Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

May 20, 2011

Response to City officials’ comments about Concord/Follen

Robert Winters has posted a comment (#3 here) to my post about bicycling issues on the May 16 City Council agenda. Robert quotes Assistant City Manager for Community Development Brian Murphy and Traffic, Parking & Transportation Director Susan Clippinger about Follen Street and Little Concord Avenue. Their response, by way of the City Manager, is addressed to the City Council at next week’s meeting.

Their response (again, in comment #3 here) addresses some of the issues with the Follen Street/Concord Avenue installation, and reflects some progress.

Serious design issues, however, will still remain:

  • The configuration still has the same blind corners.
  • Because of the location of the curb cut into the brick plaza, bicyclists traveling away from the Common must still swerve to the right, toward approaching motor traffic, to reach the curb cut at the crosswalk on the far side of Follen Street. Bicyclists entering from the brick plaza are still close to a wall which also obscures motorists’ view of them.
  • Motorists approaching on Follen Street still won’t have a stop sign — see this Google Street View — despite the blind corners.
  • The contraflow bike lane adjacent to wrong-way parking remains.
  • There is another blind corner at the Garden Street end of the pedestrian plaza, particularly for cyclists who continue toward the Radcliffe Quadrangle on the sidewalk (and many do, though that is inadvisable).
  • The “bike box” on Concord Avenue leads to more confusion than anything else, as described here. Also, many cyclists ride east on the north sidewalk, so they can access the plaza directly, posing a risk of head-on collisions with westbound cyclists and pedestrians at the blind corner between the sidewalk and the plaza.

Contraflow bicycle travel would be safer if parking were removed from one side of Follen Street — however, the public insists on using public street space for private car storage. As a bicycling advocate and former Cambridge resident who owned a (rarely used) car and had no other place to park it than the street, I can see both sides of this issue. It is not going to go away. The people who laid out Cambridge’s streets could not foresee the deluge of private motor vehicles that would descend on the city, and had no plan either to accommodate it or to forestall it.

I do think that a very significant safety improvement could be made without removing parking, by reversing the direction of one-way motor traffic on Follen Street and Little Concord Avenue. Then cyclists headed toward the blind corner would be going in the same direction as motorists. The motorists would be going very slowly here, and cyclists could easily merge toward the center of the roadway. A curb cut into the plaza in line with the center of the roadway would avoid cyclists’ having to swerve right. This curb cut would lead cyclists traveling toward the Common to the right side of the street.

A contraflow bike lane could then be installed on the south side of Little Concord Avenue, but it would still be adjacent to wrong-way parking. I’d rather see shared-lane markings far enough from parked cars to allow a motorist to start to exit a parking space without running head-on into a cyclist or forcing that cyclist into oncoming traffic. One-way, slow streets where bicyclists are allowed to travel contraflow are common in Germany, without bike lanes, and research has demonstrated their safety.

As to Murphy’s and Clippinger’s comments:

Motor vehicle volumes on the street are very low and most drivers are ones who live there and use the street regularly. The contraflow lane was installed to improve safety for cyclists by creating a dedicated facility for them to ride in and through the presence of pavement markings to remind motorists that bicyclists are traveling there.

The low motor-vehicle volume argument is an example of what I call “bean counter” safety analysis. I have heard the same argument before from Cara Seiderman, in connection with the wrong-way contraflow lane on Scott Street. This approach offers cyclists and motorists only statistical comfort, leaving them defenseless against actually preventing a crash through their own actions — as in “well, I can’t see over the SUV parked in front of my car, but probably no cyclist is coming so I’ll pull out.”

The bike lane does serve as a buffer to help prevent collisions between cars and other cars, but it doesn’t pass the test of preventing collisions between cars and cyclists. The comforting words “dedicated facility” don’t actually describe how it works in practice. Reminding motorists that bicyclists are traveling in the bike lane doesn’t count for much if the motorists can’t see the bicyclists.

Clippinger describes a safety analysis which looked at generalities about traffic volume. The claim that the dedicated facility was installed to improve safety may describe intention, but it does not describe either the design, or the outcome. This is a crash hotspot, remember. I have described design issues, and some solutions that look rather obvious to me. The city, as usual, installed a boilerplate bike lane design without much insight into whether it actually would be functional and safe.

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