Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

August 11, 2010

“Cycle track”: a sidewalk by another name

Filed under: Cambridge government,cycling — Tags: , , , — Robert Winters @ 12:00 am

Paul Schimek submitted the following letter on August 10, 2010 to the Cambridge City Council’s Transportation, Traffic and Parking Committee. [Paul is the former Bicycle Program Manager for Boston and former MassBike and Charles River Wheelman board member.]

   As City planners race ahead with plans for a separate bicycle facility on Concord Avenue (and possibly elsewhere), some would argue that this is a giant leap backwards in terms of bicycle safety and convenience. Count me among the naysayers. – RW

"Cycle track": a sidewalk by another name.
August 10, 2010
Paul Schimek, Ph.D.

Cambridge has recently been promoting a bicycle facility dubbed a "cycle track." The cycle tracks that Cambridge is building on Concord Road and proposing on Western Avenue are simply wider than usual sidewalks created by narrowing the roadway and removing bike lanes. Once these roads are reconstructed, bicyclists will be forced off the roadway by vigilante motorists who believe that only cars are allowed on the narrowed roadway. Bicyclists using a cycle track instead of the road will need to travel much more slowly, and even then they will be less safe due to the greater risk of collision with pedestrians and motorists turning or entering at side streets and driveways. In fact, Cambridge rightly recognizes that sidewalk bicycling is dangerous and severely restricts it. A number of careful studies have shown that cycle tracks increase the rate of bicyclist collisions.

I would like to have Cambridge officials address the following questions about cycle tracks:

1. How is bicycling on a cycle track meaningfully different from bicycling on a wider sidewalk where bicycling is permitted?

Bicycling on cycle tracks has all the same concerns as bicycling on the sidewalk, none of which are solved by making it wider or changing its name:

a) Even though pedestrians will have a separate part of the sidewalk, they will continue to walk or stand on the bicycle part. Experience on Vassar Street shows this. Will the city issue tickets to pedestrians on the cycle track? Under what ordinance? Pedestrians are not permitted in bike lanes, because it is part of the "roadway," but there is no law prohibiting pedestrians in a cycle track or bike path. Pedestrians must cross the cycle track to get to and from parked cars and stopped buses.

b) At intersections, bicyclists will often be invisible to cars turning into or pulling out of side streets and driveways. Drivers are generally required to yield to pedestrians in marked crosswalks, but pedestrians must not enter the road so quickly that a driver cannot yield. This suggests that bicyclists cannot safely approach cycle track intersections at faster than walking speed.

c) Cycle tracks, like sidewalks, will be used by cyclists going in both directions. A bicyclist traveling on the left half of the road (or going the wrong way on a one-way street) can be ticketed. Under what law can (and will) police ticket "wrong-way" bicyclists on a cycle track?

d) A bicyclist on the roadway can move left (after looking and yielding) to avoid road hazards, overtake, prepare a left turn, or avoid right-turning motorists. A bicyclist on a sidewalk—or cycle track—can do none of these things because there will be a curb or row of parked cars separating the bicyclist from the roadway. Placing the cycle track at the roadway level instead of the sidewalk level does not change these facts.

For these reasons, the city advises bicyclists to stay off sidewalks:

"State law permits bicyclists to travel on sidewalks in the interest of safety except as directed by local ordinance. In general, it is more appropriate and prudent to bicycle in the street, and Cambridge is making every effort to making the city streets safe and comfortable for bicycling. However, it is recognized that there are times when sidewalk riding will be used, for example, with young children. Cambridge traffic regulations require that bicyclists on sidewalks travel at a walking speed and yield to pedestrians."

The Cambridge Police Department states succinctly, "Cambridge discourages the riding of bicycles on sidewalks throughout the city and has provided bicycle lanes on certain streets."

2. Will bicyclists be allowed and encouraged to use the roadway instead of the cycle track?

Many bicyclists prefer using the roadway to a sidewalk–even a wider one—for all the reasons stated above. Forcing these bicyclists to use the sidewalk means delaying them significantly and increasing their risk of injury. Knowing that state law guarantees bicyclists the right to use the roadway, many will continue to use it. Will there be sufficient room for motorists to pass a bicyclist without changing lanes? If not are motorists intended to slow to bicycle speed if there is only one travel lane or if the passing lane is occupied? How will motorists know that bicyclists are allowed to use the road, given that they will see signs directing bicyclists off the roadway?

3. What design standard is Cambridge using for cycle tracks?

Cambridge has called the planned cycle track on Concord Road a "raised bike lane," but legally it is not a bike lane, since it is not part of the roadway. A "cycle track" would possibly be considered a "shared use path" under state and national design guides. There is no provision for a bike path that prohibits pedestrians, recognizing that doing so is impossible, and therefore a prudent design must consider their presence.

The Massachusetts Project Development & Design Guide says that "Shared use paths are facilities on exclusive right-of-way with minimal cross flow by motor vehicles. Shared use paths should be thought of as a complementary system of off-road transportation routes for bicyclists and others that serves as a necessary extension to the roadway network. The presence of a shared use path near a roadway does not eliminate the need to accommodate bicyclists within a roadway" (Section By contrast, Cambridge’s proposed cycle tracks will have significant cross flow and they will be created by removing adequate room for bicyclists from the roadway.

Noncompliance with engineering directives and design manuals could mean that Cambridge would be held liable by a court in the event of a lawsuit by an injured bicyclist or pedestrian.

4. What is the safety record of sidewalks and cycle tracks for bicyclists?

Cambridge recently completed a study of six years of reported car-bike collisions. What percent of these collisions involved bicyclists using a sidewalk, crosswalk, or sidepath? What percent were caused by motorists overtaking bicyclists in daylight? Several careful studies have shown that crash rates increased when cycle tracks were installed in Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Finland, and other places. Has the city reviewed these studies? Does the city believe that the crash rate would decrease in Cambridge, even though it did not in these places?

Related topics:
Concord Avenue     Western Avenue


  1. Just to reiterate my position on cycle tracks and other enhanced sidewalk-type facilities: These facilities, where they exist or are planned, should always be viewed as secondary facilities only. Except in the case of high-speed highways, cyclists must always be permitted and encouraged to use the roadway along with all other vehicles.

    Roadways should be designed to safely accommodate all types of vehicles, including bicycles, scooters, and bicycle-driven delivery vehicles. If a good case can be made to enhance and expand a parallel sidewalk to better accommodate children, such a secondary facility may be a good thing if appropriate measures are taken in the design to ensure that actual safety is not being replaced by mere perceived safety.

    One of the greatest dangers of cycle tracks is where they intersect cross streets. Automobile and other drivers usually anticipate pedestrians crossing at a certain speed and there is usually plenty of time for all parties to stop. If a cyclist is riding on a sidewalk (or cycle track) at even a modest speed and crosses a street or driveway, there is a far greater chance that a collision will occur than if the bicycle had been traveling and visible in the roadway.

    Even where there are few cross streets or driveways, a cycle track is, at best, superfluous. Such is the case for a portion of Vassar Street and this will likely be the case for the proposed Binney Street facility. Western Avenue is an entirely different story – a cycle track there would be nothing but a hindrance for experienced cyclists and a danger for less-experienced cyclists.

    Comment by Robert Winters — August 15, 2010 @ 10:16 pm

  2. I can comment on Cambridge’s count of bicycle crashes on its Vassar Street sidepaths.

    During a Webinar conducted by the Association of Bicycle and Pedestrian Professionals on February 17, 2010, Cambridge’s Cara Seiderman, one of the presenters, stated that there had been no crashes on the Vassar Street facility away from intersections.

    I know that there have in fact been such crashes, as I have received communications from two persons who were involved in serious bicycle-pedestrian collisions on the Vassar Street facility. In at least one of these, the pedestrian was taken away in an ambulance.

    I received these communications because I had posted comments about the Vassar Street facility, which people involved in the crashes had found with a Web search. It stands to reason that other crashes occurred which were not reported to me.

    My posting about the Vassar Street sidepaths is accessible online. It addresses some of the issues Paul Schimek raises, and a few others such as snow clearance.

    Comment by John S. Allen — August 20, 2010 @ 10:36 am

  3. Hi Robert-

    As I’m sure you’re aware, even amongst avid cyclists there is contention about ‘bike lanes’. My own statement is ‘The finest bike lane is a shared roadway.’

    I was a member of the Cambridge Bicycling Committee during the investigation prior to the Vassar Street sidepath. The Committee at that point was undecided. I had already put myself down as opposed, as I am a Forester-type vehicular cyclist, and he has shown scientifically and demonstrably that vehicular cycling is the safest and most secure. However, the Committee itself is chaired by a person who has a pathological hatred of John Forester, and who thinks that all cycling needs to be on a tricycle at 5 kilometers per hour.

    Comment by Wade Smith — August 22, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

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