing flaws behind his citing of his work’s flaws.

Hua’s response: “Your understanding of statistics needs a bit of work,” as explanations of how to interpret “standard error would be problematic in most situations, but is especially incorrect in the context of the FHA study, which uses a Poisson regression …”

And so on.

Flaw in the figures

“I feel trapped in this pingpong game,” Toner said Tuesday, explaining the motivations for his order. “I want our traffic department to say ‘These are the things we see that people who passed the CSO intended – like increasing number of people riding and decreasing auto traffic – but we don’t have any real numbers. I don’t think we should be citing national or international reports; we have the ability and resources to measure it in Cambridge. And I can bring these numbers to the people who are opposed and say ‘It’s working,’ or I can say to the bike people, ‘You say you want people to be safer, and they’re not.”

McGovern, co-sponsor of Monday’s amendments and the author of the February 2022 call for economic analysis, said before the night’s vote that he wasn’t afraid of the information that would be gathered – “I think the data is going to show that that that installing bike lanes is a good thing.”

Later, after the meeting, he acknowledged a flaw in the order and in his expectations.

“People can use data any way they want,” McGovern said. “I’m not sure how the data, whichever way it falls, is going to convince anybody to change their opinion.”

This post was updated June 13, 2023, with comment from city councillor Paul Toner. It was updated June 18, 2023, to add that Serenus Hua said he was not a litigant against the Cycling Safety Ordinance and correct gender references.