Monday, July 22, 2024

Bicyclists await news about a Safe Streets Ordinance at a Thursday meeting of Somerville’s City Council. (Photo: Julia Levine)

A law requiring 29 miles of protected bike lanes to be built in Somerville by 2030 passed the City Council on Thursday. The Safe Streets Ordinance is similar to the Cycling Safety Ordinance in neighboring Cambridge that was passed in 2019 with a 2020 amendment setting the timeline to install approximately 25 miles of separated bike lanes by May 1, 2026.

In Cambridge, there was an almost instant “bikelash,” two failed lawsuits and now a delay on most remaining CSO separated bike lanes to Nov. 1, 2027, as the city tries to figure out changes to parking that will ease the loss of street parking on tight roads now needing to squeeze in room for bicyclists outside car traffic. An ongoing debate has questioned how less parking affects businesses.

Like in Cambridge, calls for bike lanes accelerated with the deaths of bicyclists.

Somerville residents rallied for better bike lanes in 2022 after the death of Stephen Conley, 72, who was riding in a bike lane near Teele Square that left him vulnerable to a “dooring”: Someone in a parked car opened a door into him. The law calls for protected bike lanes, in which cyclists are separated from the flow of motor traffic, such as by bollards.

The Safe Streets Ordinance is the culmination of two years of advocacy following Conley’s death.

A rider on a bike lane on Beacon Street in Somerville on March 16, 2023. (Photo: Marc Levy)

“Thoughts and prayers are not enough,” said Willie Burnley Jr., the at-large councilor who sponsored the law. “As members of government, we have a precious and crucial duty to do as much as we can to enact the kind of life-saving measures that are necessary to ensure that every member of our community is safe when they leave their home.”

Among the public speakers was Susan Sheng, of the Cambridge Bicycle Safety group, who praised the law as part of a comprehensive network that allowed cyclists to travel widely with confidence. “Given how interconnected our cities are, a comprehensive bike lane network that spans Somerville and Cambridge will make cycling a more attractive and viable transportation option for residents and visitors alike,” Sheng said. “Just imagine being able to safely navigate everywhere across our cities for errands, for work or leisure without feeling limited by piecemeal bike-lane segments.”

Impassioned comment also came from Somerville resident Tadhg Pearson, who was hit while bicycling on Highland Avenue.

“I was really lucky not to die,” Pearson said. “So many people were not so lucky.”

Pearson also expressed frustration around pedestrian safety in Somerville, recalling how a stroller he was pushing while on his way to pick up his child from preschool was hit by a car. While the ordinance focuses on protected bike lanes, it will require improvements to sidewalks and crosswalks on streets with protected bike lanes.

It will also require the city to be more transparent about its construction progress by having a public website showing the number of installed protected bike lanes and by presenting an annual report to the City Council about progress made in the previous year, starting March 1.

The Somerville Bicycle Network Plan was released last fall. The City’s goal is for 15 percent of residents to travel by bicycle in 2050. Many Somerville residents who were surveyed for the plan said they do not regularly bike because of safety concerns, so more protected bicycle lanes will be needed for Somerville to meet the goal.

Council president Ben Ewen-Campen addressed the tension around bike lanes affecting both cities.

“There’s a weird amount of acrimony,” said Ewen-Campen, of Ward 3. “I think it’s completely misguided. I often hear stereotypes that all cyclists are rich tech bros going 30 miles an hour. First of all, those people deserve to live too, but just go outside. There are kids, there are elderly people, there are guys getting off work at Market Basket on bikes. This is about keeping people safe as they try to get to and from their house, their friends’ houses, their jobs. I’m incredibly grateful that in this community the elected officials see the basic facts around how important safety is.”

All Somerville city councilors voted in favor of the Safe Streets Ordinance except Naima Sait of Ward 5, who was absent.