Friday, July 19, 2024

A vigil Monday in front of Cambridge City Hall for the two bicyclists killed within two weeks of each other this month.

After two bicyclists were killed in Cambridge traffic within two weeks, city officials and staff say they are focused on addressing the other common factors in the deaths: trucks and intersections.

Kim Staley, 55, of Naples, Florida, died June 7 as a truck took a right turn where she was riding at Mount Auburn and DeWolfe streets, on the southern outskirts of Harvard Square. MIT doctoral student Minh-Thi Nguyen died Friday – two weeks later to the day – after being hit by a truck at Hampshire and Portland streets in The Port neighborhood near Kendall Square.

A vigil for the bicyclists took over the front lawn and steps of City Hall on Monday immediately before a City Council meeting. Then officials took up a policy order asking staff to target the city’s five most dangerous intersections for rapid changes to reduce risk to people walking and bicycling; and to seek state and federal action through Cambridge’s senators and representatives putting side guards on trucks to keep people from getting caught under them and run over by trucks’ rear wheels.

The guards are required on city-owned trucks and companies with City Hall contracts, but “legally, we can’t require them for other trucks,” said vice mayor Marc McGovern, author of the order. That’s where the other request comes in: “We clearly need to elevate the intersection conversation, given the tragedies that we’ve had.”

Staffers embraced the order, with City Manager Yi-An Huang describing a flurry of texts and calls over the past weekend as people grappled with “the lives that were lost and what can be done.”

Range of intersection improvements

Transportation officials had preliminary intersection data to get started on but would supplement it by going through police reports to identify where to target the first intensified improvements, transportation commissioner Brooke McKenna said. Staff expected to present to councillors at their next meeting, a midsummer session set for Aug. 5.

“There’s a lot of work to be done improving intersections, but it is something that we have done consistently in the past,” McKenna said, pointing to a project that turned Inman Square – “a place that was just terrifying,” she said – into two simplified intersections from a single, elongated one with up to seven legs to navigate.

“We have a lot of planning to do and we’ll jump right into that,” McKenna said.

The Cambridge Bicycle Safety group posted a list of possible improvements Sunday that included “daylighting,” which increases visibility by removing parking spaces close to turns; “turn hardening” that adds physical elements to force vehicles to slow for a turn and into an angle that lets drivers see more of where they’re heading; light-signal phasing that has vehicles moving at different times than bicyclists; and models that extend separated and protected bike lanes farther into intersections.

Bike lane success

Councillors had been getting emails arguing that the deaths show the failure of the city’s bike lanes, McGovern said. The installations are part of a Cycling Safety Ordinance passed in 2019 to create more than 25 miles of the lanes within the next few years. The deaths showed only that “they don’t work for everything,” he said.

A co-sponsor of the order, Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, elaborated. (Other co-sponsors were Sumbul Siddiqui and Burhan Azeem.)

“The protected bike lanes have been successful. We’ve not seen anyone killed in the protected bike lanes we’ve added,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said. That there was a death on Hampshire Street shows how successful they are, in a way, and why a friend of his riding with their child happened to see Nguyen being removed from the scene of her fatal collision.

“They would rather be biking on Cambridge Street. But Cambridge Street is much more dangerous right now and they have to go out of their way to go to Hampshire Street to get their kid to school” using bike lanes, Sobrinho-Wheeler said. “The reason people are on these high-traffic, high-volume streets is because we don’t have protected bike lanes on other streets. And there’s still time for us as a council to reverse that.”

Trucks are a disproportionate challenge

There are fewer things the city can do about the presence of trucks. The Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution forbids the city from banning trucks, acting city solicitor Megan Bayer noted. And restrictions against trucks entering certain streets have to go through the state, which has strict guidelines for approval, McKenna said. Even if a restriction is approved, it doesn’t apply to trucks with a “local destination,” a term with no clear definition. Putting up a sign saying only trucks with side guards can use Cambridge streets would also need state approval.

Even the city’s demand for side guards is somewhat porous, as it provides for a few waivers and exemptions, deputy city manager Owen O’Riordan said. They can apply to companies that use such a variety of subcontractors that the rule is functionally impossible, and to trucks whose shapes make side guards physically impossible to put on.

“The fragmented nature of that industry” is a challenge, Huang said of trucking – and yet more must be done. The percentage of vehicles on Cambridge roads that are trucks is under 5 percent, yet up to 80 percent of traffic fatalities over the past 10 years involve trucks. “The culprit in many of these crashes is trucks and size, and blind spots. It is just a disproportionate challenge in terms of how we regulate our streets.”

“Please, please, please be careful”

The council was aligned in calling the bicyclist deaths tragic, including members who angered some bicyclists in April by passing a policy order that could delay construction of bike lanes on Main Street, Cambridge Street and Broadway if work mitigating parking loss – by allowing for off-street spaces to be rented – isn’t finished by May 1, 2026. They offered extra resources for the Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department to enable the intersection study to be added to their workload; one said they were “shattered” by the deaths and bicycled themselves “through one of those intersections almost daily, and the other one at least monthly.”

What’s needed most, McGovern said, “is a culture shift.”

“I get for the last 100-plus years, roads have been all about cars,” McGovern said. “The roads are for all of us. Cars do not own them. They’re public roads – cyclists have a right to be on those roads. We just need a culture shift and understanding that things are moving in a different direction than how they have previously been. We are all in this community together, and we are all responsible for each other’s safety. So please, please, please be careful and cautious.”

“My plea to anybody listening who drives a car, including myself, is just slow down, be more attentive, be patient. You can be five minutes late to wherever you’re going,” McGovern said.