Thursday, July 18, 2024

Residents look over materials at a Nov. 29 meeting held by the city about changes coming to Cambridge Street, including bike lanes. (Photo: Ian McGoldrick)

The latest project in Cambridge’s Bicycle Network Vision is raising complaints familiar from past bike lane installations about lost parking and poor processes, but opponents have added a wrinkle: declining to suggest improvements as a form of protest.

Cambridge Street will get separated, curb-adjacent bike lanes next year between Inman Square and Second Street separated from moving vehicles by white flex posts. The change comes as part of a Safety Improvement Project that includes changes for pedestrians such as shortened crossing distances and curb ramps reconstructed for accessibility.

The project contributes to an aspirational map of the city with separated bike lanes and some streets designated as low-speed and low-volume. “By having a network of facilities that allow people to get everywhere they want to go on a bike, we can really encourage people to opt to cycle,” said Brooke McKenna, transportation commissioner for the city.

McKenna’s team is implementing the Cycling Safety Ordinance passed by the City Council in 2019. A 2020 amendment set a timeline for the 25 miles of separated bike lanes to be in place before 2027. These miles include all of Massachusetts Avenue, Broadway from Quincy Street to Hampshire Street and the current Cambridge Street project.

Dating back to 2017

These changes are expected to be positive for bikers and walkers, but drivers are worried: They mean on-street parking is reduced to one side of the street. If less parking means less driving, local businesses could suffer. At open houses hosted by the city Nov. 29 and Dec. 2, tensions flared.

“There are a lot of people that are not sure why we’re doing this, that are not sure how this is going to work,” said Jason Alves, executive director of the East Cambridge Business Association, who noted that he saw concern and anxiety from residents as well as business owners over how this will affect Cambridge Street. It’s a continuation of a “bikelash” dating back to the installation of the first bike lanes more than six years ago, before passage of the CSO.

“Frankly, I don’t know what to tell business owners,” Alves said. “That’s hard, and that’s scary.”

Joan Pickett, a longtime anti-bike lane, pro-business advocate who ran for council this November and won, cited the challenges facing business owners. “All of the business owners are very concerned about the loss of parking and the impacts on their businesses – not just the customers but also any deliveries, drop-offs,” Pickett said. “Where’s the short-term parking? What about deliveries?”

Not just businesses

It’s not just business representatives worrying. Pickett spoke to a father at the Nov. 29 meeting who wondered how he would drop his children off at day care once parking becomes sparse.

Maureen Foley is a third-generation East Cambridge resident who attended the Nov. 29 meeting. As a driver, she also expects problems.

“I have to drive my daughter to Danehy Park to play softball. What am I supposed to do? How am I going to get there?” Foley said. “This is a city. People go to one end of Cambridge for this store, the other end for another store. You can’t always walk or bike there. Sometimes you have to drive. Then what happens?”

Bikes also don’t work for everyone. Foley is 72, and said she would not be comfortable cycling around the city. Marie Elena Saccoccio, who was at the Nov. 29 meeting, said someone complained that “the city does not care about lifelong residents or elderly people or disabled people or businesses, and caters to cyclists only passing through.”

Pickett is the former chair of Cambridge Streets for All, an advocacy group that sued the city over the bike lanes. Though the suit was dismissed in Middlesex Superior Court in March, Cambridge Streets for All continues to fight. In a newsletter emailed after the Nov. 29 meeting, it urged members to attend the next presentation with the encouragement that “the large turnout of residents made a strong statement. Let’s keep up the pressure at the next two meetings!”

Residents don’t feel heard

Residents who oppose the addition of bike lanes see a disconnect between themselves and the city. They come to the meetings, but they don’t feel heard there or satisfied by the city’s method for collecting feedback.

“We went there with the understanding we were going to be able to speak, but that wasn’t their intention at all,” Foley said. “They didn’t want any public comments, nothing said.”

At the meetings, the city provided a 20-foot map of the affected section of Cambridge Street and asked attendees to write notes on Post-its and stick them on sections they want to give feedback on. Some did not find this effective.

“I didn’t do it, that’s not how I communicate. Let’s be human beings here, let’s have a discussion about it, let’s talk about it,” Foley said.

Even if the city wants to listen to residents’ feedback, the Cycling Safety Ordinance requires the addition of these bike lanes, so staff hands are tied – there isn’t much wiggle room for changes. It already seems to be a “done deal,” as Foley put it, so people feel their feedback doesn’t matter.

“I think people went there expecting it to be something else, and there was a lot of frustration because people felt there was no real point to provide feedback since the decisions are already made,” Alves said of the meetings.

Standardized approach

The approach has been similar at least since passage of the CSO, with staff taking standardized approaches to lane installation, getting feedback to the results that can be paired with data recorded at the scene and making changes to improve the results if necessary. Recent bike lane installations have included more notice to neighbors and gathering of feedback before road work begins.

“It’s not a conversation about if this should happen,” Alves said. “The question ends up becoming ‘What side of the street do you want parking on?’ That’s not good.”

Saccoccio felt the Post-it map was pointless considering the bike lanes are being installed. “You could presumably comment on a Post-it if you want a tree or a bench or some special treatment for a crosswalk,” she said. “Pretty crazy.”

Ian McGoldrick, a cyclist who lives in Kendall Square, found the Post-it idea to be “very productive.” “It allowed people to come and give feedback to the traffic department, but also to intermingle and talk to other people at the meeting,” McGoldrick said.

“I refuse to be forced”

Saccoccio, the Cambridge Streets for All officer for East Cambridge, said the Post-it method was used at a meeting she attended outside the Valente library branch during the pandemic. “As soon as anyone posted they did not want bike lanes they were corrected that the bike lanes were not open for comment,” Saccoccio said.

City staff say they want feedback and will use it to help mitigate negative impacts such as the loss of parking. “The whole reason we have events like our open houses is to hear people’s perspectives,” McKenna said – yet residents who don’t agree with the city’s process for feedback shut down, and don’t participate at all.

“Either you are corralled into doing what they want or you get to say nothing,” Saccoccio said. “I refuse to be forced into a presumptive process. Once you agree to this process, you become part of the problem.”

Residents such as Foley and Saccoccio feel certain that more bike lanes will harm the businesses that line Cambridge Street, and Alves emphasized the fear that business owners are experiencing.

Looking to data

Data from cities around the world suggest that bike lanes improve local economies. In a 2015 article, Bloomberg compiled a dozen studies that collectively suggested replacing parking with bike lanes has little to no impact on local business, and may actually increase business. A study on Manhattan’s East Village found that cyclists spent about an average of $163 per week in local businesses, while drivers spent $143; a project that replaced car lanes with bike lanes in notoriously car-heavy Los Angeles was found to have little effect on businesses, property values or customer shopping patterns.

Groups such as Cambridge Bicycle Safety, which advocate for improving Cambridge’s bikeability, point toward these kinds of studies. Chris Cassa, a volunteer with the group, said, “I live in the area, and I really value these businesses and I want to see them succeed. I really think it’s going to be good for the street.”

Cassa also pointed toward street intercept surveys conducted by Cambridge Community Development staff that found that less than a third of customers traveled to business squares such as East Cambridge, Inman Square, Central Square and Harvard Square by car. And some of the businesses most vocally worried about closing because of bike lanes – including Skenderian Apothecary in 2017 and Fast Phil’s barbershop in 2021 – have managed to stay open.

Even so, business owners remain worried. “It’s hard to find a true comparison with studies, and you don’t know what’s going to happen on a particular block until that block has bike lanes,” Alves said.

Because of the Cycling Safety Ordinance timeline, this project is happening fast. The city’s estimate for installation is less than a year away, in the summer or fall of 2024. “Bike lanes were just put in on other streets – we don’t have enough time to get data on how it’s working there to be able to have that help inform the project on Cambridge Street,” Alves said.

“They just don’t know how it’s all going to work,” Pickett said.

Positives of the development

Cycling outside of protected bike lanes can be unsafe, and accidents are plentiful. In 2016, a cyclist was killed on Cambridge Street.

Cassa has also been hit, and less than two weeks later someone was hit at the same intersection at Cambridge and Windsor streets. Seven people have been hit there since 2021, according to state transportation data.

For cyclists, the Cycling Safety Ordinance and its projects are unequivocal wins.

“This is really important to being able to get around safely in our community,” Cassa said.

But for those who don’t bike, it just feels like a loss of their streets. “We’re never going to be able to make everybody happy,” McKenna said.

McKenna said the city is making an effort to optimize parking and looking for opportunities to increase it, such as adding meters on side streets. “The more people who can opt to bike, the less demand we have for the parking that remains,” McKenna said.

The city recognizes that not everyone can stop driving and ride a bike, but wants to make it easier for people who can to make that decision. “That is what will really help with congestion and making the city more sustainable,” McKenna said.