Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

November 3, 2010

Specific issues with Western Avenue project

In this post, I’m going to examine some of the drawings of its Western Avenue project which the City of Cambridge has provided.

All of the illustrations below are from the City’s conceptual design booklet.

Western Avenue concept drawing

Western Avenue concept drawing

The cars shown parked at the left are real cars, in the original photograph that was modified to show the conceptual design. Typical sedans are about 5 1/2 feet wide, not counting the side-view mirrors, but common light trucks are as much as 6 1/2 feet wide. Big trucks and buses can be 8 1/2 feet wide.

The cars shown parked at the right are drawings added when the photo was modified. All of them are micro-cars, very much smaller than the cars on the left — only about 4 1/2 feet wide.

Bicyclists complain about “door zone” bike lanes — where opening car doors pose a threat. On the other hand, the door zone serves an important function. A motorist can open the car door without its protruding directly into the path of motor traffic, and can walk around the car.

In the drawing below, I have copied the nearest car in the original drawing into each travel lane. This drawing shows too little clearance between parked vehicles and moving ones to allow motorists safely to walk around to the street side of their vehicles or open the doors. The right lane as shown is especially tight, even with micro-cars parked on the right and ordinary sedans in the travel lanes — though Western Avenue is a designated bus and truck route.

Western Avenue concept drawing, modified

Western Avenue concept drawing, modified

To show how wide the left lane is at present, the white line in the foreground replaces the gray patch that is dimly visible in the original drawing, covering up the location of the present lane line.

The parts of the illustration that are from the original photo are to scale — including the cars I have copied into the travel lanes. The drawn-in elements are conceptual, and some are not to scale.

The drawing below, also from the City, is dimensioned, showing a 36-foot wide roadway. The elements are to scale: 10.5 foot travel lanes, 7-foot parking lanes and mid-sized cars 6 feet wide, not counting the mirrors — like a a Ford Taurus. This drawing shows more room between vehicles than the right lane in the photo, but on the other hand, the parked cars are tight against the curbs, and no trucks or buses are shown.

Cross-section of street with cycle track

Cross-section of street with cycle track

Now let’s look at an overhead drawing, which shows a typical treatment at an intersection.

Western Avenue at Jay Street

Western Avenue at Jay Street

Let’s put more cars and some bicyclists and pedestrians into the picture. I’ve put three bicyclists on the blue strip which represents the cycle track. Two are headed with traffic and one is headed opposite traffic. (Off-street facilities encourage two-direction traffic, and this is particularly so on a one-way street where there is no opposite-direction paired street conveniently nearby.) There also is a group of pedestrians standing on the bulbout before the intersection. Excuse me if the bicyclists and pedestrians look like ants, I’m no Picasso.

Pedestrians and parked cars conceal  right-way bicyclists from drivers of cars A and B, increasing the risk of a “right hook” collision. Also, Car B  is blocking the right-hand travel lane. Such blockages will increase congestion. The more bicyclists, the more often turning motorists will have to wait in the position shown. At present, motorists can keep moving as they prepare to turn right, because they can merge behind a bicyclist before reaching the intersection.

Car C in the drawing must wait far back from the intersection, what with the separate sidewalk and cycle track. Then, on reaching the intersection, as shown in the illustration below, the car must block the cycle track as the driver scans for traffic. If more than one car is in line, both the sidewalk and the cycle track will be blocked at the same time.

Western Avenue at Jay Street, cycle track blocked

Western Avenue at Jay Street, cycle track blocked

Presently, without the cycle track, this kind of blockage happens only for the sidewalk. It is more troublesome and hazardous for bicyclists than pedestrians, because bicyclists are faster, and farther away when the driver must first see them, and can be hidden by buildings or by pedestrians on the sidewalk. The crash rate for wrong-way cyclists on cycle tracks like this one is very high — research in Finland, Sweden and Germany has shown it to be about 10 times as high as for right-way travel on the street. Right-way travel on a cycle track located, like this one, behind parked cars, and with unsignalized intersections and driveways, has been shown only two or three times as hazardous.

There is also a much greater risk of collisons with pedestrians, and with other bicyclists, than when riding in the street. This cycle track has about 6 feet of width where bicyclists are clear of car-door hazards or plantings — very substandard for a two-way facility.

There is a question what the wrong-way bicyclists will do when they reach Franklin Street and the cycle track ends. Most likely, they will go up onto the sidewalk or ride opposite traffic in the bike lane.

Finally, let’s look at the intersection of Western Avenue and Memorial Drive. At present, Western Avenue has four travel lanes approaching the intersection.  The rightmost lane is a right-turn-only lane which the City describes as underutilized. I agree with that description — even in the evening rush hour, I have been able to filter forward to the intersection on my bicycle in that lane.

The City proposes to change that lane into a cycle track, so right turns are made from the next lane to the left. In this connection, I question the City’s conclusion that its plan will not increase congestion. In the evening rush hour, traffic already queues on Putnam Avenue and Memorial Drive, all the way back to River Street. Even one vehicle waiting to turn right, while bicyclists overtake on the right, will block all other vehicles in the lane behind it. This is aside from the issue of institutionalizing the “right hook” — placing all responsibility for bicyclists’ safety on the motorists, and stripping away bicyclists’ defense of merging into the line of right-turning traffic.

Western Avenue at Memorial Drive, conceptual drawing

Western Avenue at Memorial Drive, conceptual drawing

I suggest instead that bicyclists be encouraged to travel along the left side of the right-turn lane, by means of shared-lane markings and signage, or better, if there is room, a through bike lane.

The question remains of how to handle opposite-direction bicycle traffic. It does not admit of an easy answer.  At this point, I’m most inclined to try to address it on River Street.

And, I’ll add: the sacredness of on-street parking is the issue that makes the problem insoluble. If parking could be removed form one side of Western Avenue, a contraflow bike lane would be an option.

There is no such issue on River Street, because there are many parallel streets in Cambridgeport that allow travel in the opposite direction.

Signing off…


  1. Installing this cycle track is really just mandating that cyclists must ride on the sidewalk rather than in the roadway with other vehicles. It’s a huge step backwards for cyclists.

    The project planners, i.e. Susanne Rasmussen’s circle of friends, claim that DPW will plow the sidewalk bicycle lanes in the winter. That, of course, will not happen since that’s exactly where the snow plows will be sending the snow. Even if they did plow these sidewalk paths, they will definitely not be salting them and they will become ice paths in winter.

    One great advantage of bicycling in the roadway is that the movement of other vehicles helps to keep the road clear of snow, ice, and debris – and DPW salts the roadway in winter. These sidewalk bike lanes will often be unusable in winter, and with the roadway narrowed it will be less safe for cyclists to use the roadway.

    If you thought the Vassar Street lanes were bad or just plain irrelevant, these will be far worse. There will be many street crossings and driveways where cyclists will be injured or worse.

    The sewer replacement and redesign for the Western Avenue corridor is interesting and innovative. The use of swales to irrigate street trees is another great thing about this project as well as some of the street reconfiguration close to Central Square. It’s a shame that the whole thing will be topped off with this travesty.

    Comment by Robert Winters — November 3, 2010 @ 11:42 pm

  2. I attended Wednesday night’s meeting about the project. Many people commented, though I only listened. I have a few more observations, based on the meeting:

    * I heard a city official say “We look to improve pedestrian safety and bicycle safety.” The proposed crosswalk improvements have a good record in improving pedestrian safety. There are problems, though, with bicycle-pedestrian conflicts on the bikeway, and more so for visually-impaired pedestrians, who will not have curbs, ramps, tactile warning strips and traffic noise to warn them that they are moving from a sidewalk into a vehicle zone. For bicyclists, the proposed bikeway only creates an appearance of safety, while increasing conflicts with pedestrians and motorists. That has been shown in the research literature, but the research literature does not get discussed in connection with this project.

    * I didn’t hear any acknowledgment that a separate bikeway will promote wrong-way travel. This would be mostly for short, local trips, often by children and other cyclists with low levels of skill and experience — the ones most vulnerable to the hazards. It is as if the City is assuming that bicyclists’ travel patterns on Western Avenue will remain as at present, while also expecting that the population of bicyclists will grow and change. Those two assumptions conflict with each other.

    * Bus shelters, as shown, come right up to the edge of the bikeway, so a bicyclist has no warning of a pedestrian walking out from behind a shelter into the bikeway, and no ability to ride with handlebars overhanging the edge of the bikeway.

    * Bicyclists can presently prepare a left turn by riding along the left side of Western Avenue. The design shown includes no provision for bicyclists to turn left. In response to a question, a City official did say that the City would look into the issue, and explained that the bikeway comes down to street level at the two major intersections. That doesn’t really make an important difference, because bicyclists are still trapped behind a barrier in mide-block, unable to merge to the far side of the street. The only left turns into cross streets will be two-step turns (stop at the intersection, turn the bicycle 90 degrees, wait for traffic in both lanes of Western avenue to clear, then cross). Access to mid-block destinations on the far side will require either using the sidewalk on that side, or avoiding the bikeway.

    It still comes down to this: the bikeway will increase risks and travel time for the more skillful and confident bicyclists who already use Western Avenue, while encouraging less skillful bicyclists to tackle situations they think are safe — but aren’t, and also creating conflicts with pedestrians.

    If parking is removed from one side of Western Avenue, there are good solutions to these problems. Both-side on-street parking degrades the bicycling element of this project so much that it might be best just to leave well enough alone — until the City and its residents are ready to confront the issues posed by use of public travel space for private car storage.

    Comment by jsallen — November 5, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

  3. Why can’t we look at what other countries with better established bicycle traditions are doing? Obviously, some of them don’t have as much snow as we do, but surely there is something to be learned about what is possible by looking elsewhere? I know, for example, that counter-flow and two-way bike lanes are common in Montreal, and in my experience, work great. Why is this so hard for us?

    Comment by Luke — November 7, 2010 @ 1:53 am

  4. I’m not a huge bike geek, but riding with my 9-year old son on the very short and lightly traveled contra-flow segment of Concord Ave near the Cambridge Common is even a little scary. I’m not sure what kinds of benefits it’d have and it’s got a steep adjustment curve for all involved. Has the horse left the barn on this raised lane? It seems like a bad idea for all the reasons mentioned. I will say that I live not far from Vassar street and have used the one there and liked it. However, that sidewalk is *very* lightly used by pedestrians and has virtually no breaks for traffic crossing it; it’s much different than most any other street around here in those ways so shouldn’t be any kind of model to follow.

    Comment by Tony Tauber — November 8, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

  5. I appreciate the comments and thought put into them here, but I think the dangers of riding in the streets in Cambridge are being minimized by opponents of the bike track – with doorings, buses, and unobservant drivers making right-hand turns (from whatever lane they happen to be in), it’s a mess out there.

    Comment by David Sears — November 9, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

  6. These are legitimate questions, but they are not unsolvable. Some of them are non-issues in my opinion.

    There are many streets in the Boston area where there is no buffer between the right-most travel lane and parked cars. Beacon Street in Back Bay comes to mind. People wait for a gap in traffic to walk around and enter their vehicle, and drivers in the right lane must either slow and wait or merge into the adjacent lane.

    Regarding the right-turning traffic blocking the travel lane, this is currently the case on many streets in the Boston area. Many of those streets only have one travel lane in each direction. Some of these streets have a bike lane, and right-turning vehicles must stop and wait for the bike lane to clear before turning (some do merge over the bike lane first, but most do not, since the bike lanes are striped solid up to the intersections). On other more narrower streets, right-turning motorists must block part of the travel lane while waiting for pedestrians to cross. In the scenario where motorists must yield to bicyclists before turning, having a cycle track could actually improve the situation, since the motorist can partially turn and would be waiting in front of the parking lane, partially out of the travel lane. (Recall that with a bike lane directly adjacent to traffic, the motorist would have to wait fully in the travel lane.)

    The right-hook danger at Western Ave would be no worse with a cycle track than it would be with a striped bike lane. As I mentioned previously, most motorists in Cambridge are used to waiting for bikes to clear a bike lane before turning right. The only difference here is that the bike space would be raised. If right-turning volumes were high (which it seems in this case they are not), an additional bicycle-specific traffic signal could be added. This signal could give bicyclists a head-start when the light turns green, for example.

    Overall, I don’t think any of these issues are show-stoppers. Having a physically separated bike facility will eliminate the dooring hazard, but most importantly will add a level of comfort that will appeal to a much wider range of the population than even a traditional on-street bike lane.

    Comment by Charlie — November 10, 2010 @ 11:17 am

  7. Charlie, what you are asking and assuming is that bicyclists abandon responsibility for their own safety, abandon riding to be visible and predictable, and put their total trust in the Boston drivers we know and love.

    That is what bicyclists must do when riding within range of car doors. It killed Dana Laird on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. It also is what happens when bicyclists position themselves on the right side of right-turning vehicles, whether in a bike lane or on a cycle track. That killed Kenneth Couch, Alexis Gewertz Sheperd, William O’Brien, Chikako Asuta and others, here in the Boston area – see Unfortunately, there is a long list of fatal collisions, in the Boston area, all around the country and around the world, resulting from cyclists’ traveling straight through to the right of right-turning motorists. Minneapolis just had one and the cyclist was riding in a cycle track behind parked cars, which makes it even harder, sometimes impossible, for the motorist to see the bicyclist — .

    You said “Some of these streets have a bike lane, and right-turning vehicles must stop and wait for the bike lane to clear before turning (some do merge over the bike lane first, but most do not, since the bike lanes are striped solid up to the intersections).”

    Well, first of all, the law requires motorists to turn right from as close to the curb as they can, so these motorists are breaking the law, but some will, especially when the striping encourages it. At the same time, the striping also encourages bicyclists to pass on the right.

    With you, this apparently is OK, and bicyclists should just passively sit there to the right of a right-turning 18-wheeler acting the part of a helpless victim, and put all trust and faith in the driver not to turn right and run them over?

    Let me quote the late Dutch traffic engineer, Hans Monderman: “If you treat drivers like idiots, they act as idiots. Never treat anyone in the public realm as an idiot, always assume they have intelligence.” May I suggest that this also applies to bicyclists?

    I strongly suggest that you take one of Massbike’s Bicycle Driver Training classes, or read my Bicycling Street Smarts online ( and learn how to avoid putting yourself in dangerous situations. The bicyclist and motorist need to merge before the intersection where they can see and negotiate with each other. An underutilized right-turn lane provides an excellent opportunity to do this.

    Now, there are some people who aren’t ready to learn this, mostly, children. There are some places where they can ride bicycles safely but I respectfully suggest that nothing on Western Avenue short of removing parking on one side will make two-way bicycle travel a reasonably safe option. The proposed cycle track, on the other hand, is what I call a Pied Piper option because, in particular, it will encourage wrong-way riding, which is even several times less safe than riding with traffic in a cycle track behind parked cars. The proposed cycle track, on top of that, is too narrow for two-way travel.

    And let me also repeat the statistic from Copenhagen about cycle tracks between bus stops and the sidewalk: 19 times the crash rate and 17 times the injury rate compared with buses merging to the curb, and cyclists waiting or overtaking on the left.

    To me, these issues are show stoppers.

    Comment by John S. Allen — November 12, 2010 @ 12:00 am

  8. John,

    I certainly do not mean to imply that bicyclists put all their faith in drivers’ hands. I certainly realize the hazards of dooring, however studies have shown that bike lanes in many cases actually entice bicyclists to ride further from parked cars. And of course if you are on a cycle track, the dooring hazard is essentially gone.

    Based on my daily experience of bicycling down Hampshire St, I often observe a motorist wishing to turn right. What I typically see is:
    1) The motorist puts their right turn signals on while waiting in the travel lane (often waiting at a red light)
    2) When the motorist gets up to the intersection, he/she waits for the bicyclists his/her right to clear the bike lane
    3) Bicyclists who are coming up behind the car in the bike lane yield to let the driver turn across their path
    4) The motorist turns across the bike lane onto the cross street

    I and many other bicyclists and motorists do this dance every day. I rarely feel any more or less safe doing this than at intersections where bike lanes are skip-striped (such as at Beacon St and Park St in Somerville).

    Of course with the cycle track this interaction will be a bit different. A turning motorist will have to yield to bicyclists on the cycle track just as they would have to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk. But bicyclists should also ride with due care such that if a motorist is already mid-turn that they yield as well (similar to how bicyclists yield to motorists already turning in my prior example).

    These scenarios are of course a bit different than the traditional vehicular cycling principles where cars and bikes are expected to merge prior to turning. As there was when bike lanes were introduced to our roadways, there will be another learning curve for bicyclists and motorists with cycle tracks as well.

    Comment by Charlie — November 12, 2010 @ 6:20 pm

  9. I think the concept is good despite some design shortcomings. The biggest potential issue seems to be the lack of visibility (blocked sight lines) between motorists and cyclists approaching intersections. NYC has had good success by eliminating a few parking spaces in that spot so that nobody is hidden. This could be done by making long curb extensions, which has the very important benefit of improving sight lines for pedestrians while giving them a waiting area outside the cycle track. Curb extensions are also very useful as bus stops, so that buses would not have to merge in/out of the traffic stream, and as a waiting area for bus passengers. (This assumes near side bus stops which have some disadvantages such as turning conflicts, but you could also do curb extensions on the far side and put the bus stops there.)

    Of course, everyone still needs to be aware and alert, but with this simple change I think the new design could function quite well. One downside, particularly for those who prefer to ride fast, is that the new design would require two-stage left turns, although if you’re riding fast you’d probably want to be in the road anyway. Also, it may be helpful to know where the fire hydrants will be; there needs to be a “no standing” zone of about one car length at each hydrant, so you may be able to use this space to move left if there’s a gap in traffic (and obviously a curb ramp would help here).

    Lastly, it has been my experience that the current city practice in street design (favoring traffic calming and a focus on pedestrians) has been very effective in reducing vehicle speeds and generally made motorists more alert and cycling much more comfortable. I have every reason to believe the same will happen on Western Ave under the proposed design, which will in fact make riding in the road much safer and more comfortable.

    One more thing. Why is it that snow removal always has to be an obstacle? Vehicle lanes can be cleared and sanded, and so can bike lanes. Poor snow removal is not an argument against bike facilities, but rather and argument for proper snow removal and de-icing.

    Comment by Jeremy — November 15, 2010 @ 1:34 am

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