Thursday, June 13, 2024

A rider uses a bike lane down Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge on Oct. 7. (Photo: Marc Levy)

There have been resets on studying the economic effects of Cambridge bike-lane installations and on outreach to the public when a bike-lane project gets underway, city staff and consultants said in July meetings.

The economic study frustrating business owners in May now has the Volpe National Transportation Center aboard as a consultant and new data sources in place, the center’s Sean Pierce said at a July 17 economic impact study information session for the Cycling Safety Ordinance. The 2019 law calls for nearly 25 miles of protected lanes citywide.

The study runs for six years, though the law calls for most lanes in the network to be built by April 30, 2026, with possible extensions to Aug. 31, 2028. Results from the first year of the study are expected this fall, said Pardis Saffari, the city’s director of economic opportunity and development.

With the overlapping installation of bus lanes, which also replaced parking spaces, and factors such as Covid, some caution around results were signaled by Pierce and Saffari.

“In transportation we don’t have randomized control trials, and life is messy. Projects happen when they happen, and sometimes there are other projects nearby, or two projects intersect,” Pierce said. While the Cambridge study will stand alone, such studies usually “find relatively small changes either way – sometimes slightly positive, sometimes basically neutral, sometimes slightly negative on automobile-oriented businesses. And one of the themes is that it’s difficult to separate the changes that you you see from broader macroeconomic trends and other things going on in the city.”

While business owners worry that less parking means fewer customers, it’s not clear that’s true: Pierce noted that “from some of the studies [in other cities], maybe somewhat counterintuitively, retail sales don’t seem to be very strongly affected by parking.” Though other cities’ results cannot say for sure what will occur in Cambridge, they can be useful predictive tools, he said.

To assess bike lanes’ effect on retail and purchasing, the study will monitor cellphone location data, collaborating with location data company SafeGraph to estimate the amount of money spent at each location. This method lacks the accuracy of collecting local tax data or register receipt data, but the city and Volpe were unable to reach an agreement either with state government or with point-of-sale providers, even locally bases businesses such as Toast, Pierce and Saffari said.

Accounting for gaps

The study will also track more indirect measures: real estate, because “the value of urban real estate reflects its location and accessibility,” Pierce said, as well as employment and wage data, known as longitudinal employer household dynamics data, which is taken from the census.

All sources have gaps and limitations the study will have to account for, Pierce said. While in recent months as much attention has been put on medical offices and other services as on retail, much of the hard data becoming available will look only at sales.

In the meantime, surveys have gone out to business owners – some were complete as of the July 17 session – and the city plans follow-ups to ensure a good sampling of responders. The most eager to take part “may be people who have a particular kind of strong policy perspective on this, so we’re doing our best to kind of mitigate those biases,” Pierce said. 

Business owners are also being invited to send more detailed data, Pierce said. Some testified in past meetings to having rich records of losses when the lanes were installed, and to being upset no one from the city was looking at them.

Advisory group improves outreach

Improving public outreach and community feedback was also a theme for a Cycling Safety Ordinance Advisory Group meeting held July 25, where members acknowledged limitations to earlier outreach efforts.

Harvard Square Business Association executive director Denise Jillson said that, for example, when changes in the design of Garden Street and Concord Avenue resulted in “complete outcry from the neighborhood,” the city response “was basically, the design is designed and regardless of outcry, we’re not changing anything.”

The group’s capacity for outreach is greater now, transportation commissioner Brooke McKenna said. “This was one of our earlier projects, so we have really learned along the way,” she said, referring the 2021 mid-Massachusetts Avenue project. “The Covid aspect was pretty challenging as well. We were just learning to do online meetings.”

The process for road space allocation was detailed by the Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department’s Stephen Meuse, a street design project manager, and Elise Harmon-Freeman, its communications manager. It begins with mathematical considerations based mainly on federal regulations: A street must be at least 43 feet wide to be able to accommodate a bike lane and one lane of parking, or 48 feet for a bike lane and two lanes of parking. Individual conditions – such as the presence of bus routes or trucks – can demand more width.

Advisers will walk the avenue

Since the Cycling Safety Ordinance mandates bike lanes in certain areas, the majority of the decision-making centers around whether and how to provide street parking. It’s not merely a matter of providing the maximum amount of parking spaces; city staff also considers where to place them to improve convenience. For example, one side of the street may have more space, but the other side may have the businesses residents tend to drive to. “Sometimes that does lead to fewer spaces being provided, but they’re in better spots that are more useful,” Meuse said.

Rather than “floating” between bike and driving lanes, Meuse said, some types of parking such as bus stops and accessible spaces must be directly next to the curb. Additionally, many businesses require frequent use of loading and delivery vehicles.

Transportation staff are now customizing outreach “based on that mix of residential and business corridors,” McKenna said. “We try to have one-on-one contacts.”

Outreach is focused primarily on Main Street, where staff is conducting a survey about various design options through September; and the $50 million Massachusetts Avenue partial reconstruction project, for which a Working Group for the Mass Ave Partial Reconstruction Project held a first walk along affected portions from 3 to 5 p.m. Thursday, discussing design possibilities based on travel pattern observations. The walk from Porter Square to Waterhouse Street near Harvard Square is open to the public and sets off from the red windmill sculpture at Porter Station, 1899 Massachusetts Ave.

Bike lane updates

A two-way bike lane from Harvard Square to Mount Auburn Street is in place, Harmon-Freeman said, and temporary cones marking it will be replaced with concrete curbs in the coming weeks. On Hampshire Street, a sidewalk reconstruction compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act is in progress, as is the addition of metered parking spaces. Huron Avenue is also getting curb and sidewalk reconstruction.

This post was updated Aug. 3, 2023, to correct the attribution of two quotes, and Aug. 4, 2023, to correct the name of Elise Harmon-Freeman and Huron Avenue, title of Brooke McKenna, information about a walk of Massachusetts Avenue and length of time a survey will be available.