A prefatory note: CCC supports bicycling and bicycle lanes, but we also feel strongly about smart planning, solid research, transparency, and accountability in terms of bicycling and other issues:
Cambridge has a large well-funded planning department. But how they go about doing their work or following up on it in terms of accountability is often in short supply. The conflicts over city bicycle lane conflicts vis-a-vis various neighborhoods and local businesses is a case in point. The image at the top of this post shows both the 2015 Network Vision transportation network prioritizing bicyclists and recent 2020 additions. A short glance at this map indicates that most major streets in key parts of the city are now considered to prioritize bicycles as the principal means of transportation, often removing on street parking to achieve the intended results.
Some other U. S. cities are prioritizing bicycling as well, although few if any have both the immense density of Cambridge (ranked 4th-5th most dense city in the country with a population over 100K) and the lack of a city and area public transportation system that otherwise would get people where they need to go within a viable time frame. To make matters worse, Cambridge is adding tens of thousands of new jobs to this already packed urban center; most will be arriving by car from near and far, clogging the streets further. The city has yet to require our large employers and institutions to come up with an area housing and transportation plan for their employees, so Cambridge residents who bear the burden of increasingly clogged streets. Removing parking for city employees, requiring them to take public transportation, to walk, or to bike would be a good way to start.
Note: Cambridge is a major cut-thru for commuters. A large amount of traffic comes from north and west commuters going to Boston. Those commuters will not be riding bicycles to come in from Lexington, Concord and elsewhere.
Note too: European cities which could serve as a good model for us have terrific public transportation systems, often with a special designated bus and taxi drop off point so that neither fills the streets of the inner city. The aim now in these cities is to get people where they need to go in 15-20 minutes. Unfortunately, we have nothing like this in Cambridge. Nor do we know what percentage of upper-level and lower-level city employees take public transportation or bicycles to work every day.
COUNTING: The City does meter bicycle traffic on some streets some days, but this does not provide critical cycling data for other streets in the city And, since none of the bicycles are tagged so we know the specific routes, times, number of trips, beginning times and end times. Blue bikes have the kind of tracking system that would enable one to do this. Perhaps a couple hundred Cambridge cyclists would agree to such a tag so we would have more knowledge to draw on. The city also has provided select data on use (seeming for leisure rather than commuting) which shows that more Cambridge people biked one time per year in 2020 than in 2016 but there is no break down on where this occurred (in the city or on vacation), what are their ages, or how many of of these people also owned and used cars to get to work or to do errands. That would be important data to have if we are thinking about a holistic transportation policy. Our city’s bike counter data can be found HERE. See also below on issues in San Diego.
Editor note: We were asked to remove the bike enumerator from the original post so replaced it with this one on Broadway that is posted on the CDD website (below left).
Some bicyclists are now stating that the city may never reach the bicycling numbers (pre-Covid) because so many are working from home. That would be a good thing because it would help ease both our overly heated housing market and the clogged streets.
CITY SERVICES: The City has mapped out where each department's responsibilities lie in terms of maintenance (see below). We are a city well served for bicyclists as the CDD map below shows.
COMMUTERS: The city has provided some comparative commuter data about cycling and other methods of transportation in their "Journey to Work" graph. Cambridge residents who work often need their cars to get to work at the times they need to be there (and/or for other reasons). Still others, including many bicyclists and bicycle lane supporters (as we are) also own cars and frequently must park them on the street. Still others, vast numbers, come into Cambridge every day to work by car, or live in Cambridge and must travel outside the city to get to work elsewhere. All of these residents and workers need to use the streets to travel - either by car, by public transportation, by foot, or by bike.
DISTORTED GRAPHS AND OPPOSITION STATS:
The above city graph on the right, which purports to show transportation means in the city is problematic because it stops at 70%. This distorts the visual framing. This, like all graphs, is intended to be is a visual representation of the actual data. Also it is not clear what the dat show since we know that 25% of Cambridge residents who work are able to walk to work. The bottom line is that here, as in the other ways when it comes to bicycles, the city is in some ways seeking to “cook the books” by creating and using distorting visuals such as this.
Recently a cycling supporter posted on a neighborhood list-serve in response intended to counter a comment that "Bicyclists are a very small minority of Cambridge residents." He wrote that:
WHO COMMUTES BY BIKE/WHO DOESN"T:
The city's cycling use data also changes dramatically between summer and winters.so those having to get to work are having to find other means of transportation, cars among these.
The above graph pulls together city bicycle use data from Kendall Square using a bike counter here that has been operational for more than 5 years. See: https://data.eco-counter.com/public2/?id=100023038. The overall picture is one of seasonal variation, as well as variation by day of the week. Weekends in that area have the lowest utilization no matter what the season. We might find the same thing on Mass Ave or any of the other main commercial corridors. In some cases, this may indicate a downside of dedicated bike infrastructure in some areas. It may be lightly used at best, much less used from November through April, and not used much at all on weekends. We need a plan based on data and also a plan that evaluates bike behavior; the latter is an important factor in the overall dataset, evaluation, and future planning. (H/T Michael Massagli).
Smart planning is how one does it. The Harvard Square Business Association also did a transportation study in 2018 which provides a better sense of actual bicycle usage with respect to streets and times of day. Why is the city not doing more studies like this as a key part of its planning?
Editor note: We have swapped in the fuller HSBA map titled "Bicyclist Activity" for the partial map and graph image we showed earlier this one showing both bicycle activity and crash analysis.
The patterns of use that we see in the image at the above right are VERY different from with the map showing where the City itself is proposing to have bicycle-enhancing streets (see the map at the top of this blog). This becomes even more striking when we note that about 5% of the workers in our city commute to work by bicycle. Stalled cars creeping through the streets struggling to get through them, much less find parking is not a plus for the environment, for resident livability, or for broader issues of health equity and climate justice. And, without a viable public transportation system the answer is simply not attempting to stop people from driving. If people need to drive a car to get to work to earn a livelihood, or they are unable to bike they need options.
ON BICYCLE SAFETY: Our city and the bicyclists have rightly focused on safety in promoting separated lanes. No matter the circumstances fatalities are tragic, as it also is for pedestrians and drivers of all types. In Cambridge we have exact addresses, circumstances, and times of day when these (fortunately rare) bicycle fatalities have occurred. The same sources track pedestrian fatalities and car fatalities. Here is what stands out in looking at the data:
Why this matters: The politics around bicycle lanes has been contentious and replete with false accusations and bullying, suggestions for example claiming that some residents did not care about cyclist deaths, or that cycling was a leading cause of youth death here. The above chart is important because it provides dates and places. But what this chart does not indicate are issues such as responsibility, and for that on would need to look at the police reports in each case. While some (including eye witnesses) mention reckless cycling, others note that in the case of Cambridge Street which was recorded by a surveillance camera of Inman Pharmacy, the person was moving between two parked cars into the active lane in such a way that no bicycle infrastructure could have avoided the collision. The bicyclist crossing Monsignor O'Brien Highway took a pathway that is not really a street, so again no bike lane infrastructure likely would have saved him. A more recent case of a couple getting "doored" while riding a one person bike in East Cambridge is important to note as well, because here apparently there was a protected bike lane, but it did not prevent the accident.
We also have police department data on bicycle and other crashes. It is accessible, and downloadable at: Police Department Crash Data - Updated | Open Data | City of Cambridge (cambridgema.gov). The data set includes information from 2015 to 2021 on the reported 9,680 city incidents. Of this number, some 1,045 (10.8%) of these incidents are flagged as “may involve cyclist." Because the dataset contains a geo-coded "location" field, it allowed for visualization using a tool provided on the Cambridge Police Website. See the map below: the solid dots indicate one incident over this time period; the white dot with an orange border indicates multiple incidents. As Michael Massagli notes, however, a closer read of Mass Ave. and Harvard Square would need to be done for greater accuracy. Yet even without that we get a sense of where the problems lie. How much did this data impact the implementation of the Bicycle Safety Ordinance? How will it impact current bicycle lane and other traffic plans?
Note that we have not addressed bicycle (pedestrian, or vehicle non-fatal accidents) specifically but know that they are deeply traumatizing. Our hope is that the use of mapping such as that seen here will guide the selection of bike lane creation along with other factors.
WHAT ARE OTHER CITIES DOING? San Diego is a good example. Like Cambridge is a university town, is wealthy, has a lot of international visitors, and is located near a major metropolitan center (L.A.)
above San Diego image source: Times of San Diego Dec.5, 2021
San Diego is one of the most perfect places to envision more bicycle use because the climate is nearly perfect 12 months of the year. But there have been a number of issues with the City's 2013 Master Plan, which as in Cambridge, was presented as a climate action initiative to reduce gas emissions by increasing bicycle commuting, One problem has been the huge cost of the planned 77-mile, region-wide network. We read in the San Diego Union Tribune that "The price tag was once $200 million but now has more than doubled to $446 million [bringing the] cost of the bike network to $5.79 million per mile." Cambridge, like San Diego is a wealthy city. In San Diego's case according to a study by the University of San Diego, the percentage of people commuting by bike rose from 0.4 percent in 2018 to 0.6 percent in 2019. Within the city of San Diego, it’s around 2 percent." A and San Diego had a goal of reaching 6% - a target that for them remains elusive. And worse, concerns have been raised that even with that shift, how much would a small percent decrease rush-hour traffic and reduce pollution. And a Group Concerned About Impacts has addressed impacts on a main shopping street due the loss of parking, now has challenged the city on how that data is being read. They reviewed 20 hours of security video of peak commuting times that logged an average of only 16 riders per hour and found them inaccurate. The City then installed an electronic bike lane counter which purported to count thousands of riders, but opponents videotaped and showed how the device “counts” riders when the bike lanes are visibly empty"
No one has or would accuse Cambridge of some of the San Diego problems, although increasingly residents and others are calling out the lack of transparency on everything from planning, costs, usage, and other issues. What we are also facing is increasing incivility and vitriol over this issue that makes one pause and wonder whether some of this is more about ideology than thoughtful planning, governance and holistic thinking. We cannot have a city with so much new commercial development, when we seem to have no real plan for public transportation or parking for those employees or the 120,000 residents who live here now. Yes we may inch up a few more % points in terms of biking commute numbers, but the City has yet to stipulate a goal number and date - either for commuting bicyclists who reside here (and do not also own cars) or Cambridge non-resident employees of our many large institutions and commercial enterprises who will not need on street (or garage) parking for the times they need to be in the city. And this is leaving out the needs for housing, local businesses, and our fast declining tree canopy and green spaces that really DO have an impact on heat island effect and both climate and health justice issues.
Recently on the same neighborhood list-serve cited above, Michael Massagli wrote the following (which we include here with his permission):
"Let's be clear, the dedicated structure agenda's purpose is the elimination of private motor vehicles. Several City Council members have said so, if you follow the movement nationally, it's always among the many points argued. You don't need data or to embrace alternative arguments or data when you think like that. Cambridge could have taken a different path, vetting competing points of view and coming up with design and evaluation strategies that relied on collection of truly representative data. Instead, they've relied on input solicited from cyclists (that's fine, they have a point of view although even that represents nothing more than the individuals who volunteered their opinions), and avoided statistically valid sampling of all residents, business, and users of the existing infrastructure, as well as using existing technology and data to establish a baseline and provide a sound argument for the costs and benefits of alternate approaches, and subsequently evaluating impacts on bike safety and other relevant aspects of quality of life....If the priority were to make cycling safer, given all the pavement that already exists, bike routes would be laid out along streets that are lightly used by motor vehicles rather than promoting more use of the most congested thoroughfares in our little town, to the clear detriment of the businesses along the way. When those businesses (which overwhelming rely on pedestrians and motorists, not current or potentially future cyclists) are gone everyone will be driving more to get to the goods and services providers that were formerly within walking distance."
There is much to agree with here, although it should be noted that removing all vehicles from the city is not what all bicycling advocates or city staff believe should happen. However, in the map at top of the page, the streets now designated by the city as ones that will be prioritizing bicycles could face loss of some of their on street parking to make way for dedicated bike lanes.
To reiterate: CCC supports bicycle lanes and more bicycle use but we need far better planning and accountability to be a key part of this process.
In our recent blog post, E-Bikes - Your Views Needed, we pointed out that our Community Development Department solicited resident responses by way of a survey "to see if E-bikes are a viable alternative to using cars for transportation needs." Bicycles replacing cars for critical transportation needs in Cambridge is simply not feasible. We also oppose the move by some councillors seeking to end parking minimums that large employers and others must provide. There are tens of thousands of new employees who will be driving here to work in conjunction with recent commercial successes. These new employees, like many local residents will be circling the streets hunting for places to park and causing considerable environmental harm in the process. Terminating parking minimums also is being featured by some as a means to redeploy critical private property green spaces (and trees) to add more infill market rate housing which would negatively impact neighborhoods and add to heat island impacts.