Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

October 17, 2011

Highlights of the Oct 17, 2011 Cambridge City Council agenda

Filed under: City Council,cycling — Tags: , , , , — Robert Winters @ 12:32 am

Highlights of the Oct 17, 2011 Cambridge City Council agenda

First of all, take note that due to an elevator malfunction at City Hall, the City Council will meet this week at the Fitzgerald Auditorium at CRLS, 459 Broadway. There are a few items this week that should bring out the public. City Manager’s Agenda #7 and City Manager’s Agenda #8 are appropriations of $500,000 and $1,190,000 received by Comcast as part of their 2011 Renewal License. I suppose cash is good even when it comes from the continued domination by the Evil Empire.

Resolution #1. Urge residents to participate in Food Day which will take place on Oct 24, 2011.   Vice Mayor Davis

It’s hard to say what exactly Food Day is and this resolution provides scant advice on how residents should participate other than to eat. Seems like I celebrate Food Day every day.

Resolution #23. Happy 80th Birthday wishes to a special Cantabrigian.   Councillor Decker

I’m guessing that this must be Robert Wolf, husband of Alice Wolf, but there are 30 other registered Cambridge voters who turn 80 this month. Happy birthday to all of you.

Order #3. That the Mayor is hereby requested to work with the City Council to schedule a date for a Roundtable meeting to review the census.   Councillor Reeves

In Cambridge, like anywhere else, there is Inside Baseball – the stuff that serious politicos talk about but which rarely makes it to the local press or into the conversations of most residents. When the census occurred a decade ago and was followed by legislative redistricting, Cambridge ended up being carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey. My recollection is that in order to prevent two popular incumbents in Newton from having to face off against each other, several of the principally Cambridge State Rep. districts were sacrificed and made part of districts that were mainly in neighboring towns. We ended up with 6 districts – most of which were nearly impossible for a Cambridge candidate to win. Only the districts of Representatives Toomey and Wolf were held harmless.

Most consequential was the way that the district formerly held by Saundra Graham, Alvin Thompson, and then Jarrett Barrios was scattered. The Inside Baseball story has it that when it became known that Barrios was going to vacate the seat in order to run for State Senate, it was considered OK to not protect that district and that Barrios did nothing to prevent this. At some level, who cares? We end up with 6 state reps. who we can talk to about relevant Cambridge issues instead of, perhaps, 3 all-Cambridge districts. The bitter issue was that aspiring Cambridge political people who might have sought those state seats found their options limited. There are many insiders who are still angry 10 years later at Jarrett Barrios who they blame for the current configuration.

So now it’s census time again. Word has it that the proposed new districts will be revealed this Tuesday, Oct 18. Will the map be redrawn in a manner that benefits some councillors and others who might consider a career move? Stay tuned….

Order #5. That the City Manager is requested to appoint a committee to explore the feasibility of establishing a Cambridge Museum that will serve as repository of Cambridge history.   Councillor Simmons, Councillor Toomey, Councillor Cheung and Mayor Maher

There is no doubt that the need exists and will always exist to have secure locations for the wealth of historical documents and artifacts of our very old and historic city. In addition to the Cambridge Historical Commission and the Cambridge Historical Society, we now also have a Cambridge Room at the new library and a staff archivist. This Order proposes to explore the possibility of creating a new Cambridge Museum in which the public may commune with the city’s history. This is unquestionably a good idea in the long term, but can we sustain all of these historical venues? Where would you locate such a new venue and who would be the target audience? In any case, the idea deserves a complete and critical evaluation – even if the end result is better support and enhancement of the existing venues.

Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to instruct the City Solicitor to prepare language for an ordinance to ban the use of brakeless bikes in Cambridge.   Vice Mayor Davis

See In particular:

"Every person operating a bicycle upon a way…shall have the right to use all public ways in the commonwealth except limited access or express state highways where signs specifically prohibiting bicycles have been posted, and shall be subject to the traffic laws and regulations of the commonwealth and the special regulations contained in this section, except that: …(3) bicycles may be ridden on sidewalks outside business districts when necessary in the interest of safety, unless otherwise directed by local ordinance." and "Every bicycle operated upon a way shall be equipped with a braking system."

Councillor Davis’ Order is already part of state law and is therefore moot. Whether or not it’s enforced and by whom it is enforced are open questions. Thanks to John Allen for the references.

Order #11. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department and the Community Development Department to investigate how to make the Follen Street/Little Concord Avenue intersection safer for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists.   Councillor Cheung

Here we go again. The City has made some good decisions regarding bicycle infrastructure and some horrible decisions. The Little Concord Avenue design is poor (see John Allen’s May 16, 2011 critique and his May 20 followup remarks), but not nearly as dreadful as the "cycle track" installed on Vassar Street. The City is now going full speed ahead to implement this same absurd design on Western Avenue (see John Allen’s Oct 27, 2010 remarks and Paul Schimek’s Aug 10, 2010 letter). Pedestrians and cyclists beware.

Order #23. City Council opposition to cuts to Medicare and Medicaid benefits and support of the American Jobs Act.   Councillor Decker

My guess is that two items will bring people out for Public Comment at this meeting. This one will likely bring a few visitors to talk about national politics. The following item (the Bishop Zoning Petition) will likely bring the lion’s share of comment even though it remains in committee and is not before the City Council for action at this meeting.

Committee Report #1. A communication was received from D. Margaret Drury, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Sam Seidel, Chair of the Ordinance Committee for a public meeting held on Sept 7, 2011 to consider a petition filed by Julia Bishop et al., to amend Section 17.20 of the Zoning Ordinance – Regulations for Special District 2, located in North Cambridge along Linear Park. Proposed amendments include: deletion of allowed non-residential uses; reduction in allowed Floor Area Ratio; increase in required lot area per dwelling unit; reduction in allowed height; new regulations for fences abutting Linear Park.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this petition is that the affected area was already rezoned within the past decade (actually Feb 14, 2000) from an industrial zone (due to it being adjacent to a former railroad line) to create Special District SD-2 primarily for the purpose of encouraging the transition toward residential use. Now that this residential use is part of an active proposal, this petition seeks to significantly reduce its density and the owner claims this will destroy its financial viability. Those advocating for this petition are trying very hard to convince the City Council to act on this petition before the November 8 municipal election. The agenda includes 18 Communications in support of the Bishop Petition.

Committee Report #2. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Deputy City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor Craig Kelley, Chair of the Transportation, Traffic and Parking Committee for a public meeting held on Oct 6, 2011 to discuss the Austin, Texas "Parking Benefit District Pilot Program" and any other city parking issues.

Contained within this report is a proposal that should infuriate Cambridge residents who own cars and who do not have private driveways or garages. A letter from Chris Summerfield (153 Lexington Ave., but he’s not listed in either the voter database or the 2011 street listing) requests a change to the Traffic, Parking and Transportation regulations that would strictly prohibit parking within 15 feet of the center line of any public or private driveway. This is currently only enforced where necessary and where the vicinity of the driveway is appropriately signed. Councillor Kelley commented that no one is supposed to park ten feet from either side of any driveway – something that may be the practice in Wellesley but one which would eliminate hundreds of parking spaces if enforced in Cambridge.

Though Traffic Director Susan Clippinger stated that you can park 3 feet from the edge of a driveway, everyone knows that this is only enforced where it makes sense to do so. Miraculously, we all seem to get along as long as people can navigate their way in and out of their driveways. Nonetheless Councillor Kelley proposes an Order that would wipe out hundreds of on-street parking opportunities by being overly and unnecessarily restrictive. It’s worth noting that the only people present at this hearing were Councillor Kelley, Sue Clippinger, Deputy City Clerk Donna Lopez, and Chris Summerfield. There were no other elected officials present. – Robert Winters, resident and on-street parker

May 20, 2011

Response to City officials’ comments about Concord/Follen

Robert Winters has posted a comment (#3 here) to my post about bicycling issues on the May 16 City Council agenda. Robert quotes Assistant City Manager for Community Development Brian Murphy and Traffic, Parking & Transportation Director Susan Clippinger about Follen Street and Little Concord Avenue. Their response, by way of the City Manager, is addressed to the City Council at next week’s meeting.

Their response (again, in comment #3 here) addresses some of the issues with the Follen Street/Concord Avenue installation, and reflects some progress.

Serious design issues, however, will still remain:

  • The configuration still has the same blind corners.
  • Because of the location of the curb cut into the brick plaza, bicyclists traveling away from the Common must still swerve to the right, toward approaching motor traffic, to reach the curb cut at the crosswalk on the far side of Follen Street. Bicyclists entering from the brick plaza are still close to a wall which also obscures motorists’ view of them.
  • Motorists approaching on Follen Street still won’t have a stop sign — see this Google Street View — despite the blind corners.
  • The contraflow bike lane adjacent to wrong-way parking remains.
  • There is another blind corner at the Garden Street end of the pedestrian plaza, particularly for cyclists who continue toward the Radcliffe Quadrangle on the sidewalk (and many do, though that is inadvisable).
  • The “bike box” on Concord Avenue leads to more confusion than anything else, as described here. Also, many cyclists ride east on the north sidewalk, so they can access the plaza directly, posing a risk of head-on collisions with westbound cyclists and pedestrians at the blind corner between the sidewalk and the plaza.

Contraflow bicycle travel would be safer if parking were removed from one side of Follen Street — however, the public insists on using public street space for private car storage. As a bicycling advocate and former Cambridge resident who owned a (rarely used) car and had no other place to park it than the street, I can see both sides of this issue. It is not going to go away. The people who laid out Cambridge’s streets could not foresee the deluge of private motor vehicles that would descend on the city, and had no plan either to accommodate it or to forestall it.

I do think that a very significant safety improvement could be made without removing parking, by reversing the direction of one-way motor traffic on Follen Street and Little Concord Avenue. Then cyclists headed toward the blind corner would be going in the same direction as motorists. The motorists would be going very slowly here, and cyclists could easily merge toward the center of the roadway. A curb cut into the plaza in line with the center of the roadway would avoid cyclists’ having to swerve right. This curb cut would lead cyclists traveling toward the Common to the right side of the street.

A contraflow bike lane could then be installed on the south side of Little Concord Avenue, but it would still be adjacent to wrong-way parking. I’d rather see shared-lane markings far enough from parked cars to allow a motorist to start to exit a parking space without running head-on into a cyclist or forcing that cyclist into oncoming traffic. One-way, slow streets where bicyclists are allowed to travel contraflow are common in Germany, without bike lanes, and research has demonstrated their safety.

As to Murphy’s and Clippinger’s comments:

Motor vehicle volumes on the street are very low and most drivers are ones who live there and use the street regularly. The contraflow lane was installed to improve safety for cyclists by creating a dedicated facility for them to ride in and through the presence of pavement markings to remind motorists that bicyclists are traveling there.

The low motor-vehicle volume argument is an example of what I call “bean counter” safety analysis. I have heard the same argument before from Cara Seiderman, in connection with the wrong-way contraflow lane on Scott Street. This approach offers cyclists and motorists only statistical comfort, leaving them defenseless against actually preventing a crash through their own actions — as in “well, I can’t see over the SUV parked in front of my car, but probably no cyclist is coming so I’ll pull out.”

The bike lane does serve as a buffer to help prevent collisions between cars and other cars, but it doesn’t pass the test of preventing collisions between cars and cyclists. The comforting words “dedicated facility” don’t actually describe how it works in practice. Reminding motorists that bicyclists are traveling in the bike lane doesn’t count for much if the motorists can’t see the bicyclists.

Clippinger describes a safety analysis which looked at generalities about traffic volume. The claim that the dedicated facility was installed to improve safety may describe intention, but it does not describe either the design, or the outcome. This is a crash hotspot, remember. I have described design issues, and some solutions that look rather obvious to me. The city, as usual, installed a boilerplate bike lane design without much insight into whether it actually would be functional and safe.

May 16, 2011

About bicycling issues on City Council agenda tonight, May 16, 2011

A cyclist and a motorist approach the blind corner at Concord Avenue and Follen Street

A motorist cuts off a cyclist at the blind corner of Concord Avenue and Follen Street

The city's own picture of this scene shows a cyclist happily steering straight toward a curb.

A picture of the same scene from the City's Web site shows a cyclist happily steering straight toward a curb, which is cropped out of the picture.

Looking from the opposite direction, this is the path a bicyclist must take, swerving toward traffic to reach the curb cut.

Looking from the opposite direction, this multiple-exposure photo shows the path a bicyclist must take, swerving toward Follen Street traffic to reach the curb cut at the crosswalk.

This post attempts to shed some light on agenda items on tonight’s City Council agenda.

The quoted sections are from another commenter. I’m not sure I know how to reach him, and time is pressing. I don’t know whether I have permission to use his name, so I won’t. The unindented paragraphs  are my own. We’ll start with the other person who commented.

Two of the three items on the city council agenda are interesting examples of problems related to bicycle infrastructure that has been implemented over the past several years.  The third is simply a request to fill potholes, but includes an ignorant comment about bicycles needing to ride near the curb (not true according to Massachusetts law or Cambridge ordinance).

That is agenda item O-7 on the page linked here

The first bicycle facility problem is a contra-flow lane through a blind corner where motorists have no expectation that there will be contra-flow traffic of any sort as they round the corner on a one-way street.

That is agenda item O-3 on the page linked here.

The street view is looking south on Follen Street as it intersects (Little) Concord Avenue.  The bike lane crosses in a contraflow manner from left to right, and then continues across the small brick plaza to the right to join with Garden Street and the continuation of Concord Avenue.  The intersection just beyond the plaza is the same one where Cambridge has installed a bike box critiqued by John Allen


The contraflow bike lane is adjacent to wrong-way parking, another odd feature of this installation — see this for a description and explanation of wrong-way parking:

Upon reaching the corner, bicyclists have to ride out past a stop bar and stop sign before they can see around the corner. A stop sign requires two actions, a stop and a yield. The yield is what actually prevents a collision — but it is only possible where you can see conflicting traffic.

Many if not most of the bicyclists approaching this intersection are Harvard students headed up to the Radcliffe quadrangle. Are we to assume that they aren’t bright enough to figure out that they must yield? The problem is that nobody ever instructed them, and many have little bicycling experience as they suddenly find themselves dependent on a bicycle for transportation. Also, the stop bar isn’t where there’s anything to yield to unless a pedestrian happens to be crossing — it encourages running the stop sign, sort of like traffic ju-jitsu: aha– fooled ya!.

See Google Street View looking toward the stop sign:

I have a discussion of this contraflow bike lane in the page linked below this paragraph. The third photo down the page shows the stop sign. I prepared the page linked below years ago, shortly after the installation. This was clearly going to be a problem location.

The curb ramp on the far side of the intersection is located at the end of the crosswalk rather than in line with the bike lane. Bicyclists must ride toward approaching traffic to reach the ramp.

Bicyclists coming in the opposite direction off the little pedestrian plaza are hidden by a wall and subject to similar risks. This entire treatment is a prime example of Cambridge’s principle of Design by Wishful Thinking.

The second problem is at a rather unremarkable intersection, so it is not clear to me why there would be issues.

See Council Order O-19 on the page linked here.

The street view is looking south on Ellery Street as it approaches Broadway.  Ellery is a narrow one-way street with a bike lane.  Traffic is typically slow, but can be heavy at rush hour.  Broadway is a two-way narrow connecting through street with parking and no bicycle infrastructure in this area.  Traffic typically runs about 25-30mph, slower and heavier at rush hour.  The intersection is also at the corner of a local public high school campus.  Neither street is difficult to cycle on if you have at least modest traffic experience.

There is a flashing yellow and red overhead signal indicating a stop sign for Ellery Street entering from the north.  I tried to find data related to the several accidents cited, but did not see anything apparent on the Cambridge city web site.  I can speculate that most of the car/bike accidents are probably due to scofflaw behavior — either bicyclists in the Ellery bike lane not heeding the stop sign as they continue across Broadway, or wrong-way riders in the Ellery Street bike lane illegally approaching Broadway from the south.  Also likely would be standard right hook, left cross, and failure to yield collisions caused by motorists, but I don’t see why those would be any worse at this intersection.

I see a double-whammy right-hook provocation for bicyclists headed south on Ellery Street, in that the bike lane on the far side of the intersection is to the left of parking (and in the door zone, as is usual in Cambridge), while the bike lane on the near side is at the curb and carried all the way up to the intersection. So, bicyclists are encouraged to overtake motorists on the right, then merge left inside the intersection where motorists turn right.  I think that the high traffic volume and prevalence of high-school students probably also account for the number of crashes. There probably are scofflaw crashes too. Yes, it would be very interesting to see details so as to get a handle on what is actually happening here.

I’m not looking for any answers, but I thought people on this list might be interested in what Cambridge lawmakers are thinking.

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