Following the Urban Revolutions event on April 28 (see previous post on this blog), Cambridge resident Jessica Eckhardt spoke with Boston’s Bicycle Program director, Nicole Freedman. They had known each other as members of the bicycle racing community. Eckhardt also spoke with Jeff Rosenblum, who works in the Cambridge Community Development Department and who was a co-founder of Livable Streets. Following (you may have to click on a “more” prompt just below this) is Eckhardt’s account of the conversation.
I initially approached Nicole for two reasons. First, I wanted to talk with her about the Concord Ave reconstruction project going on near where I live. For those who are unaware, the project engineering drawings call for raising the street-level bike lane and making it a “raised bike lane” more on the order of a sidewalk than an at-grade cycling facility. My second goal was to use the Concord Ave project as an example to highlight a few safety concerns that should be considered and examined as the City of Boston designs innovative bike facilities. I know how passionate we all get when we believe in something as strongly as cycling, so I took care initially to approach in a non-threatening tone, intent on having a dialog on the topics rather than a shouting match. What ensued took me completely by surprise.
We exchanged pleasantries and Nicole gave me the name of a doctor who might be able to treat an ongoing shoulder injury. I shifted topics to the Concord Ave reconstruction project. Nicole said something along the lines of “Oh yeah, isn’t that project great!” I responded that I lived over by Concord Avenue and I did not approve of the project the same way she does. Her face fell and her entire demeanor changed as she started talking about the benefits of cycle tracks. He voice got louder and aggressive as she stated that people are afraid to get out on bikes now and that cycle tracks get them to come out and ride. Her argument was safety in numbers. She gave no reasons that cycle tracks are safe except to get more people out riding. Once the masses are out riding, the cycle tracks would be safe because drivers and cyclists would get used to riding/driving in the vicinity. She would not answer my questions about right hooks and other specific safety concerns. Nicole said she knew that cycle tracks would make people like me mad, but we would have to “take one for the team to make cycling safer for everyone.” She did not address my questions about bikes being traffic and being treated as traffic.
Specifically in response to my concerns with Concord Ave, Nicole stated that there would be safe merging distance at roads so bicyclists could still use body language to discourage the right hook. I asked Nicole if 10-20 feet on either side of the intersection was a safe merge distance. To that Nicole commented that she knew Cara Seiderman [Cambridge’s Transportation Program Manager] and knew that Cara would never design an unsafe facility. I told her that I work for a roadway design firm and that the proposal doesn’t meet any safe state or federal guidelines for design. She stated that the manuals are out of date and she is working with others to get them to include language that allows for more “progressive” designs. The guidelines, she indicated, are so restrictive that Cambridge and Boston would not be able to install bicycle accommodations within those guidelines without removing parking or other significant alterations. So (also apparently) the guidelines should be changed to fit current proposals. Nicole told me to talk to Cara or the Project Manager about my specific concerns. I told her that I had reached out to both and that the project manager is not answering any questions and Cara is apparently ignoring me. I also told her that I was not informed of the project according to the public process. She changed the subject to support Cara.
Another woman joined the conversation at this point and Nicole’s tone and frustration were brought back to a more manageable and intelligible place. Nicole answered the other woman’s question about preferred cycling accommodations as follows: road, road with sharrow [shared-lane marking], road with door-zone bike lane (in so many words with no mention of a properly-installed bike lane), road with bike lane and no parking, cycle track, shared use path (being the most desirable). She commented to the individual that while cycle tracks and shared use paths are clearly the most desirable, we have to pull from the entire arsenal of tools when creating bike facilities and connections. She ended the conversation before I could even ask for appropriate signage stating that cyclists could be on the road even if there were off-road accommodations right next to the road.
The entire time we spoke of cycle tracks, raised bike lanes, or the Concord Ave project, she was irritated, upset, defensive and yelling at me. I tried to keep from raising my voice back but she would not let me respond to her points and kept yelling over me. Her tone changed immediately when she talked to other people even in the middle of our conversation. I am sorry to admit that I ended up raising my voice back and trying to speak over her on important topics. To end the conversation, she turned to the other woman who had interrupted and started ignoring me; she couldn’t get away fast enough.
I spoke with Jeff Rosenblum from Livable Streets and the City of Cambridge. He was more receptive to my comments and understood my concerns. He did not try to tell me to take one for the team. He said he understood my concerns but this is the way things are going. Jeff also said it will be safer once there are more cyclists on the road and when motorists have more experience with the new types of interactions. He did not answer what happens in the meantime while everyone is learning. I told him that if the construction project progressed to completion I wanted to see clear signage to indicate that slower bicyclists might use the cycle track facility and that all cyclists could still use the road. He sincerely thought that was a very valid point. He asked me if I had spoken with Cara or the project manager and I told him that Cara is apparently ignoring me, and Dan Vallee [the construction project manager] had not given me any real answers to my concerns. Dan has not been forwarding my emails to the appropriate parties to get the information I am requesting. I mentioned to Jeff that I had dealt with Cara in the past and watched her ignore, overrule and bully people when they had opposite beliefs at the Bicycle Committee meetings. I also mentioned that I have a hard time respecting Cara because of her treatment of those who disagree with her. He looked uncomfortable and I told him that I was not expecting him to comment due to his position. I told Jeff that Dan was not aware nor was able to produce meeting minutes or evidence of a community meeting even though I was told there was a meeting. We were interrupted and parted ways with friendly words. I have known Jeff for a long time and was happy with the way he listened and spoke where he could. It was a welcome relief after the previous conversation with Nicole.