Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

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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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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June 3, 2013

Coming up at the Cambridge City Council on Monday, June 3

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council,cycling — Tags: , , , — Robert Winters @ 1:06 pm

Coming up at City Council on Monday, June 3

During a municipal election year, it is common that the content of City Council Orders is at least in part motivated by the need to identify or, in some cases, create issues that will distinguish the author of the Order. The same can be said of matters taken up by the City Council committees and more. Controversy and alarm are sure to draw more attention than more mundane matters. There’s now just four weeks to go before nomination papers become available for City Council candidates, and it’s a good time to look at the actions of our local elected officials through a campaign-tinted lens. With this in mind, here’s a list of some of the more interesting agenda items on this week’s agenda:

Manager’s Agenda #5. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 13-38, regarding a report on measures the City can take to prevent the transport of ethanol. [Meeting Notice with response from Congressman Michael Capuano]

Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to appoint a working group of up to eleven people charged with drafting a community response to the Mar 29, 2013 report issued by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation as it relates to ethanol transport and the impact on the City of Cambridge.   Councillor Maher and Councillor Decker

There’s no doubt that this is a significant issue that deserves a thoughtful response, but it’s true that an atmosphere of fear is something that can be nurtured and exploited for political gain. The state legislature has taken some steps to stop trains bearing this particular hazardous cargo, but the letter from Congressman Capuano makes clear that federal jurisdiction in interstate commerce may trump any such efforts, including actions targeting things other than the transportation of such cargo. It’s not surprising that residents may be fearful, especially with news stories from elsewhere about train derailments and their consequences.

Should this plan go through, the most likely route would follow the Fitchburg Line through North Cambridge and Porter Square and then through Somerville en route to the Chelsea destination. The Grand Junction branch passing through Cambridgeport and East Cambridge is a possible alternate route. Perhaps the most potentially dangerous locations for any route would be at-grade crossings. On the preferred route, this includes Sherman Street in North Cambridge and Park Street in Somerville.

Manager’s Agenda #10. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 13-33, regarding a report on adding a RSS feed to all City web pages.

This item will be carefully scrutinized by Councillor Cheung, John Hawkinson and Saul Tannenbaum, but probably not by legions of other residents.

Manager’s Agenda #22. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 12-78, regarding a report on expanding the number of parks/playing fields with public toilets; Awaiting Report Item Number 12-132, regarding a report on incorporating permanent bathroom facilities at the Cambridge Common, conducting a study for permanent bathroom facilities in all squares and providing a list of all locations were portable bathroom facilities are currently located; Awaiting Report Item Number 12-150, regarding convening a task force to look into the creation of providing permanent public restrooms at high volume locations; and Awaiting Report Item Number 13-55, regarding a report on efforts to develop a working group to review public bathroom issues.

As the text of the Manager’s report indicates, this responds to four separate Council orders. Though the idea of bathroom facilities may seem like a not-so-hot topic, it has actually brought out a lot of people during the Public Comment period of meetings over a span of quite a few years, and good answers are not so easy to come by. This is also not just about the Cambridge Common. In past years there was a lot of discussion about creating public toilets in the major squares, but nothing really happened for a variety of reasons. Nonetheless, people still "have to go" and you can’t change that via legislation. It does seem clear that the City administration is taking the matter seriously and that some accommodation will follow.

Manager’s Agenda #28. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 13-60, regarding a report on the feasibility of donating old computers to non-profit agencies in lieu of recycling them.

This is clearly a good thing, but one has to wonder why sensible efficiencies like this should require City Council orders. The City of Cambridge is often seen as a leader in "sustainability" efforts, and one major part of this involves waste disposal and reuse options. It seems to this writer and long-time recycling advocate that all City departments should be ensuring that surplus equipment is disposed in the best possible way, and reuse certainly seems a better choice than other alternatives.

Unfinished Business #14. Report from Councillor David P. Maher, Chair of the Ordinance Committee, for a public hearing held on Apr 3, 2013 to discuss an amendment to the Zoning Ordinance to create a new Section 6.100 Bicycle Parking, and to create a new definition for Bicycle Parking in Article 2.000, modify the yard standards in Article 5.000 as they relate to bicycle parking and modifying various sections of Article 6.000 to remove references to bicycle parking. The question comes on passing to be ordained on or after May 6, 2013. Planning Board hearing held Mar 19, 2013. Petition expires June 17, 2013. May 6, 2013 substituted language referred to Unfinished Business and remained on Unfinished Business.

I suspect this will be ordained at this meeting. The proposed ordinance could be made better by including a requirement for secure bicycle parking for all redevelopments. At the very least, there should be a requirement that there be no net loss of potential bike parking below an established minimum for both residential and commercial buildings.

Resolution #17. Thanks and best wishes to Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray for his service to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.   Councillor Decker

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Tim. I’ll never forget the evasive answers you gave me at a City Council committee meeting back when you were still the Mayor of Worcester. You haven’t changed a bit.

Resolution #30. Congratulations to City Manager Robert W. Healy on his fellowship at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.   Mayor Davis [Press Release]

How do I schedule an appointment with Professor Healy during office hours later this year?

Order #1. That the Executive Assistant to the City Council confer with the Dedication Committee to consider the request from Wayne Ishikawa for a street corner dedication in honor of Michael Shinagel.   Councillor Toomey

I tip my hat to my former boss, Harvard Extension School Dean Michael Shinagel. The Extension School has been providing affordable educational opportunities for residents for a century and Michael Shinagel served as Dean of the Division of Continuing Education for 38 years from 1975 through 2013. [Harvard Magazine article, Sept 2012]

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to confer with relevant City staff, City of Boston, state transportation officials and Longfellow Bridge construction project managers to determine if it would be possible for pedicabs to transfer passengers from the general MGH/Charles Street area of Boston to the general Kendall Square area of Cambridge and back again.   Councillor Kelley

This is an excellent idea. Still unresolved, however, is the question of where pedicabs should ride on streets where the City wants install so-called "cycle tracks." The pedicabs often consume the entire width of these bike lanes, and in order to accommodate the sidewalk "cycle tracks" roadway widths are often narrowed to the point where motor vehicles and cyclists can no longer safely share a travel lane in the road. It’s even worse for pedicab drivers who will have no option other than to "take the lane" or ride the sidewalk. This conflict will likely not be an issue on the Longfellow Bridge.

Order #5. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the State Auditor’s Office to determine if the state of Massachusetts will fund the costs incurred by the city when it assesses and establishes full and fair cash value for tax-exempt properties within the City of Cambridge even though the city cannot collect taxes from said properties.   Councillor vanBeuzekom

As the Order states, the City cannot collect taxes from said properties, so how the assessment takes place is unimportant to the City. The simplest solution is to simply ask that the owners of tax-exempt properties submit estimates of their "full and fair cash value." There will be no tax collected anyway, so there’s no practical need for more than a good estimate. This also applies to the valuation of City, State, and Federal properties within the city.

Committee Report #4. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Interim City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor David P. Maher, Chair of the Government Operations and Rules Committee, for a public meeting held on May 22, 2013 to review the status of positions reporting directly to the City Council.

The purpose of this meeting was to take up the issue of the appointment of the City Clerk and the City Auditor. It’s about time that the word "Interim" should be removed from "Interim City Clerk Donna P. Lopez." Jim Monagle is also expected to be reappointed as City Auditor.

Unfinished Business #10. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 12-90, regarding a report on Executive Session to discuss lawsuits. [City Manager Agenda Number Seven of Feb 25, 2013 Placed on Table on motion of Councillor Kelley on Feb 25, 2013.]

Communications & Reports #1. A communication was received from Councillor Craig Kelley notifying the City Manager and City Council of his intention to move to take Calendar Item #10 from the table to enable discussion of various lawsuits against the City.

Communications & Reports #2. A communication was received from Councillor Minka vanBeuzekom alerting her colleagues of her intention to pull Awaiting Report Item Number 12-90 (Unfinished Business #10) to discuss pending lawsuits.

My speculation is that these fundamentally identical communications originated on Brookford Street and that Public Comment will once again feature bitter commentary from one of its residents. City Manager Robert Healy will retire four weeks from today. The City will move on without skipping a beat, but some multiple-decade critics may never move on. – Robert Winters


Addendum: At this meeting the City Council accepted a late committee report from the Government Operations & Rules Committee and passed the following Order:
ORDERED: That the former site of the Cambridge Police Department which is now the new location for the Cambridge Community Learning Center, the Cambridge Housing Authority and the Multi-Service Center be named the “Alice K. Wolf Center” and that a suitable dedication ceremony be planned by the Executive Assistant to the City Council and the staff, and be it further
ORDERED: That the Deputy City Manager be and hereby is requested to report back to the City Council with a plan for either a suitable plaque or a sign for the “Alice K. Wolf Center“.

December 3, 2012

Enjoying? the Concord Avenue “raised bike lanes”

The Cambridge City Council meeting on December 3, 2012 is to address issues of debris on the Concord Avenue “raised bike lanes”. These replaced conventional bike lanes at street level. I put the term “raised bike lanes” in quotes because a bikeway behind a curb is not a bike lane. By definition, a lane is at street level, so it is possible to merge to and from other lanes. Rather, this is a nonstandard bicycle path.

This post supplements comments which I posted on my own blog before Concord Avenue was reconstructed. The photos here are stills from video shot during a ride westbound at mid-day on November 20, 2012, with moderate motor traffic and very light bicycle traffic.

First photo: Crosswalk just west of the Alewife Brook Parkway rotary is backing up motor traffic. This already generates traffic jams with light bicycle traffic. The City expects the bikeways to attract more cyclists and to lead to a major increase in bicycle traffic.

Crosswalk backs up traffic on Concord Avenue

Crosswalk backs up traffic on Concord Avenue

Next photo: The westbound bikeway crosses 24 streets and 8 driveways in 3000 feet. The most persistent hazard on the westbound bikeway is of “right hook” and “left cross” collisions. The van in the photo not only is turning across the bikeway; it also might be hiding another vehicle preparing a left turn from ahead. The bikeway places bicyclists where they are defenseless against these threats. I say more about them, and how to avoid them, in my earlier blog post.

Right hook and left cross threat on Concord Avenue bikeway

Right hook and left cross threat on Concord Avenue bikeway

Next — bus stop. When the bike lanes were at street level, bicyclists could pass a stopped bus on the left, or wait behind it. Motorists also usually could pass a stopped bus. Passing would have been even easier with bus turnouts on the westbound side, where there is only one travel lane. Now that the roadway has instead been narrowed, converting the conventional bike lanes into “raised bike lanes”, buses must completely block the travel lane, and passengers getting off a bus step down directly into the path of bicyclists. A 2007 research study in Copenhagen showed an increase in bicyclist-pedestrian collisions of 17 times, and of injuries of 19 times, when bus stops were placed outside bikeways like this. More about that study.

Bus stop on Concord Avenue, with green paint

Bus stop on Concord Avenue, with green paint

That study was published well before construction on the Concord Avenue bikeway began. Not only that, the City’s bicycle coordinator repeatedly points to Copenhagen as a model of what Cambridge should do.

To resolve conflicts between bicyclists and passengers descending from buses, the City first painted bicycle markings. Those markings, however, suggest that bicyclists have priority, and these markings also may not be directly in front of a bus’s door when it opens, to warn the passengers. At some later time, green carpet painting was added. This is normally used to indicate where motorists yield to bicyclists (see Federal Highway Administration interim approval), but here it is intended to indicate where bicyclists must yield to pedestrians, a confused and contradictory message. This bus stop is at a driveway. Traffic has worn away some of the green paint and you can see the bicycle marking which was painted over.

Bicycle marking under green paint at bus stop on Concord Avenue

Bicycle marking under green paint at bus stop on Concord Avenue

One problem to be discussed at the City Council meeting is that snow clearance is not practical on the westbound bikeway, because of its repeated ups and downs. Ice also puddles there. Here’s a photo from another blogger, dr2chase, showing winter conditions on the westbound bikeway. dr2chase’s blog has many more photos.

dr2chase's photo of winter conditions on the Concord Avenue bikeway westbound

dr2chase’s photo of winter conditions on the Concord Avenue bikeway westbound

dr2chase also has made the point that snow clearance is much more practical on the eastbound bikeway, which has only one driveway entrance in its entire length. Here is his photo illustrating that:

drchase's photo of the eastbound bikeway in winter

drchase’s photo of the eastbound bikeway in winter

The bikeway on each side is designated as one-way. People are likely to use both of them for two-way travel, and not only in snow season, because a cyclist must stand in the street to lift the bicycle over the curb of the eastbound bikeway at most locations. Also note the seam between asphalt and concrete running down the middle of the photo above. It is intended to separate bicyclists from pedestrians. It won’t, especially with two-way bicycling, and over the years, it will deteriorate so it traps bicycle wheels. dr2chase and I have both made the point that a properly-designed, designated two-way bikeway on the south side of Concord Avenue, adjacent to Fresh Pond Park, would have made good sense, connecting with the existing bikeways in the park and crossing only one driveway in its entire length — at a signalized intersection. I also would have liked to keep the street at its previous width, with street-level bike lanes, to allow efficient through travel and make it possible to reach the eastbound bikeway without lifting a bicycle over a curb.

The next photo illustrates the crossing-the-street issue. Note the driveway at the right rear, and that there is no break in the curb on the far side of Concord Avenue. To cross without stopping in the street, and to avoid having to double back, cyclists will most likely ride eastbound in the westbound bikeway. That is illegal and hazardous: motorists pulling out of side streets and driveways look in the opposite direction for traffic.

The mailbox adjacent to the 5-foot-wide bikeway adds a nice touch as well. Nick it with your handlebar, and you go down hard. Even without such obstructions, 5 feet is minimal for one-way travel. This mailbox is one of a large number of fixed-object hazards adjacent to the bikeway.

Mailbox, and curb on far side of Concord Avenue

Mailbox, and curb on far side of Concord Avenue

Not all hazards are fixed-object hazards. There are these trash barrels.

Trash barrels on westbound bikeway on Concord Avenue

Trash barrels on westbound bikeway on Concord Avenue

Behind the trash barrels, you may have noticed a car discharging passengers. A cyclist who regularly rides Concord Avenue reports that delivery vehicles also now stop in the bikeway.

Car stops in bikeway to discharge passengers, on Concord Avenue

Car stops in bikeway to discharge passengers, on Concord Avenue

My next photos show what I call the X-merge, or double-cross merge.

Normal traffic law requires a driver to maintain a constant lane position when another driver is overtaking. Here’s an excerpt from the Massachusetts law:

Except as herein otherwise provided, the driver of a vehicle passing another vehicle traveling in the same direction shall drive a safe distance to the left of such other vehicle and shall not return to the right until safely clear of the overtaken vehicle; and, if the way is of sufficient width for the two vehicles to pass, the driver of the leading one shall not unnecessarily obstruct the other.

Bicyclists may overtake on the right, according to another section of the law:

…the bicycle operator may keep to the right when passing a motor vehicle which is moving in the travel lane of the way…

When a bicyclist is directed to cross from the right at an arbitrary location, and a motorist to cross from the left at the same location, they are both violating the law. Green paint here is used to direct cyclists and motorists to operate illegally.

X-merge on Concord Avenue

X-merge on Concord Avenue

I avoided right-hook threats by merging in behind the stopped car so the next vehicle turning right could safely pass me on the right.

Avoiding the X-merge on Concord Avenue

Avoiding the X-merge on Concord Avenue

Before Blanchard Road, a traffic island narrows the roadway. The bike lane, between the through travel lane and right turn lane, is too narrow to allow safe clearance on both sides. Note in the photo below that the narrow median on the far side of Blanchard Road allows much more room to the left of the bike lane. The traffic island predates the reconstruction: the bike lane has been shoehorned in by narrowing the other lanes. Concord Avenue is wide enough to accommodate turning traffic without the island’s being so wide.

Wide traffic island at Blanchard Road narrows bike lane on Concord Avenue

Wide traffic island at Blanchard Road narrows bike lane on Concord Avenue

Well, enough. You get the idea. I’ll finish with a couple of quotes. Here’s one from MarkS, commenting on dr2chase’s blog post:

I don’t know why they wasted the time and money to put these tracks in in the first place. I find a bike lane much more convenient, and in some ways safer — clearly safer than that abomination on the north side of Concord Ave — the “outgoing” side. And, if ever we decide to re-design the situation, the expense of doing so will be significantly — and that’s an understatement — more than it would be to just re-paint the lines where the bike lane would have been.

Here’s another quote, from dr2chase:

…the west-bound side is about the most ineffective botch I have ever seen. But the eastbound side is quite nice (with the exception of the scary-high curbs). One extremely-low-traffic intersection, no driveways, hence none of those risks, and so wide that (with current bike/ped traffic levels) there is little harm in riding the wrong way on the good side. Technically illegal, but vastly safer, and I cannot fault someone for making the safer choice.

I agree! And have a look at the video online!

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November 19, 2012

Nov 19, 2012 Cambridge City Council Agenda highlights

Filed under: Cambridge,cycling,elections,planning — Tags: , , , — Robert Winters @ 11:42 am

Nov 19, 2012 Cambridge City Council Agenda highlights

Here are some items that jump out as worthy of comment:

City Manager’s Agenda #1. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Council Order Number 10, dated 5/23/2011, regarding Biogen return to Cambridge.

Biogen Idec Inc. intends to soon relocate its headquarters to Cambridge where it now has a substantial presence. As the Manager’s letter states, "The remaining outstanding barrier is the zoning requirement that a cafeteria be located on the ground floor of the building and open to the public at least 20 hours per week." This seems like a completely reasonable accommodation, especially if the local business association makes a parallel effort to create affordable food options in the immediate area. Most people would likely choose to eat in a restaurant than in the cafeteria of a life sciences building anyway. Perhaps that existing provision in the zoning code is a vestige of the days when Kendall Square had vanishing dining options. That’s no longer the case, though the provision of affordable dining options could still use some attention.

Resolution #15. Resolution on the death of William M. Hogan, Jr.   Councillor Maher

William Hogan was a former Cambridge City Councillor and first Vice Mayor under the Plan E Charter. He was the last surviving councillor elected in 1941 in Cambridge’s first PR election under the Plan E Charter adopted the previous year. He died at the age of 100. He would have been about 27 when he was elected (in 1939) and 31 when he left office. He ran unsuccessfully for reelection in 1943. He was among the last elected councillors-at-large in 1939 under the previous charter and the first under the new Plan E charter.

Resolution #25. Thanks to City staff for their work on Election Day.   Mayor Davis

Order #16. That the City Manager confer with the Election Commission to make information publicly available on wait times throughout Election Day and the number of booths at each precinct.   Councillor Cheung and Councillor vanBeuzekom

Though I had to wait over 40 minutes in line to vote this year, when I got to the front of the line I saw only efficiency and courtesy from the the poll workers at the City Hall Annex. Though things may have run faster with more booths, the real slowdown was caused by the presence of several additional nonbinding ballot questions that most people did not have an opportunity to read prior to voting. If it were my call, I would allow voters the option to vote outside of the booths if they don’t mind doing so. The checking in, checking out, and inserting of ballots into the scanner go very quickly. The limiting factor is the number of booths. One of the great advantages of scannable paper ballots is that there is no strict limit on how many voters can simultaneously if there is some flexibility in where you can fill out your ballot. Mayor Davis’ appreciation of election workers stands in marked contrast to the recent bellyaching of one of her colleagues.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to investigate creating a pilot program for installing mini exercise stations on major walking routes throughout the city, perhaps at bus stops, subway stations and public parks.   Mayor Davis

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to look into the installation of public drinking fountains at additional locations in the city – possibly working with the Cambridge Arts Council on interesting designs.   Mayor Davis

These are interesting and creative suggestions. Every such installation, however, will have to be maintained and that could be problematic. I’m inclined to believe that public parks and plazas would be a lot more appropriate than bus stops and subway stations.

Order #4. That the Cambridge City Council go on record urging the members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee to pass MA Senate Bill 2314, "An Act Relative to Plastic Bag Reduction."   Councillor vanBeuzekom

Order #10. That the City Manager is requested to instruct the Law Department to prepare language for an amendment to the Municipal Code to ban the use of polystyrene-based disposable food containers and to provide a waiver provision similar to the by-law of the Town of Brookline.   Councillor Cheung and Mayor Davis

I’m glad that there is attention being given to some of these more annoying aspects of waste management, especially the reduction of materials for which there are limited recycling options. It should be noted that consumers have always been able to avoid plastic bags simply by providing their own reusable bags when shopping. Regarding the banning of polystyrene food containers, don’t be surprised if some food vendors replace them by even more wasteful containers made of other plastics that rarely make it into the recycling stream.

Order #5. That the City Manager is requested to work with the appropriate city officials to explore the possibility of completing and submitting the Bicycle Friendly Community application by Feb 26, 2013 so that the City of Cambridge may be included in the next review cycle and join together with other communities in participating in the Bicycle Friendly Community program.   Councillor vanBeuzekom

As a daily cyclist, I continue to scrutinize the City’s decisions regarding safe accommodation for cyclists and transportation policies that often seem more rooted in hostility toward motor vehicle operators than in the promotion of good alternatives. The City does seem to be doing a better job in their design of on-street bike lanes, though they routinely err in their treatment of these lanes at intersections. State law requires that right-turning vehicles move as far right as possible before making their turn, yet the City often stripes bike lanes with a solid line right up to intersections. Unless a motor vehicle operator drives in the bike lane immediately before turning, there will be a greater risk of turning into a cyclist passing on the right – and many cyclists are oblivious to this danger. The City is also installing "cycle tracks" on some streets that will create significant conflicts at driveways and intersections and will most likely narrow travel lanes to the point where on-street cyclists wishing to maintain more than casual recreational speeds are endangered. I don’t expect these realities to be reflected in the City’s application, and City planners have been unresponsive in their cycle track juggernaut.

Order #9. Special Permit process pursuant to MGL 40A as it relates to the impact of re-filing a zoning petition on pending special permits or special permits that have been granted.   Councillor Kelley

Though I won’t speak to the merits of this Order, the confusion by city councillors over the recent "move to withdraw" the Yanow Petition indicated that a little more schooling on zoning regulations and procedures may be in order.

Order #11. That the Cambridge City Council go on record urging the members of the Massachusetts Committee on House Steering, Policy and Scheduling to pass MA House Bill 4165, "An Act Relative to Speed Limits."   Councillor vanBeuzekom

This legislation would reduce the speed limit within "thickly settled areas" and business districts from the current level of 30 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour. As a "thickly settled area", all of Cambridge would likely be covered by this reduced speed limit. While this would make sense in many Cambridge locations, especially on narrow streets with many parked cars, there are plenty of other streets where the existing 30mph speed limit makes more sense. This proposal is introduced every few years and is usually not supported by transportation engineers who argue that, in the absence of other factors, speed limits should be set according to prevailing speeds in order to minimize conflicts.

Order #20. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the appropriate city officials to explore the possibility of communicating appropriate storm preparedness through the website and text messages sent by the city.   Councillor vanBeuzekom

This is a good suggestion and consistent with the City’s long-standing practice of encouraging residents to help keep storm drains clear during and after winter storms. Having braved Sandy’s wrath on several occasions to clear the storm drains in my neighborhood, I think it would be very helpful if people were more aware of keeping these drains unobstructed. That means not only parking clear of the drains, but also picking up a rake and getting out there to help keep the drains clear.

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Interim City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor David P. Maher, Chair of the Government Operations and Rules Committee, for a public meeting held on Oct 19, 2012 to discuss Community Benefits.

The report suggests that the City Council has a long way to go before really coming to terms with this issue. In simple terms, a community benefit is the money paid or benefit provided by a developer for up-zoning property. However, when city councillors are closely involved in deciding how these funds should be spent, the funds often go toward pet projects or priorities of individual councillors. The default option is often affordable housing. One of the more refreshing aspects of the Goody Clancy process for Kendall Square and Central Square has been the expanded definition of community benefits to include things like the exclusion of ground floor retail in the calculation of building densities, financial support for retail in the form of either reduced rent or outfitting the space, and the creation of public spaces for markets and other purposes. These and other ideas are welcome additions to the discussion of what community benefits might flow from permitting additional density in appropriate locations. This committee report only refers to housing and human services, and that’s far too limiting. The Government Operations Committee and Ordinance Committee would be well-advised to absorb the forthcoming recommendations regarding Kendall Square and Central Square before redefining what constitute community benefits and how any related funds should be disbursed. It should also be stated that when community benefits are tied to up-zoning proposals, there is the very real possibility that every such proposal will be granted as long as enough cash is put on the table – regardless if the proposal makes good planning sense. – Robert Winters

November 14, 2012

Cycle track disease is contagious!

It crosses over from Cambridge to hit the slippery slope (literally) in Somerville.

Please see my extended comments here: http://john-s-allen.com/blog/?p=4862

July 27, 2012

City Council to discuss last December’s fatal bicycle crash

On Monday, July 30, 2012, the Cambridge City Council is to discuss a City Manager’s report on the December, 2011 fatal truck/bicycle crash at Vassar Street and Massachusetts Avenue. (I commented on that crash in an earlier post in this Forum).

The city has posted the agenda of the meeting. The City Manager’s report on the crash is on that agenda.

I’ve posted that report here — indented, with my comments unindented:

July 30, 2012

To the [City Council]:

In response to Awaiting Report Item Number 12-63 relative to a report on safety issues at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Vasser [sic] Street, Director of Traffic, Parking and Transportation Susan E. Clippinger reports the following:

In response to the fatal bicycle crash on December 27, 2011, the Traffic, Parking + Transportation Department conducted a review of the intersection that included the operation of the traffic signal, signs and pavement markings of the intersection, and a review of the crash history of the location.

Using both the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and Cambridge Police Department crash information, TP+T reviewed 19 incidents involving bicycles which occurred in the 5 years between 2007 and 2011 (excluding the fatality which was under investigation). The purpose of the review was to determine if a common type of crash was frequently occurring and if engineering measures could be implemented to prevent future crashes.

A Policy Order Resolution from the May 14 City Council meeting (third page here) describes Vassar Street and Massachusetts Avenue as the second-worst intersection for crashes in the city, and reports 55 crashes, with 24 involving “cars” (which I take to mean all motor vehicles). Clippinger reported on 19 bicycle-motor vehicle crashes over a 5-year period — however, single-bicycle, bicycle-bicycle and bicycle-pedestrian crashes are just as real. Perhaps Clippinger did not report on 5 of the bicycle-motor vehicle crashes because evidence was too sparse, but on the other hand, what about the remaining 31? All 55 crashes were serious enough that police reports were filed. Also, bicycle crashes of all kinds, especially those not involving motor vehicles, are greatly under-reported to police.

A couple years ago in a national Webinar, the City’s bicycle coordinator, Cara Seiderman, said that there had been no crashes on the Vassar Street sidepaths. Evidently, she excluded intersections, and even so, her statement was incorrect. There had been at least two bicycle-pedestrian crashes on the sidepaths in which someone was taken away in an ambulance. Following each of these crashes, one of the parties e-mailed me, having read my online comments about the sidepaths. There have almost certainly been additional crashes.

Clippinger’s report continues:

We found that in 17 of the 19 crashes, the bicycle was proceeding through the intersection and was not turning left or right. In eight of the 19 crashes, the vehicle was turning right. A common cause of this type of crash is that either the driver fails to yield upon turning or the bicycle is traveling too fast to stop in time for a vehicle that is in the process of turning.

Clippinger places the responsibility on the motorist to look to the right rear to yield to bicyclists who are foolishly overtaking on the right. Bike lanes to the right of right-turning traffic at intersections, as here, encourage bicyclists to make this mistake.

It also appears that most of these crashes were minor; only two crashes resulted in the cyclist’s being transported to the hospital.

17 of the 19 cyclists described in the report evidently were lucky. Such “coffin corner” crashes are often fatal when the right-turning vehicle is a large truck or bus. However, Clippinger doesn’t report how serious any of the injuries were, whether or not the cyclists were transported to the hospital. To be fair, she may not have had access to this information. It’s hard to get.

Based on the limited information we have on the location and direction of the cyclist involved in the December 27 crash, TP+T determined that this crash is not consistent with the crashes experienced previously at this location. Further, we determined that the traffic signal operation, signs, pavement markings, and layout of the intersection did not contribute to this crash.

I agree that this was a different type of crash. However, features of the intersection almost certainly contributed to the crash. As I noted in my review of the Tech article — and as reported by eyewitnesses — the right turn was difficult for the trucker because of a bulbout and street furniture on the corner. It is likely that the driver was looking into his right side-view mirror to make sure that the truck cleared the street furniture, and so failed to see the bcyclist. To clear the street furniture, the truck crossed the centerline on Vassar Street, placing it in head-on conflict with traffic in the oncoming left-turn lane, one of the possible locations of the cyclist. The layout of the intersection had nothing to do with this?

However, I think that the cyclist most likely was crossing in front of the truck from right to left. In that case, he had been riding wrong-way on the Vassar Street sidepath, and then turned to his right across the street. The sidepath and connecting bike lane enable this conduct. He could have been looking to the right for traffic, and failed to notice the truck on his left. Also, his brakes may have functioned poorly in the wet.

Clippinger concludes:

TP+T remains fully committed to improving the safety of our roads for all users, particularly for pedestrians and bicycles. We continue to research causes of crashes citywide, and each year we use that information to make engineering improvements we feel will reduce the number and severity of crashes.

“We feel”. I’d prefer a stronger report, examining all types of crashes, and a bicycle program guided by careful research rather than feelings.

May 18, 2012

Reports on December, 2011 fatal truck/bicycle collision

(Note: this post has been updated since first placed online, because readers have asked for images to clarify the location and details of the incident. Also see comments following this post. Review of the reports, images and comments has led to some changes in the post, as well.)


The MIT student newspaper, The Tech, has obtained and posted copies of some of the police reports on the truck-bicycle crash on Dec. 27, 2011 which resulted in the death of an MIT graduate, Phyo Kyaw, ’10. I comment here on the Tech story about the crash, and the police reports it links to.

I study bicycle crashes — it’s part of what I do in my profession, but I offer the following comments for free as, I hope, some small service to the MIT community and to the public at large. [Disclaimer, if needed: I am an MIT alumnus. That is, to some extent, why I take the trouble to write this.]

To sum up what I’m about to say, there’s enough blame to go around. Also, the crash investigation failed to look into a number of significant issues or to frame the legal issues accurately. It shows considerable bias toward the truck driver. The Tech‘s reporting missed on a few points. Specifics follow.

The Google satellite view below shows the intersection. The truck was turning the same corner as the tourist “trolley” bus with the green roof shown in the satellite view. This view is from the west, and so north is at the left in the image.

Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Note that north is to the left in this image.

(Cambridge Civic Forum’s blog software won’t let me embed the actual Google view, in which you could scroll around, look from other angles, zoom in and out etc. but you can link to the Google view here.

Now we add Kyaw on his bicycle. He may have been traveling toward Massachusetts Avenue on Vassar Street and stuck the truck head-on, as shown by the arrow coming down diagonally from the upper left in the image below — or traveling toward MIT on the sidewalk of Massachusetts Avenue, as indicated by the arrow at the lower left — or crossing the street from MIT, but not in the crosswalk, as indicated by the arrow pointing straight down from the top. The semitrailer truck crossed the centerline of Vassar Street as it turned. The crash occurred at night, in the rain.

Update: surveillance video excludes Kyaw’s approaching on the sidewalk of Massachusetts Avenue. Damage to the bicycle confirms that it was struck on its left side. Kyaw most probably then was traveling westbound in the eastbound bike lane on Vassar Street and cut across the street in front of the truck.

Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street, indicating possible direction of travel of bicycle

Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street, indicating possible direction of travel of bicycle

Here is the intersection seen in a Google Street View from the direction of the approaching truck. The three arrows, again, show directions from which Kyaw on his bicycle may have been approaching the intersection. (Update: but not the leftmost arrow in the photo.)

Intersection seen from direction of truck, with arrows indicaing possible approaches of Kyaw on bicycle.

Intersection seen from direction of truck, with arrows indicaing possible approaches of Kyaw on bicycle.

You may also view this Street View in Google Maps.

Here is the Massachusetts State Police diagram showing the final location of the truck, and of Kyaw (to the left of the trailer, on Vassar Street).

Massachusetts State Police diagram

Massachusetts State Police diagram

As also described in the Massachusetts State Police accident reconstruction report, the bicycle contacted the truck’s front bumper and came to rest under the dual tandem left rear wheels of the cab. It evidently was dragged quite a distance farther than Kyaw. The report indicates that Kyaw was not riding in the bicycle lane on Vassar Street (also assuming that he was traveling head-on toward the truck) — but does not indicate that the truck had crossed the centerline of that street. There is similar bias later in the report. As described in The Tech:

“The possible cause of this collision was the encroachment of the bicycle into the path of the turning tractor trailer unit,” the [Massachusetts State Police vehicle accident examination] report [page 6] said.

Encroachment of the bicyclist into the path of the truck when the bicyclist was described as on the right side of the street and the truck partially on the left side? Encroachment means that a vehicle is where it isn’t supposed to be. The bicyclist was encroaching, then?

Different considerations apply if Kyaw was not approaching the truck head-on; I’ll discuss them later.

The reconstruction report goes on to say that

…roadway design and engineering did not precipitate or contribute to this collision.

Nonsense. Though they are not mentioned in any of the reports, a bulbout and street furniture on the corner made the turn difficult for the truck, forcing it across the centerline of Vassar street. The truck driver may have been looking in his right rear side-view mirror to make sure that the rear of the trailer cleared the obstacles.

The Tech goes on to say:

Kyaw’s bicycle’s final position was not in a bicycle lane, the report said. Local laws do not require bicycles to travel in the bicycle lane, and it is common for left-turning bicycles to travel in Vassar’s left lane.

The observation about the law is correct other than that it’s state law, but the last part of the quote is incorrect and misleading. Assuming that Kyaw was traveling along Vassar Street toward the truck, he was in the left-turn lane. Bicyclists must merge out of the bike lane to go straight or turn left without conflict with through and right-turning traffic, or with traffic stopped at the curb. I happen to have a Web page with photos of this very intersection illustrating that point.

Again, however, Kyaw may not have been traveling head-on toward the truck. Then the bike lane is irrelevant, because he then would have been crossing the street, and it is impossible to cross the street while remaining in a bike lane.

The Tech also stated that

The reconstruction report cited contributing factors of “moderate to heavy rainfall,” Kyaw’s nonreflective clothing, Kyaw’s presumed high speed, and the lack of a front light on the bicycle.

A headlight is required by law. The lack of a headlight makes sense as a contributing factor, assuming that the truck driver was looking in Kyaw’s direction, placing some of the responsibility for the crash on Kyaw. Reflective clothing is not required by law. A reflector or reflective material only works if headlights are aimed at it. Rain also may have affected Kyaw’s ability to see. Eyeglasses were found at the scene, and when beaded with rain, they spread glare. Kyaw, like the truck driver, may not have been looking ahead. To merge toward the center of the street, Kyaw should have looked back over his shoulder for overtaking traffic.

The Tech continues:

Kyaw was wearing a helmet at the time of the accident, Cambridge Police report #5 said. The bicycle was “not equipped with a front-facing light,” and its front white reflector was partially obstructed by brake and shifter cables, the report said. Massachusetts law requires bicycles to have a front light at night.

Cables obstructing a reflector don’t seem a likely explanation. They’re too narrow unless the reflector is very small. How the position of the cables could be determined from a bicycle that had gone under a truck also isn’t at all clear. The reflector may, however, have been obstructed by Kyaw’s hand, or its reflective properties compromised by dirt or beads of rainwater. The truck’s headlights were in any case not aimed at Kyaw to light up the reflector as the truck rounded the corner. A large truck’s cab is so high above the headlights that a bicycle’s reflectors barely work if the bicycle is close, see explanation here. A vehicle ahead of Kyaw, or car headlight glare behind him, made worse by a wet or fogged windshield on the truck, may have concealed him.

And, again, if Kyaw was not headed toward the truck head-on, the front reflector is irrelevant.

Kyaw’s 21-speed bicycle appeared to be set at the gear combination that was as hard to pedal in as possible, indicating travel “at a fairly fast pace,” police report #5 said. On the other hand, if Kyaw was intending to turn left and was approaching a red light, it is also possible he was slowing down, or had even come to a stop.

The fifth Cambridge police report includes this statement but also indicates that the shifter for the rear derailleur was in the second-highest position, not the highest.

The discussion of Kyaw’s speed would have benefited from interviews with people who knew his riding style, if they could be found. There are many bicyclists who ride in high gear at a low cadence. On the other hand, he might have been strong and fast, yet still foolish enough to ride at night without a headlight. In this case, he would have been heading into an intersection with a major street against a red light at high speed. I consider that unlikely.

Still, all this brings up the issue of educating bicyclists. I’ve advocated for decades that institutions of higher education provide bicycling instruction to incoming students. Avoiding death or brain injury to even one student every couple of years would more than pay for this. Think of the wasted educational investment, and the loss of future alumni contributions. But I digress.

According to Cambridge Police Report #1, the truck driver “stated that he was traveling westbound on Mass. Ave. when he attempted to take a right turn onto Vassar St. [The driver] said that the light was green and his right directional light was on. Moments later, [he] said he felt the impact of something hitting his truck. He stopped and got out of his truck to investigate and observed that he had been in a collision with a bicycle.

This doesn’t indicate which way the driver was looking — not a very informative statement from him. Did the police ask?

According to the reconstruction report, MIT provided video that showed the truck did activate its right directional signal.

(As indicated in a comment with the article, the video did not show Vassar Street, so it didn’t show Kyaw’s approach).

The police reports say little about the condition of the truck other than that its brakes worked. Was its windshield clean? Were all the mirrors in good working order? Were the headlights aligned? Was the driver’s view ahead obstructed? Etc.

The Massachusetts State Police accident reconstruction report says almost nothing about the bicycle, but page 2 of the fifth Cambridge report describes the locations of scrapes and other damage to the bicycle. These are consistent with the truck’s striking the left side of the bicycle and dragging it on its right side. The front fork was bent to the right, suggesting that the bicycle was struck from the left — except that the front fork and wheel were crushed under the wheels at the rear of the truck’s cab. as shown in the still below from a television news report. I have labeled the locations of the bicycle — the saddle is facing the camera; of a shoe; and of where Kyaw lay following the crash. He had been removed by the time the video was shot.

Locations of bicycle, shoe and Kyaw following crash

Locations of bicycle, shoe and Kyaw following crash

The reports are incomplete in describing the bicycle. Of most importance, what was the condition of the bicycle’s brakes? Even when a bicycle has been damaged by going under a truck, it is possible to examine brake shoe and rim wear, and to determine whether a brake cable had frayed and parted. It is often possible to operate the brakes and determine whether they were in good adjustment.

The bicycle was an under $200 model sold through big-box stores, which are notorious for poor assembly of bicycles — here is the best description of it I could find online. It does have aluminum rims, which brake much better than steel rims in the wet, but how well was the bicycle maintained, and were the brakes working properly at the time of the crash? The police reports say nothing about this.

Though the Massachusetts State Police accident reconstruction report and vehicle inspection report really ought to be definitive on the topics they are supposed to cover, police reports which have not yet been released may possibly fill in some of the missing information.

I hope that my comments have been informative and helpful. — John S. Allen

(Update: please click on the link below to read Paul Schimek’s comments and my replies to them. Paul has suggested that Kyaw was approaching on the Massachusetts Avenue sidewalk. Based on further review of damage to the bicycle, I think that Kyaw may have been cutting the corner from right to left across the path of the truck.)

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