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?

April 18, 2017

Cambridge InsideOut Episodes 219-220: April 18, 2017

Filed under: Cambridge,Cambridge InsideOut,transportation — Tags: , , , , , — Robert Winters @ 10:42 pm

Cambridge InsideOut Episode 219 (Part 1)

This episode was broadcast on April 18, 2017 at 5:30pm. Topics included Women in Comedy and some local opportunities at the Cambridge Science Festival and elsewhere. The hosts are Judy Nathans and Robert Winters. [On YouTube]


Cambridge InsideOut Episode 220 (Part 2)

This episode was broadcast on April 18, 2017 at 6:00pm. Topics included the proposed Mass. Turnpike Realignment and other infrastructure. The hosts are Judy Nathans and Robert Winters. [On YouTube]

[Materials used in these episodes]

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 4, 2016

Speed Limit on Cambridge’s City-Owned Streets Being Reduced to 25 MPH

Filed under: Cambridge,transportation — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 10:20 pm

25mph
City of Cambridge implements component of Vision Zero Initiative

Dec 2, 2016 – On Thurs, Dec 8, 2016, the speed limit on City-owned streets in the City of Cambridge will be reduced to 25 Miles Per Hour (MPH), unless otherwise posted. This is an important step towards improving the safety of everyone who lives, works and visits Cambridge, and is a significant component of the City’s Vision Zero Initiative.

Speed is one of the most important factors in traffic safety; crashes that occur at lower speeds cause less injury. In fact, a pedestrian hit by a car traveling 40 MPH has a 1 in 10 chance of surviving a crash, while a pedestrian hit by a car traveling 20 MPH has a 9 in 10 chance of surviving. “By lowering the speed limit in Cambridge, we are prioritizing safety and making our City more walkable, bikeable and livable,” said City Manager Louis A. DePasquale.

“We know that lowering car speeds is one of the most important ways to protect our most vulnerable users and work together to achieve our Vision Zero goals,” said Joseph Barr, Director of Traffic, Parking, and Transportation. “I encourage everyone who travels in Cambridge to take their time as they move through the city; by staying under 25 MPH you’ll be keeping all of our citizens safer and be able to better enjoy our beautiful city.”

The Cambridge City Council approved the new lower speed limit reduction on November 7th, by accepting Sections 193 and 194 of the Municipal Modernization Act. These sections grant municipalities the right to lower speed limits in thickly settled areas and to create 20 MPH safety zones. The City will be posting the new speed limit at the City line at various locations, as permitted by State law.

With this change, Cambridge will be joining neighbors like Boston, Somerville, and Arlington that are making the whole region safer by creating a 25 MPH zone within the inner core.

For additional information contact Brooke McKenna, Assistant Director for Street Management, at bmckenna@cambridgema.gov or 617-349-4723, or visit www.cambridgema.gov/visionzero.

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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September 18, 2016

Choice Items on the September 19, 2016 Cambridge City Council Meeting Agenda

Choice Items on the September 19, 2016 City Council Meeting Agenda

Peoples Republic of CambridgeHere are the items that struck me as most interesting:

Manager’s Agenda #5. A communication transmitted from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 16-73 and Council Order Number 4 (of Sept 12, 2016), regarding lowering speed limits in the City.

In short, the City Council jumped the gun last week. For starters, the City Council must first vote to accept those sections of the new state law that would give them the authority to lower local speed limits. They cannot even do this until Nov 7. The intention of City traffic officials was to lower the speed limit on City-owned roads to 25mph, and this communication makes quite clear that a 20mph speed limit would be a challenge to enforce – to say the least. I challenge anyone driving in Cambridge to maintain a consistent speed of 20mph or less while driving in Cambridge. It’s not unreasonable on a relatively narrow street that’s parked on both sides, but it borders on the absurd on many other streets. A limit of 25mph is doable, but not 20mph. That lower limit should be reserved for locations where it actually makes sense.

Manager’s Agenda #8. A communication transmitted from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to a report from Public Works Commissioner Owen O’Riordan, regarding the Polystyrene Ordinance implementation. [Report]

One more example of how the City Council likes to take steps that they think will make them look "progressive" without actually thinking through the possible consequences. Few people would dispute the parts of this Ordinance that deals with expanded polystyrene (EPS), i.e. "Styrofoam". The issue is with other polystyrene products like straws, cups, lids and utensils. The available alternatives – bioplastic compostable products – decompose at much slower rates than are acceptable at any of the facilities that accept organic waste from the City of Cambridge. These materials will be rejected at these facilities. Public policy has to be based on more than just wishful thinking. I was at the committee meeting when these other materials were abruptly added to the proposed ordinance without so much as a conversation.

Manager’s Agenda #9. A communication transmitted from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to CPA [Community Preservation Act]. [Report]

As always, it’s 80% for affordable housing projects ($6,880,000 plus $1,280,000 in state matching funds), 10% for open space acquisition ($860,000 plus $160,000 in state matching funds), and 10% for historic preservation projects ($860,000 plus $1,280,000 in state matching funds). Additional fund balances will also be expended toward these three areas.

Resolution #2. Thanks to City Manager Richard Rossi for his 45 years of service to the City of Cambridge and best wishes for a truly happy and joyful retirement.   Mayor Simmons

Having known Rich Rossi for 27 years of those 45 years of service, I join in wishing Richie all the best in his many years of blissful retirement. I have known very few people who are as expert at getting things done as Rich Rossi. The people of Cambridge owe him a world class "thank you".

Tues, Sept 20

6:00pm-9:00pm   Meet the Finalists Forum  (Fitzgerald Theater, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School)

The City Council’s Government Operations, Rules and Claims Committee, is inviting the public to a Meet the Finalists forum on Tues, Sept 20, 2016, from 6:00pm to 9:00pm in the Fitzgerald Theater located in the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. This forum is an opportunity for the public to meet the three finalist vying to succeed outgoing City Manager Richard C. Rossi. The meeting will be broadcast live on the City’s Municipal Cable Channel, 22-CityView.

Wed, Sept 21

5:30pm   Special City Council Meeting to publicly interview finalists for the position of City Manager, the City Council may meet in Executive Session to conduct strategy sessions in preparation for negotiations with the prospective City Manager or to conduct contract negotiations with the prospective City Manager.  (Sullivan Chamber)

Vote on the selection of the next City Manager expected week of Sept 26 (possibly Thurs, Sept 29).

I have watched this process evolve from the beginning and have kept a safe distance throughout. Now that we have three candidates before us it will be interesting to see if the 9 city councillors can reach consensus (and a majority vote) on one of these three excellent candidates (Jay Ash, Louis DePasquale, and Paul Fetherston). It will also be interesting to watch how the activists may try to influence the decision and how they will respond when a decision is made. If the City Council can actually come to some kind of unanimous or near-unanimous agreement on this most important decision, it may signal their ability to thoughtfully and cooperatively decide on other matters of significance. Hope springs eternal. – Robert Winters

June 29, 2016

Cambridge InsideOut Episodes 151-152: June 28, 2016

Cambridge InsideOut Episode 151 (Part 1)

This episode was broadcast on Tuesday, June 28, 2016 at 5:30pm. The hosts are Judy Nathans and Robert Winters. [On YouTube]


Cambridge InsideOut Episode 152 (Part 2)

This episode was broadcast on Tuesday, June 28, 2016 at 6:00pm. The hosts are Judy Nathans and Robert Winters. [On YouTube]

Much of the discussion in both episodes was motivated by the recent death of cyclist Amanda Phillips in Inman Square and the concurrent proposals by the City of Cambridge to modify the traffic patterns in Inman Square.

May 9, 2016

At the Signpost Up Ahead – the May 9, 2016 Cambridge City Council Agenda

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 12:46 am

At the Signpost Up Ahead – the May 9, 2016 Cambridge City Council Agenda

Here are some of the items that drew my attention this week:

Manager’s Agenda #1. A communication transmitted from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to the appointment of the following persons as a members of the Conservation Commission for a term to expire November : Dorothy Altman, Edward Pickering, Purvi Patel

Manager’s Agenda #2. A communication transmitted from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to the appointment of the following persons as a members of the Fresh Pond Master Plan Advisory Board effective May 9, 2016: Janice Snow (3-year term), Jim Barton (3-year term), Janet Burns (2-year term), Deborah Masterson (3-year term), Ann Roosevelt (3-year term), Claudia Thompson (2-year term), Susan Agger (2-year term)

I continue to celebrate all of the great people who agree to volunteer for Cambridge boards and commissions. Not only is it a great opportunity to offer your own insights and talents in the service of your community, it’s also a great education that costs nothing but the time you put into the endeavor.

Manager’s Agenda #7. A communication transmitted from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to the appointment of Police Superintendent Christopher J. Burke as Acting Police Commissioner, effective May 8, 2016.

When I heard about this at last Thursday’s Budget Hearings, I couldn’t help but think of things said by outgoing Police Commissioner Robert Haas and former Commissioner Ronnie Watson regarding the "bench strength" we have developed in the Police Department and other City departments. We often have multiple great people who can step up into a leadership role either temporarily or permanently. Congratulations to Commissioner Burke, and grateful thanks to Commisioner Robert Haas for his years of service!

Manager’s Agenda #8. A communication transmitted from Richard C. Rossi, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 16-39, regarding the Green Line Extension (GLX) Project.

Much could be said about the latest developments in the status of the proposed Green Line Extension and the unprecedented offers of financial assistance from Cambridge, Somerville, and other parties to improve the chances of it becoming a reality. It’s definitely worth reading the multiple communications from City Manager Rossi (and Somerville Mayor Curtatone) on this topic. Even if the project is scaled back and is somewhat less spectacular than originally proposed, this is something that really needs to more forward in some form and I hope the contributions from Cambridge and Somerville help to influence the decision to carry on.

Resolution #4. That the City Council go on record congratulating the 2015-2016 Cambridge Rindge and Latin Boys’ Basketball players, coaches, and support staff for their well-earned championship and recognizing them for their dedication and hard work.   Vice Mayor McGovern

I’m crossing my fingers hoping that our heroic Cambridge Falcons will be there for the reading of this resolution!

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to confer with all relevant City staff and departments to examine the feasibility of posting advisory signage to broadly encourage a motor vehicle speed limit of 20 to 25 miles per hour on City streets.   Councillor Carlone, Councillor Devereux, Vice Mayor McGovern

Speed Limit UnknownI have been thinking a lot lately about how often the wrong questions and wrong solutions are offered in a variety of settings. This is one of them. As stated in this Order, there is plenty of evidence available showing how rapidly the risk of fatalities and severe injuries increases with motor vehicle speed. However, there are also compelling arguments that can be made in support of common standards across the borders of cities and towns. The issue really isn’t what speed limit Cambridge or some other town should have the right to impose. The real issue is what the common standards should be for different kinds of roads and situations.

For example, on the many local one-way streets in Cambridge where there is one relatively narrow lane with cars parked on either side, the speed limit should be no more than 25mph because there is simply no time to otherwise react if someone were to dart out from between parked cars. Also, on these and other streets, no motor vehicle should ever pass a cyclist or pedestrian without at least 3 or 4 feet of clearance – and never at a great differential in speed. These are the kinds of laws that should be adjusted, and they should be adjusted statewide rather than by individual municipality. This is not just about whether or not a town is "thickly settled" and thereby subject to a 30mph speed limit (which is often not enforced other than to raise revenue). Standards for speed limits, sight lines, lane width, and more should be based on actual safety rather than political discretion. The proposal contained in this Order and in a concurrent effort in Boston should be addressed more comprehensively by the state legislature. Even the name "thickly settled" speaks to the archaic nature of how speed limits and safety standards are established and enforced.

Committee Report #2. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor David P. Maher, Chair of the Government Operations, Rules & Claims Committee, for a public hearing held on May 3, 2016.

Communications & Reports #1. A communication was received from Councillor Jan Devereux, suggesting a random drawing of four City Councillors to serve on the Preliminary Screening Committee on the city manager’s selection process.

The process continues. I’m perplexed at the addition of an "interfaith community representative" to the proposed Preliminary-Screening Committee. Unless the next City Manager will be delivering sermons, I see absolutely no reason to rub out the line between church and state here. Regarding Councillor Devereux’s proposed random selection of City Council representatives in the screening process, I will say only that there are reasons why a majority of councillors choose a Mayor and how that Mayor chooses people to chair important City Council committees like the Government Operations, Rules & Claims Committee. There is still a place for good judgment here that is best not replaced by the successive flipping of coins or drawing of names from a hat. – Robert Winters

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