Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

October 27, 2010

Western Avenue proposal: ill-considered

Cambridge has posted its preferred design proposal for Western Avenue.

Conceptual Design Selection booklet, October 2010. This NEW booklet details the current draft proposed conceptual design. Online/ download:

Conceptual Design roll-plan. This shows the draft proposed conceptual design in plan form.
Online/ download:

Neighborhood Walk this Thursday, Oct 28, 5:30pm, Andala Cafe, 286 Franklin Street

Community-wide Public Meeting, Wed Nov 3, 7:00pm (open house 6pm), Cambridge Senior Center, 806 Masssachusetts Avenue.

Cambridge continues with its plan to slow traffic by making streets narrower, and so more stressful and hazardous for motorists, while moving bicyclists onto glorified sidewalks where it is difficult or impossible for crossing and turning motorists to see them. The repeated invitations for right-turning motorists to turn across the path of through-traveling bicyclists in this proposal leave me breathless, especially where groups of pedestrians will wait on a bulbout, concealing through-traveling bicyclists. Also, the proposed cycle track will greatly encourage contraflow bicycle travel without making any reasonable or safe provision for it. If you have any doubt about the hazard of contraflow travel on a bicycle sidepath, here’s a link to a study which addresses it. There also will be the same issues of snow clearance as already occur on Vassar Street. It is predictable that bicycle-pedestrian collisions will be a problem, as they have been on Vassar Street.

The word “protected”, in traffic engineering used to mean, for example, a left-turn traffic signal phase where opposite-direction traffic had a red light.

Now in the Cambridge proposal it is being used to mean “motor traffic turns right across through bicycle traffic, with interrupted sight lines and no traffic signal.”

The word “protected” sure sounds good, if you don’t know that the treatment under discussion results in increased crash rates.

“Traffic calming” in very ancient times (50,-100 years ago) used to mean traffic-law enforcement. Despite the availability today of efficient tools such as license-plate cameras to record speeding and traffic-signal violations, Cambridge chooses a hardware solution — narrow lanes, which make for more stressful, difficult and dangerous driving conditions — to address the software problem of poor motorist behavior, and emphasizes the point by using bicyclists as obstacles.

Cambridge’s message to its motorists, delivered by creating an obstable course: drive real slow, and look back over your right shoulder when you turn right, or you might kill one of our highly valued and highly vulnerable bicyclists, and it’s all your fault if you do, because, you see, they are protected.”

Please don’t peg me as a naysayer. I made suggestions for alternative treatments in an earlier post, which led to a lively and welcome discussion.

Also see Paul Schimek’s post on this blog.

I hope to see good citizen participation at the public events.

Your comments on this post are welcome too.


  1. So let’s say they create one of these foolish bicycle sidewalks on Western Avenue– what happens if a cyclist ignores it and continues to ride with automotive traffic? Will the bicycle unit of the Cambridge PD pedal him down and give him a ticket? On what charge, exactly?

    My understanding is that state law says bicyclists should be treated the same as vehicular traffic, so I’m unclear how our hypothetical cyclist would be doing anything illegal by ignoring the sidewalk lane.

    Comment by Matt — October 27, 2010 @ 6:55 am

  2. The laws of the Commonwealth do not allow cyclists to be banned from roadways, except for limited-access and express state highways, see Chapter 85 section 11B.

    Lacking the legal authority to chase bicyclists from the roadway, Cambridge’s policy, evident through its designs for Vassar Street, Concord Avenue, Western Avenue and Binney Street, is to narrow the roadway so that it becomes uncomfortable for bicyclists and motorists to share. It will be harder for motorists to overtake bicyclists when traffic is flowing freely, and harder for bicyclists to overtake motorists when traffic is congested. The presence of the sidepath, with prominent signage, will recruit motorists’ animosity to harass bicyclists who still ride on the roadway.

    This is going to be a problem right from the start, due to the issues with the bikeway that I raised in my post. The bikeway will usually also make for slower riding than the roadway, and will be especially hazardous at higher cycling speeds — so it can be expected that many cyclists will use the roadway instead.

    Increasing difficulty with Cambridge’s policy of rigid segregation can expected as the price of fuel rises, and intermediate classes of vehicles — electric bikes, wide cargo trikes, motor scooters — become more common.

    Comment by jsallen — October 27, 2010 @ 8:00 am

  3. In an age when so many citizens are falling into hard-times, to see the city expending resources on projects like this is disturbing. As a long time bicycle commuter, since the early 70’s, my take on “bike lanes” in general is that, where there is physical room for such a lane, they are not really needed, and where they are actually needed (such as on Prospect St. between the Somerville line and Central Sq., or on Sherman St. for instance) there is just no physical room. I’m sorry the city can’t find something better to do with their (our) money.

    Comment by Michael Buck — October 18, 2011 @ 7:37 am

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