By Tom Meek, published on the Cambridge Day on May 21.
Fallout from a report about quick-build separated bike lanes continued Thursday at a virtual meeting of the Porter Square Neighbors Association, with concerns from residents and business owners that on-street parking would be eliminated along Massachusetts Avenue north of Cambridge Common.
“The city dropped the worse-case scenario,” said Ruth Ryals, president of the association.
No one at the meeting, bicyclists included, supported the most extreme options from the MassAve4 Impacts Analysis Report – those that would sacrifice significant amounts of parking along the avenue.
The report, released just in time to beat a May 1 deadline, is a byproduct of the 2020 Cycling Safety Ordinance, which calls for 25 miles of protected bike lanes to be built over the next five to seven years. Massachusetts Avenue is targeted for them as a major route through the city.
The ordinance acknowledges that quick-build bike lanes (defined mainly by flex posts and paint, but still relocating parking spaces, as happened with Cambridge Street) are easier to achieve than construction that involves adding concrete medians and shifting bus wires, which could force changes to the timeline to accommodate logistical challenges.
The city has said the report is not a protected bike-lane proposal, but instead is about their potential effect on parking – a distinction some found hard to discern in the text. “I read the report and panicked,” Ryals said in her opening comments.
Bicyclists and business owners
Several members of the Cambridge Bicycle Safety Group, the local activist organization that pushed for the ordinance, spoke Thursday, including Rebecca Neuman, Sam Feigenbaum and cofounder Nathanael Fillmore. The positive community and environmental impacts of cyclists and cycling were stressed by Neuman, organizer of a Cambridge Bike Delivery initiative that engages volunteers to deliver food pantry items to community refrigerators in Cambridge and Somerville and to people with limited mobility. Others highlighted cycling deaths in areas with deficient cycling infrastructure – including Amanda Phillips in Inman Square; Bernard “Joe” Lavins in Porter Square; and Darryl Willis in Harvard Square – and shared city-gathered survey results showing that only 20 percent of those responding felt comfortable biking without protected or separated bike lanes; 70 percent said the lanes would make them feel safer and more likely to take to the street by bike. Feigenbaum, a Harvard Law student, walked the audience through the details of the ordinance.
Fillmore summed up, saying what was illustrated in the report “was too extreme and not necessary,” and walked through some possible protected bike lane solutions that would not eliminate parking along the northern stretch of the avenue.
Business owners expressed concern for cyclists’ safety – and began their comments by stating their own use of bicycles and mass transit – but also fear for the economic impact resulting from the study’s findings. “Elimination of parking would be disastrous,” said Jeanne Oster, of the family-run Guitar Stop, opened by her father in the 1960s. Steven Beaucher, of Ward Maps, said if he had no way for people to come in and pick up large maps and the heavy transit signs sold by the store, he’d have to take his business online. He also conceded that losing some parking could be for the greater good.
More agreement than disagreement
Theodora Skeadas, executive director of the Cambridge Local First small-business group, attended the meeting. City councillor Dennis Carlone joined briefly to share his sympathy and concerns for cyclists and local business owners, and pointed out that while the council approves policy such as the cycling ordinance, it does not approve roadway and traffic changes. That work is handled by the city manager and his staff.
The evening meeting showed no signs of the battling among cyclists, residents and business owners seen over bike lane proposals after an initial rapid rollout in 2017. All groups wanted the others to succeed and be safe, and an improved quality of street life and amenities along the avenue. A “road diet” was discussed that included removing some stretches of Massachusetts Avenue’s raised median to make room for bike lanes; having the median was called something of a “religious” adherence by long-time residents, but ultimately people at the meeting didn’t consider it vital. Ryals said the avenue still has “that highway feel to it.”
“I came away from the meeting feeling quite positive, since from the discussion it sounded like there are broad areas of alignment between business owners, Porter Square neighbors and bicycle safety advocates – much more agreement than disagreement, in fact,” Fillmore said. He was optimistic roadway changes could be made “in a responsible and technically feasible way that will improve rather than detract from the ability of small businesses to thrive.”
City staff said the next steps would be to determine if quick-build lanes are possible, and to provide protected bike lane options for review by the public.