Why bike safety is a divisive issue in Cambridge

Late last year, on Massachusetts Avenue near the Arlington Line, a city rapid construction project added nine blocks of separate bike lanes, created bus lanes and removed curbside parking, using paint, bollards and panels. Cycle lanes represent around 2% of the total number of new lanes required by the Cambridge Cycling Safety Ordinance.

There has been a storm of protest against this project from residents and business owners in North Cambridge. In response, the city council voted in January to establish a Bike Safety Ordinance Implementation Advisory Committee to address community and business concerns about bike lane projects.

At this council meeting, there were dozens of public comments from both sides of the bike lane. One commenter lamented the deep disagreements the current process and results have sparked among segments of the Cambridge community, another the rage of residents, drivers and walkers against cyclists that is evident on Nextdoor. One of them pleaded for solutions that would calm the anger.

The controversy surrounding the North Massachusetts Avenue bike path is neither new nor surprising. The same issues and divisions surfaced in 2018 after the first rapid-build bike lanes were installed on Cambridge Street, Brattle Street and Massachusetts Avenue near the Common. At that time, the City Manager and Mayor jointly proposed a Cambridge Bike Safety Project Review Committee on how to improve the engagement process for future projects, and the City hired a consultant to interview community members, staff and councilors who had been involved in reviewing these projects. .

Almost all of the interviewees said that participants had been abused, intimidated, insulted or even physically attacked for their opinions on cycling infrastructure, parking or cars and had been subjected to personal attacks and demonization.

A year earlier, in 2017, when the first rapid build projects were launched, memories of two fatal cycling crashes on Cambridge Street were fresh, and there were demands that the city do something to prevent more young cyclists to die horribly, public deaths. That prompted the city to make implementing existing long-term plans for cycling infrastructure a priority, and officials described the projects as safety improvements.

This simple new framing of complex infrastructure projects shaped subsequent discourse in public meetings and the media. In this context, as the city consultant reported, any dissent was considered anti-security. If you objected to the removal of parking spaces, expressed concerns about the loss of street access, or questioned other impacts or even the design of the project, your opinion could be dismissed as anti-cycling. , endangering the lives of cyclists or worse.

Then, in 2019 and 2020, the City Council institutionalized the rebranding of cycling infrastructure in the Cycling Safety Ordinance. The only effect of this law is to set detailed deadlines for the city to create a network of 26.2 miles of segregated bike lanes by 2026. This is about bike safety in a narrow and unusual sense: it it is about infrastructure and does not deal with other obvious measures to improve cycling safety. In addition, it has other important goals, namely to reduce motor vehicle travel and motor vehicle ownership by Cambridge residents.

So far, this ordinance has led to the installation and revision piecemeal, district by district, of new sections of cycle paths. The process in North Cambridge and elsewhere has been less than transparent and flawed by poor communication with affected residents and businesses. The Director General is now forming an advisory group to respond to the need identified by the City’s consultant three years ago:

These projects are seen by most stakeholders as having a high impact on the community and therefore deserving a significant level of engagement. The main conclusion of this evaluation is that the efforts to inform and engage the public and the city’s rapid construction projects to date have mostly failed to meet these expectations.

Future projects including Massachusetts Avenue from North Cambridge to Harvard Square; Cambridge Street east of Inman Square; and Broadway from Quincy Street to Hampshire Street certainly appear to have larger impacts and be more complex than the projects already completed, and there are high expectations for meaningful community engagement in the decisions.

As one commentator said at the January 10 city council meeting, democracy requires everyone to have a voice.


John Pitkin has been active in Cambridge civic affairs since 1971 and chaired the Cambridge Transportation Forum, which was established in 1972 by the City Council and City Manager to coordinate citizen involvement in transport planning.

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Jessica C. Bell