Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Bicyclists on Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Porter squares on July 25. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Many Cambridge City Council candidates are hesitant to sign the Cambridge Bicycle Safety Pledge, though most support expanding bike safety and infrastructure, voters learned at a Tuesday political forum.

The forum was hosted in Harvard’s Emerson Building by Harvard and MIT graduate students unions. The moderators asked each candidate the same five questions, touching on the issues of affordable housing, public safety, climate policy and workers’ rights.

Bike lanes, though, were one of the forum’s most controversial issues, especially regarding the Cambridge Bicycle Safety Pledge. By signing the pledge from the advocacy group Cambridge Bicycle Safety, candidates promise to support the Cycling Safety Ordinance, a statute requiring the city to build 25 miles of separated bike lanes within the next few years. When asked if he had signed the pledge, Dan Totten answered with an emphatic “Yes.”

“It’s really simple,” Totten said. “I signed the pledge because I don’t want my friends to die or get hurt, straight up.”

Councillor Marc McGovern also signed. He explained how he was the lead sponsor of the 2019 version of the Cycling Safety Ordinance and stands behind his work.

“I want people from 8 to 80 to get around this city safely. I think the Cycling Safety Ordinance does that, and I make no apologies for that,” McGovern said.

McGovern also recalled sitting with the parents of Amanda Philips, a Cambridge cyclist who died in a 2016 accident. 

“Our streets just aren’t wide enough to do all the things we want to do, so I understand that by installing dedicated bike lanes we’re going to lose parking and other things, but we have to reimagine how we use our streets. Our streets weren’t always about cars,” McGovern said.

Ayah Al-Zubi echoed those sentiments while adding that the city must consider pedestrians, especially the elderly, when developing its road infrastructure.

“Bike infrastructure saves lives. It’s that simple,” Al-Zubi said. “When we consider what it actually means to uphold road safety, we need to consider everyone in the conversation, including pedestrians.”

Conversely, some candidates criticized the safety pledge because it would force them to ignore what they see as mistakes in the city’s rollout of bike lanes, among other issues. Federico Muchnik said that although Cambridge’s bike lanes could be expanded in some areas, he was “not wild” about last year’s changes to Garden Street.

“Just because I don’t sign the pledge doesn’t mean I’m anti-biking,” Muchnik said. “I biked here tonight; I bike everywhere. I’ve biked in Cambridge my whole life.”

Councillor Paul Toner also refused to sign the pledge, his second time doing so. Toner said that when he ran for council in 2017, he refused to sign because he felt that bike lane advocates had not adequately addressed the concerns of residents and business owners. The current pledge, which has been updated since 2017, is better, Toner said, though it is too strict. 

“The reason I don’t sign pledges is I want to be an independent thinker to work on issues and find solutions,” he said. “There have been some proactive, positive suggestions for Garden Street that could have helped alleviate some of the consternation of the neighbors, and I was told, ‘No, we can’t do that.” 

On the issue of bike safety, Ayesha Wilson delivered a powerful anecdote about her friend Jamesia Dottin, who died in 1997 after a car hit her while she was cycling. In her honor, the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Walden Street is known as Jamesia Dottin Square. Since Dottin’s passing, Wilson said, she has not ridden a bike, adding, “I do believe that bike lanes are really important to our community.” She continued, “I have not signed the bike pledge. I do not intend on signing the bike pledge.”

The next forum for council candidates is scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 12. The Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee and Cambridge YWCA will host the forum at 7 Temple St., Central Square, Cambridge.