Saturday, June 22, 2024

Massachusetts Avenue south of Cambridge’s Porter Square on June 14, 2022, after removal of sections of a center median to keep parking while installing bike lanes. (Photo: Marc Levy)

In figuring out how 2 miles of reconstructed Massachusetts Avenue will work block by block with new separated bike lanes, members of a Cambridge working group said Thursday that they had to balance the conflicting needs of different kinds of  transportation. They also had a challenge at least as big: community outreach.

Necessary trade-offs need to be signaled from the beginning to avoid the rancor that has surrounded bike lane installations so far, members said.

“It’s not that we’re trying to destroy businesses, or make it easy for people to do something over another thing, or that it’s all about the cyclists,” said Laurie Pessah, one of 14 members of the working group appointed April 24 by the city manager to grapple with $50 million worth of road reconstruction between Cambridge Common and the Arlington town line. “But it’s driven in large part by safety. And that that means slowing down traffic wherever possible, making it more difficult to do maneuvers that introduce conflicts that are hazardous.”

People along the avenue need to hear the working group and staff “emphasizing safety as often as we can,” Pessah said. “There’s going to be delay, there’s going to be inconvenience. But if those are in the cause of safety, I think we’ll get further with the public and maybe be able to unite people to some extent.”

Outreach must begin immediately with “whatever information we have,” said member and Harvard Square Business Association president Denise Jillson. “If I have to go personally door to door to every single HSBA member from The Hong Kong restaurant down to the Porter Square Hotel, I am happy to do that. Because I want to make sure that people understand what’s coming and how they’re going to be impacted.”

That may be essential. “I still meet business owners every day who don’t know about it,” said Steven Beaucher, an architect and the proprietor of the WardMaps store on Massachusetts Avenue, referring to the roadwork.

Fighting for road space

The project encompasses improvements that go far beyond bike lanes, but city staff know from experience – installing the lanes across Cambridge as part of the 2019 Cycling Safety Ordinance – that they draw the most attention and upset. Adding them on narrow streets can mean having to remove parking spaces.

Pedestrians, bikers, bus riders and drivers are all fighting for road space, working group members said. Since the previous meeting May 18 – the first time the working group met – members were asked to visit the relevant portion of Massachusetts Avenue and identify areas for improvement.

Observations were wide-ranging. Resident Gary Dmytryk, for example, noted a pinch point at Walden Street where a bike lane cuts off, which “absolutely has to be addressed, because it’s crazy to just have the bike lane disappear like that.” Pessah, meanwhile, noted that in certain intersections, a high volume of pedestrians in combination with a large number of cars waiting to turn right results in backed-up traffic. Several working group members noted the difficulty of designating appropriate spaces for loading and delivery vehicles, including president of the Porter Square Neighbors Association Ruth Ryals, who “was most concerned about commercial delivery, because they are everywhere, pulling over wherever they feel like it: in the middle of the car traveling lane or in the middle of the bike lane.”

Guided by statistics and data

Incorporating every suggestion, however, will not be easy. Jerry Friedman, the supervising engineer at the Department of Public Works, emphasized the necessity of compromise. He identified two categories based on levels of necessity: fixed elements, referring to at least one lane of cars and a bike lane in each direction; and optional elements, including turn lanes, bus lanes, curbside access and pedestrian crossings.

“There’s an intimate relationship between bus lanes and where we can and cannot provide curbside access, and median refuges. So there’s work for us to do: to identify trade-offs through our analyses and make sure you understand the trade-offs,” Friedman said.

To decide, the working group will be guided by statistics and data on such things as collisions, travel times and traffic patterns in intersection. The road design will most accurately match how people use the road, staff said.

Crosswalks and turn lanes

For example, intersections have two possibilities for crosswalk signals: concurrent phasing, in which pedestrians cross parallel to moving cars, and exclusive phasing, in which all pedestrians cross at once. Concurrent phasing has lower wait times for pedestrians and drivers, while exclusive phasing reduces the risk of collision between pedestrians and turning cars. To choose the best  phasing, it can be good to compare the number of cars turning or going straight and the number of pedestrians in each direction – though, as Cambridge’s Street Design Project Manager Andreas Wolfe warns, “there’s no golden threshold” between types of phasing.

Data can also show how to improve safety by making road use more intuitive, Wolfe said. Instead of “encouraging behaviors we know are unsafe,” Wolfe said, the safest option can also be the most convenient option.

For example, effectively placed turn lanes can reduce the pressure drivers feel to enter an intersection, which increases the risk of a collision.

“When you’re trying to manage crossing two lanes of traffic coming at you, bicyclists coming in the other direction and pedestrians who are all the way on the other side of the street, that’s sensory overload. It’s really difficult for anyone to safely cognitively process all that at once. That’s where turn lanes come into play: making that safer,” Wolfe said.

Instead of having a through lane of cars waiting impatiently behind them, drivers preparing to make a turn are diverted into a separate lane where they can more clearly account for pedestrians and bikers around them.

Such solutions are rarely universally applicable, and turn lanes have drawbacks too. If a turn lane is not long enough to accommodate all drivers trying to turn, Wolfe said, drivers trying to use it may begin to block the through lane. Then “someone who’s trying to go straight may see a green light ahead of them but be stuck behind people who are turning. That encourages them to do something unsafe” such as cross over into the opposite-direction lane while maneuvering around the cars in front of them.

Consistency and trade-offs

Another major difficulty working group members foresaw was in their approach: How to balance selecting a solution ideal for each block or intersection but keep the avenue as a whole consistent?

While piecing together an understanding of the issues, working group members started with a piecemeal approach. Wolfe and Friedman directed their attention to various intersections to illustrate specific problems and their potential solutions. Timothy Keefe, among others, highlighted the benefits of this “block by block, section by section” approach to accounting for the needs of different businesses.

Many members agreed, however, that inconsistent signage or other design elements tended to cause confusion. In particular, the availability of parking in off-peak bus lanes was a point of concern. The working group stated an intention to establish clear communication with Cambridge residents on intended road use.

They also discussed the necessity of community outreach and input throughout the process, hoping to clarify the necessary trade-offs from the beginning rather than waiting to present a finished product.

The working group will meet in July for a more detailed technical presentation and are discussing a walk of the avenue