Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

April 20, 2017

Sheet of ice draws praise from bicycle advocates

Snowmelt drains across "protected" bikeway on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge

Snowmelt drains across “protected” bikeway on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge

OK, spring is around the corner, so I’m a bit late with this post. But the issue I describe here will occur every year, at least until global warming puts an end to snows or converts central Cambridge into an extension of Boston Harbor.

The headline of the February 17 Boston Globe article with this picture is “Snowbank becomes accidental hero for area cyclists”.

The shiny area in the bikeway is meltwater from said snowbank. When the temperature drops below freezing, the meltwater becomes a sheet of black ice. This problem is unavoidable with a street-level barrier-separated bikeway. I discussed it at length years ago in connection with the 9th Avenue bikeway in Manhattan, a bikeway which, on the other hand, I have some nice things to say about.

Neither Steve Annear, author of the article, nor anyone quoted in it, makes any mention of the black-ice problem.

From the article: “’I like this snowbank-protected cycle track,’ Ari Ofsevit, a local cyclist, said on Twitter.” Ari usually ranges widely, imaginatively and thoughtfully in discussing transportation improvements his blog. I usually agree with him, but not in this case.

The article cites Joe Barr, of the City of Cambridge:

Barr acknowledged that the snow mound separating the bike lane and the road has offered a sense of protection to cyclists, but he said it could also be masking damage to the base of the flexible posts.

“We won’t know that until we get some more melting. But it certainly looks good on the street,” he said.

And Richard Fries, Executive Director of Massbike, commented: “It’s great. It won’t last that much longer, but it does help to hammer into people’s heads [road] patterns and driving habits,” he said. “Because it’s there, it makes the existing bike lane more visible to drivers and more prominent.”

Segregation promotes a sense of entitlement on the part of the majority group –in this case, motorists. How do I explain to horn-honking motorists that I have to ride in “their” travel lane, now narrowed to make room for the barrier, to avoid crashing on a sheet of black ice?

Or for that matter, to progress at my usual 15 miles per hour so I’m not stuck behind a cluster of bicyclists who are traveling at 8 miles per hour?

Or to avoid being right-hooked and crushed under the back wheels by a right-turning truck at Douglass Street?

Or that the rear-end collisions that this installation protects against are vanishingly rare on urban streets?

Or that parallel Harvard Street, Green Street and Franklin Street would serve admirably as low-stress through bicycle routes, if the city made the right kind of improvements?

February 21, 2017

Black ice blindness

Snowmelt drains across "protected" bikeway on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge

Snowmelt drains across “protected” bikeway on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge

The photo is of a stretch of barrier-separated bikeway recently installed on the north side of Massachusetts Avenue between Sidney Street and Douglass Street in Cambridge. The headline of the February 17, 2017 Boston Globe article with this picture is “Snowbank becomes accidental hero for area cyclists”.

But — the shiny area in the bikeway is meltwater from said snowbank. When the temperature drops, the water freezes into a sheet of black ice. The usual drainage techniques don’t work here because, if you will excuse me for belaboring the obvious, the “hero barrier’ is uphill and water runs downhill. I discussed bikeway drainage issues in more detail recently in a post on another blog and years ago in connection with the 9th Avenue bikeway in Manhattan. Just to make it clear, I do have  nice things to say about other features of the 9th Avenue bikeway.

Neither Steve Annear, author of the Globe article, nor anyone quoted in it, makes any mention of the black-ice problem. They are all enthusiastic about the snow-barrier.

From the article: “I like this snowbank-protected cycle track,” Ari Ofsevit, a local cyclist, said on Twitter.

Ari is more than just a “local cyclist”. He widely, imaginatively and thoughtfully discusses transportation improvements his blog. I usually agree with him, except when he turns a blind eye to problems with barrier-separated on-street bikeways.

The article cites Joe Barr. Director of Traffic, Parking, and Transportation for the City of Cambridge:

Barr acknowledged that the snow mound separating the bike lane and the road has offered a sense of protection to cyclists, but he said it could also be masking damage to the base of the flexible posts.

“We won’t know that until we get some more melting. But it certainly looks good on the street,” he said.

And Richard Fries, Executive Director of the massachusretts Bicycle Coalition, commented:

It’s great. It won’t last that much longer, but it does help to hammer into people’s heads [road] patterns and driving habits,” he said. “Because it’s there, it makes the existing bike lane more visible to drivers and more prominent.

Segregation promotes a sense of entitlement on the part of the majority group –in this case, motorists. How do I explain to horn-honking motorists that I have to ride my bicycle in “their” travel lane, now narrowed to make room for the barrier, to avoid crashing on a sheet of black ice?

Or for that matter, to travel at my usual 15 miles per hour so I’m not stuck behind a cluster of bicyclists who are traveling at 8 miles per hour?

Or to avoid being right-hooked and crushed under the back wheels by a right-turning truck where the bikeway ends at Douglass Street?

Just asking.

December 2, 2016

Where did the Amanda Phillips crash happen? And why?

Filed under: Cambridge,cycling,Deaths — Tags: , , , , , — jsallen @ 10:47 am

In a previous post, I stated that Amanda Phillips’s fatal crash occurred outside Inman Square, not in the Square.

An examination of news photos and a Google Street View establishes the precise location — 1423 Cambridge Street, just west of the Square.

The Google Street View

Boston Globe article with photo: note the blue recycling bin peeking out from behind the trash barrel, the distinctive leaning tree, and the ambulance parked on Hampshire Street in the background.

The Cambridge Patch has an even better photo.

This evidence establishes that Phillips had exited Inman Square. It has been reported that she rode off the sidewalk. That would place her in the same precarious situation as with the bike lanes exiting the Square in a “Peanut Roundabout” proposal advanced by the Boston Cyclists Union.

I also commend readers to Paul Schimek’s examination of factors which led to the crash.

December 1, 2016

A Peanut in Inman Square?

Inman Square is a difficult, pre-automotive, cramped, often congested, diagonal intersection. Thoroughgoing safety and traffic-flow improvements are not possible, short of tearing down buildings to create more travel space, or an expensive grade separation.

Anne Lusk, Visiting Fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health and a relentless advocate for on-street barrier-separated bikeways, has promoted a proposal for a “peanut roundabout” as a solution to the problems with Inman Square.

A grade separation was built long ago, farther west where Cambridge street runs between Harvard buildings. Though Lusk works at Harvard University, Inman Square does not adjoin the campus, and the political and financial resources of the University evidently don’t come to bear on the Square’s problems.

A Web page from the Boston Cyclists Union describes the “peanut roundabout” concept which Lusk is promoting for Inman Square. Here’s a conceptual drawing from the Web page:

"Peanut Roundabout" concept for Inman Square

“Peanut Roundabout” concept for Inman Square

I do think that the peanut roundabout concept is clever in itself. By eliminating traffic signals, this design might improve traffic flow.

— except for problems for bicyclists and pedestrians.

In the conceptual drawing on the page, to continue across the square in the same direction, bicyclists are directed to follow a circuitous route on separated bikeways, subject to right-hook risks, and turn sharply left after waiting at locations where they would block other bicyclists bearing right. There is no waiting area other than the narrow bikeway in which the bicyclists approach. The page describes the crossings as “European-style protected crossings” — but they aren’t. Strictly speaking, in traffic engineering, “protected” means that conflicting movements are prevented by traffic signals. No traffic signals are shown in the conceptual drawing. Four of the six crosswalks are raised, and these would slow motorists, but there are no waiting areas that would make it clear whether bicyclists will be turning across motor traffic or proceeding straight.

All in all, I cannot imagine how this concept would work for bicyclists or pedestrians without traffic signals for the crosswalks. Signals, though, would result in more motorists in the roundabout blocking other motorists’ travel in the roundabout. The conceptual drawing avoids raising this issue. Few vehicles are shown in the roundabout, inconsistent with the many in the connecting streets.

The conceptual drawing shows door-zone bike lanes leading to and from Inman Square at every approach. Earlier this year, cyclist Amanda Phillips was killed when the opening door of a parked vehicle flung her under a truck — the incident which led to calls for redesign of the Square. She was, however, not in the Square: she was had left the Square. (Identification of the crash location) It has been reported that she was exiting the sidewalk just before she was doored — so, she came from behind the vehicle whose door opened in front of her. What lessons from this crash have informed the proposed peanut design? Apparently none. The bike lanes shown at exits from the Square place bicyclists in the same hazardous situation as Phillips: emerging from behind parked vehicles, rather than where they might be visible with a driver’s-side mirror or a glance over the shoulder.

The page claims that “[s]uch a design could radically improve traffic flows, safety, and the community fabric of crash-prone Inman Square.” It would be useful in evaluating proposals, and claims like these, to have  a traffic capacity and flow analysis, and a crash study.  Instead, on the Web page, there is a list of claimed advantages, with no mention of potential problems and no analysis.

My overall impression of this design as a bicyclist, in addition to the concerns about safety, is that while it might increase appeal to bicyclists who are fearful of riding in mixed traffic, delays will be such that bicyclists who want to get where they are going will ride in the motor traffic. And let’s hope that they understand that safety would require them to ride in line with the motor traffic rather than keeping out of its way, as the designated routes strongly imply to be the key to safety.

The City of Cambridge has put forward two other proposals. A  “bend Cambridge Street” proposal is shown in the image below. Traffic on Hampshire Street would travel straight through, and traffic on Cambridge Street would zigzag. A similar “bend Hampshire Street” proposal is more or less a mirror image of this one. These proposals are similar to what has been done with Union Square in Somerville and at Lafayette Square (the intersection of Main Street and Massachusetts Avenue) in Cambridge.

City of Cambridge "bend Cambridge Street" proposal

City of Cambridge “bend Cambridge Street” proposal

The “bend” proposals include traffic signals and require bicyclists and motorists to make left turns. I do think, however, that the blue space in the “bend Cambridge Street” proposal might include bikeways, so  bicyclists on Cambridge Street could continue straight where the street bends left toward the first traffic light and then re-enter Cambridge Street by crossing Hampshire Street at the second traffic light rather than by turning left. (This would not be practical with the “bend Hampshire Street” proposal, because bicyclists would have to turn left across Hampshire Street to enter the blue space). The drawing below shows my proposal. Bicyclists would follow the red arrows.

Bend Cambridge Street proposal with shortcut bikeways

Bend Cambridge Street proposal with shortcut bikeways

The blue areas also might include useful social space — unlike the peanut roundabout proposal, where the extra space would be in the middle of the street.  The two traffic lights in the Bend Camridge Street proposal would, to be sure, increase delay for motorists. Bicyclists following the red-arrow route would encounter only one traffic light.

I’ll admit that I don’t have any more thoroughgoing answers to Inman Square’s problems other than the two I’ve already mentioned — tearing down buildings or creating a grade separation — which are not going to happen. I’ll be trying to think of other possibilities, and please, you do also.

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November 1, 2016

Cambridge InsideOut Episodes 181-182: November 1, 2016

Filed under: Cambridge,Cambridge InsideOut — Tags: , , , , , — Robert Winters @ 11:49 pm

Cambridge InsideOut Episode 181 (Part 1)

This episode was broadcast on November 1, 2016 at 5:30pm. Topics include a variety of matters discussed at the Oct 31, 2016 Cambridge City Council meeting. The hosts are Judy Nathans and Robert Winters. [On YouTube]


Cambridge InsideOut Episode 182 (Part 2)

This episode was broadcast on November 1, 2016 at 6:00pm. Topics include a variety of matters discussed at the Oct 31, 2016 Cambridge City Council meeting. The hosts are Judy Nathans and Robert Winters. [On YouTube]

[Materials used in this episode]

October 30, 2016

Trick or Treat – October 31, 2016 Cambridge City Council meeting

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council,cycling,transportation — Tags: , , , — Robert Winters @ 9:53 pm

Trick or Treat – October 31, 2016 Cambridge City Council meeting

Happy Halloween!The ghosts and goblins will descend on City Hall this Monday. Here are a few agenda items of possible interest:

Sundry communications advocating for the segregation of two-wheeled vehicles from other vehicles.

Order #10. That the City Council acknowledges that said residents and other users desire the City to immediately enact safety improvements to bicycle infrastructure, starting with separated bike lanes on all major city thoroughfares.   Councillor Mazen, Councillor Devereux

I have been bicycling in Cambridge for over 35 years without incident, so I continue to be surprised by statements that Cambridge roads are some kind of death trap. It’s simply not true. Is cycling in Cambridge absolutely safe? Of course not – nor is driving or navigating the streets as a pedestrian.

Most of us can easily identify particular intersections that really are fundamentally unsafe and have been for a long time. Chief on my list would be the Porter Square intersection, Inman Square, River Street coming from the river toward Central Square, much of the McGrath/O’Brien Highway, and the rotary at the BU Bridge. If I gave it some more thought, I’m sure I could come up with more.

I very much appreciate all input from all sources who have good concepts for how a difficult intersection like Porter Square could be made better. Some of those ideas may even be counter-intuitive, e.g. removing all the signals and other devices and forcing everyone to pass through with extreme caution. Even if you think that’s crazy, it’s still worthy of consideration – though it would definitely not be my chosen remedy. [Reference: woonerf, shared street]

What I really resent in some of the proposals introduced at the Cambridge City Council is their primary focus on "protected bike lanes" without any discussion of the many potential down sides of that proposal. They certainly don’t address the actual problem – dangerous intersections. Side paths make a lot of sense in places where there is a significant differential in speeds between motor vehicles and cyclists, e.g. along Memorial Drive. They also make a lot of sense along a twisting road where a faster moving vehicle might come up on a cyclist on a curve, especially if there is little or no shoulder. I don’t think they make a lot of sense on straight roads with moderate speeds.

Here are a few examples of what will likely happen if cyclists are channelled into a corridor between parked cars and the curb:

(a) Cyclists of varying speeds will have difficulty sorting themselves out since passing will be more difficult.

(b) Motor vehicles entering a road at an unsignalized intersection will have to block this "protected lane" just to be able to see the traffic before entering the intersection. Most pedestrians are already familiar with this and often have to decide between crossing in front of the car or behind the car. This will be much more problematic for bicycles moving at speeds greatly in excess of a pedestrian.

(c) Picking up and dropping off kids at the local school will become an adventure with significantly narrowed travel lanes and bicycles moving past on the passenger side. We have two Montessori schools on my block, a Cambridge public school across the street, and soon a day care center. Add the coffee shop to that and you have a disaster waiting to happen. Bicycle altercations along my street are few, if any. As I mentioned above, the primary danger is at difficult intersections with turning traffic.

(d) With significantly narrowed travel lanes, traffic congestion will soar in spite of any prophecies to the contrary. Locations where there is now room to maneuver around a turning vehicle will come to a standstill. I understand that this is what many of the "Complete Streets" advocates want to happen, but I really do hope there is at least some effort made to hear what others have to say.

(e) Pedestrians crossing a street will now be essentially crossing three streets and will have to take great caution – much more than they must now do.

(f) Faster moving cyclists will continue to use the regular travel lanes. Their speeds are not all that different than motor vehicles on many Cambridge streets, especially if there’s even moderate compliance with the lower speed limits that are proposed citywide. For these cyclists, there will be far less wiggle room for passing and they will often have little choice but to "take the lane".

(g) Based on all the conflicts that are introduced it is more than likely that advocates will conclude that the only way to make things work is to remove the parking altogether. I see this as almost inevitable. Some will rejoice at this, but many others will not. As has been pointed out very eloquently on this list, people do get older and their mobility may be reduced for this and other reasons. You cannot simply wish away the need for some (many) people to have access to a motor vehicle and to be able to park it at least somewhere near where they live. In my neighborhood many of the streets are almost fully parked much of the time.

(h) Snow events will bring everything to a standstill. In particular, the ideal practice of plowing streets most of the way to the curb will be far more difficult when streets are divided into multiple sections. As we all know, sometimes the only practical option is to not plow all the way to the curb since there’s need for that additional storage. What happens then? My guess is that winter cyclists will simply ride in the regular travel lanes which will now be far narrower than they are now.

If the City is absolutely set on trying out this idea, they should start with one road as a pilot and see what problems do or do not develop and evaluate the results honestly. I think it’s very important that any such evaluation be done by an objective party.

There were two important matters embedded in the torrent of City Council orders introduced two weeks ago – (1) addressing problematic intersections (like Porter Square); and (2) addressing the fundamental incompatibility between vulnerable users (including pedestrians and cyclists) and very large trucks with limited visibility.

I also feel that much more attention needs to be spent on identifying quieter alternatives for cyclists. In Medford, one of the most significant recommendations in their Bicycle Infrastructure Master Plan is the conversion of some streets to "bicycle boulevards" where cyclists are given very explicit priority without being segregated. That would be a good thing to do for a number of Cambridge streets.

PS – I have neither the time nor the inclination to write petitions or gather signatures on this topic. It’s easy to get signatures when you tell people that your way is the only way to achieve "safe streets". I believe that a lot more discussion needs to take place on this topic – and not in a hypercharged political atmosphere.

Order #2. That the Public Safety Committee hold a public hearing to hear about the various uses of drones in Cambridge and any concerns residents may have about them, with the goal of recommending guidelines for a municipal ordinance that would protect the public safety and the privacy of residents.   Councillor Devereux, Councillor Kelley

Order #12. That the City Manager is request to confer with the City of Boston to include Cambridge in the autonomous vehicle initiative as a partner.   Councillor Mazen

It’s entertaining to see the juxtaposition of orders expressing concern for public safety from unmanned drones while eagerly embracing unmanned motor vehicles.

Order #5. That the City Council go on record in support of asking the Cambridge Historical Commission to initiate a landmark designation study process on the Harvard Square kiosk.   Councillor Devereux, Councillor Mazen, Vice Mayor McGovern, Councillor Carlone

The entire area is already landmarked, and nobody is even considering doing anything to the Kiosk other than restoring it to a state much closer to what it was when first built. That said, if double-landmarking gives you thrills, knock yourself out.

Order #8. The City Manager coordinate with the Finance Department, Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, and community stakeholders to outline a proposed system of governance, management, and stakeholder engagement, to be discussed in a public forum with the Council and community.   Councillor Mazen, Councillor Devereux, Vice Mayor McGovern, Councillor Carlone

Translation – Throw the baby out with the bathwater. The City Council voted on a process with their eyes wide open, but apparently some city councillors would prefer to maintain a heavy hand on all aspects of the management of this City asset.

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk transmitting a report from Councillor Jan Devereux, Chair of the Health and Environment Committee for a public hearing held on Sept 28, 2016 to discuss the ongoing drought and the impact on the Cambridge water supply, what restrictions on water use may be appropriate to consider and what public outreach is needed on water conservation measures.

Anything that helps educate residents about basic City infrastructure, especially something like drinking water and fire protection, is welcome. It continues to amaze me how many people, including civic activists and even city councillors, don’t understand some of the most basic things that we all take for granted every day.

Committee Report #2. A communication was received from Paula M. Crane, Deputy City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Nadeem Mazen, Chair of the Neighborhood and Long Term Planning, Public Facilities, Arts and Celebration Committee, for a public hearing held on Aug 29, 2016 to discuss different models for campaign finance reform and publicly-funded municipal elections in Cambridge, and will focus on receiving feedback from the community.

Committee Report #3. A communication was received from Paula M. Crane, Deputy City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Nadeem Mazen, Chair of the Neighborhood and Long Term Planning, Public Facilities, Arts and Celebration Committee, for a public hearing held on Aug 25, 2016 to discuss improving voter turnout for the municipal elections in Cambridge through voter reward options and will focus on receiving feedback from the community.

I gave testimony at both of these hearings. The "voter reward" idea is an absolute nonstarter. Campaign finance is a topic worthy of a lot of discussion, but most of what was presented at the hearing on that topic was at best underwhelming and misdirected.

Communications & Reports from City Officers #1. A communication was received from Mayor E. Denise Simmons, informing the City Council they may go into Executive Session on Monday to discuss on-going contract negotiations with the prospective City Manager.

I hope this gets settled at this meeting and that a contract is signed either this Monday or next.

June 10, 2016

Opening of the First Section of the Grand Junction Path – June 9, 2016

It’s only between Main Street and Broadway so far, but it’s a start!

Cambridge City Councillor and State Representative Tim Toomey

Cambridge City Councillor and State Representative Tim Toomey

Cambridge City Manager Richard Rossi

Cambridge City Manager Richard Rossi

Sarah Gallup, MIT Government and Community Relations

Sarah Gallup, MIT Government and Community Relations

John Sanzone, Friends of the Grand Junction Path

John Sanzone, Friends of the Grand Junction Path

City Councillors Marc McGovern, Jan Devereux, and Tim Toomey and City Manager Rich Rossi

City Councillors Marc McGovern, Jan Devereux, and Tim Toomey and City Manager Rich Rossi

Cutting the Ribbon: Margaret Drury (CRA), Conrad Crawford (CRA), Jan Devereux, Rich Rossi, Tim Toomey, Marc McGovern, Kathy Born (CRA), Tom Evans (CRA Exec. Dir.), Sarah Gallup, Barry Zevin (CRA), Jason Zogg (CRA Program Manager)

Cutting the Ribbon: Margaret Drury (CRA), Conrad Crawford (CRA), Jan Devereux, Rich Rossi, Tim Toomey, Marc McGovern, Kathy Born (CRA), Tom Evans (CRA Exec. Dir.), Sarah Gallup, Barry Zevin (CRA), Jason Zogg (CRA Program Manager)

You can't cut the ribbon without these

You can’t cut the ribbon without these

Michael Owu (MITIMCO) and Anya Bear (MIT Government and Community Relations)

Michael Owu (MITIMCO) and Anya Bear (MIT Government and Community Relations)

The Grand Junction Path after the Grand Opening

The Grand Junction Path after the Grand Opening

The Trains Keep Rollin'

The Trains Keep Rollin’

March 31, 2015

Web page includes two videos of Cambridge bicycle infrastructure

Please check out this Web page,with two of four videos illustrating exciting new developments in Cambridge bicycle infrastructure. Can you identify the locations?

Exciting new technology demonstrated at a Cambridge bicycle facility.

Exciting new technology demonstrated at a Cambridge bicycle facility.

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