Bike infrastructure and safety issues

This Council Order (pasted below), on Monday’s agenda, is the latest in a flurry of Council activity asking for more protected bike infrastructure. Good, safe bicycle infrastructure, which includes protected bike lanes where appropriate and well designed, is critical to meeting Cambridge’s urban transportation needs, along with good, safe pedestrian infrastructure and providing automobile and truck drivers with safe and effective routes around the City. As a father whose family has been without a car for close to 10 years, there is nothing I want more than streets where my wife and sons, and everyone else, can bike safely. I wish it were as easy as simply putting in a Council Order telling the City Manager to put separated bike lanes on all major thoroughfares but it’s not. I biked the length of Mass Ave today in both directions and it’s not clear to me how protected bike lanes would work with all of the side streets and driveways that come onto the Avenue (midblock considerations). Same thing with streets like Hampshire and Broadway and Cambridge. Cambridge needs to be more aggressive about trying things out to see what might work, as long as the trials are done safely, but to simply install bike lanes or other infrastructure without an intentional discussion about how they will work on our streets is a dangerous idea. For years, I think, we’ve basically blown off cyclists concerns about safety and now, with two recent fatalities, people who ride bikes are uniformly upset and scared. We want action now, but we need to make sure our solutions are well thought out and vetted. Which isn’t to say anyone should be okay with another 10 years of talking- City staff need to be immediately and intensely focused on designing, implementing and then analyzing trial treatments for our streets and they need to keep the rest of us up to date on how these programs are going. I am certain I am not the only Councilor who worries that even the best intended programs often tend to fizzle out in cyberspace unless they’re aggressively championed and transparently managed. That cannot happen here.


There are certainly things we can learn from other places, but we need to make sure we review those programs with a critical eye because, for example, what works in relatively snow-free Copenhagen may be less than successful in Cambridge. I love the separated bike lanes I’ve seen in NYC, mostly Manhattan, with their mountable curbs (though local cycling safety expert John Allen is not in favor of such curbs), but it seems like their cyclist deaths rose between 2011 and 2015 even as the actual number of fatalities per mile biked decreased. And Denmark, while a model for biking safety in some ways seems to have a much higher fatality rate for their population than Massachusetts (it may also have more cyclists, or more miles biked, etc).


Information for 2013

Region                                  Population                         Bicyclist Fatalities

Massachusetts                  6 million +                            6

Denmark                             5 million +                            33


The point is that not everyone finds equal safety in bike infrastructure and that even in innovative places, biking can still be deadly. We want to make sure we’re being intentional when we put in infrastructure and that we’ve done a thorough job thinking through possible consequences. I do not want to put infrastructure on Mass Ave that simply shifts cars onto the already narrow and insanely uncomfortable Sherman Street. Instead, I’d rather we explore redesigning Sherman Street to allow safer space for cyclists in both directions (most likely done by removing parking). Maybe we can do both, but at some point we have to pick and choose how to apply our resources.


Plus, as we push forward with safer bicycle infrastructure, there are simple things we can do now to improve bike safety such as more aggressively identifying and remediating street hazards and more aggressively enforcing our traffic laws. I’m still struggling with DPW to figure out better markings for construction hazards and to understand the importance of effective bike hazard signage. Our Traffic and Parking department CPD puts its citation information on our open data page, but there is a lot more CPD should be doing, and sharing to both collect useful enforcement data and to use that data to make enforcement more effective. As we search for a new Police Commissioner (once we have a new City Manager), we’ll have an opportunity to really explore just how willing CPD is to elevate this part of its job. For example, we know that the vast majority of collisions happen at intersections and that most fatalities involve turning trucks, but it’s impossible to figure out how CPD is using its enforcement abilities to mitigate those dangers based on the data we have access to.


I have put in a Freedom of Information Act request to get information about Marcia Diehl’s death roughly 18 months when a truck hit her as she rode her bicycle near the Wholefoods in Cambridgeport. It’s crazy that we have to wait so long to get useful information after any accident, much less a fatality, and that we have to submit a FOIA request is even crazier. We’re already in the process of redesigning both Porter and Inman Squares and to keep any safety data associated with the recent bicyclist fatalities in those areas from public scrutiny is crazy. And any data, such as crash reports, City staff is using to help redesign our streets, in particular in Inman and Porter Squares, should be readily available to all of us. I often find that I disagree with City staff’s traffic safety programs, but as long as I, and the rest of us, don’t have access to the same information staff is looking at, it’s tough to have a productive discussion. Sort of along those lines, I’ve started collecting bike safety information and design concepts on a webmap. Check it out here and let me know if you’d like to help curate the collection to help make it easier for people to find relevant information.


Anyway, if you’d like to come talk about this issue at City Council, you can sign up by phone between 9 AM and 3 PM on Monday at 617-349-4280 and in person from 5-6 PM at the Sullivan Chambers at City Hall. Public comment, limited to three minutes per speaker, starts at 5:30(ish) and lasts at least until 6:00, though if there are enough speakers we often go later. At the end of public comment, people who missed the sign-in window are generally asked if they’d like to speak anyway. The entire Council may be emailed at There is also a Council subcommittee meeting on bike safety Wednesday at 5:15 PM at City Hall. We are not all going to agree on exactly how we can make biking (or walking or driving) safer in Cambridge, but having focused (and polite) conversations about it is a necessary step to get any safety improvements accomplished.


Thanks a lot.


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Policy Order

POR 2016 #288

That the City Council acknowledges that said residents and other users desire the City to immediately enact safety improvements to bicycle infrastructure, starting with separated bike lanes on all major city thoroughfares.


Department: City Clerk’s Office, NM Sponsors: Councillor Nadeem A. Mazen, Councillor Jan Devereux
Category: Policy Order


  1. Printout


WHEREAS: Well over 2000 users of Cambridge’s streets, including well over 1000 Cambridge residents, have signed the following petition: “In light of the tragic deaths of Dr. Bernard ‘Joe’ Lavins, Amanda Phillips, and Marcia Deihl, all killed by trucks in Cambridge in the last two years, we call on the City of Cambridge to immediately follow through on its commitment to enact safety improvements to bicycle infrastructure across the city, starting with separated bike lanes on all major city thoroughfares”; and
WHEREAS: These signatures represent a broad cross-section of Cambridge’s community, including, first and foremost, residents from all parts of Cambridge, but also including employees of Cambridge’s many large and small businesses, people who shop or eat at restaurants in Cambridge, people on their way to school in Cambridge, people visiting friends in Cambridge, and many others; now therefore be it
RESOLVED: That the City Council acknowledges said signatures; and be it further
RESOLVED: That the City Council acknowledges that said residents and other users desire the City to immediately enact safety improvements to bicycle infrastructure, starting with separated bike lanes on all major city thoroughfares.



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