Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

February 21, 2015

Plowing, or sweeping under the rug?

The photo of the Western Avenue bikeway with this post has been making the rounds in bicycling advocacy circules, accompanied with praise for Cambridge’s plowing it.

You can praise the plowing all you like, but in terms of safety, it amounts to window dressing, distracting from problems which would not exist except for the segregated bikeway: with the snowbanks, bicyclists and motorists are both going to have to come nearly to a complete stop at every crossing to see each other in time to avoid collisions. Streets, on the other hand, even narrowed by snow, are wide enough that the cyclists can ride away from the edge, and motorists can poke out far enough to see approaching traffic without the risk of collisions.

The bikeway is also too narrow for one bicyclist safely to overtake another. The street is wide enough for anyone — bicyclist or motorist — to overtake a bicyclist, though maybe not always wide enough for one motorist to overtake another, what with the snow. It is narrower too because of the space that was taken out of it for the bikeway. The street also most likely is clear down to pavement within a day or two after a snowfall, and it is crowned so meltwater drains to the curbs. The bikeway is going to be a sheet of ice if there are thaw/freeze cycles, unless there is a very heavy application of road salt.

Bicycling is already difficult enough in winter without the added difficulties and hazards imposed by this bikeway.



June 24, 2014

Starts and Stops, mostly stops

I’m commenting on the “Starts and Stops” article which appeared in the Boston Globe on Sunday, June 22, 2014.

That’s behind a paywall. You may need to log in as a Globe subscriber to see it. (I’m one, but if I recall correctly, there’s a limited number of views till the paywall descends). You can also log in from home in the Boston area using a library card number.

The Globe article describes a bicycle-specific traffic signal on Western Avenue and makes the claim:

The Western Avenue signal is timed so that cyclists get a green light a few moments before their vehicular counterparts headed toward Memorial Drive; that way, cyclists have several seconds of a head start to get out ahead of the cars and become more visible to motorists, especially motorists turning right who may not think to look for cyclists approaching on their right side.

That only works if bicyclists happen to be waiting when the light changes. Otherwise, according to the description in the article, there is a right-hook conflict, with motor vehicles turning right across the path of bicyclists approaching in their right rear blindspot. I haven’t checked out the installation yet; I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with more detail.

The article goes on to say:

Additionally, signals like this one address one of the biggest gripes motorists have with bike riders: that they’re constantly running red lights. For cyclists, there can be no confusion whether they’re expected to stop at a red light when that light shows a little bicycle. Many engineers believe that when cyclists are assured that a traffic light is targeted at them and designed to protect their safety, they’re much more likely to wait for their rightful turn to proceed through the intersection.

Here’s the photo which the Globe posted with the article.

New bicycle-specific traffic light on Western Avenue

New bicycle-specific traffic light on Western Avenue

Wishful thinking. Normal traffic lights also apply to bicyclists. Do we need our own very special, and eexpensive, signal just so we will feel pampered? The traffic light shown in the photo, by the way, isn’t at Memorial Drive. It is at Putnam Avenue, a block earlier. Because the photo doesn’t show the installation which the article describes, I’m not entirely clear about the details.

It was previously possible for bicyclists to approach Memorial Drive in the through lane and enter on the normal green light — or sensibly, though in violation of the specifics of traffic law, at the left side of a right-turn lane lane, and also enter on the normal green. Now, bicyclists and right-turning motorists are, at least as described in the article, forced into a right-hook conflict.

Please, who are the unattributed “many engineers”? Opportunistic bicyclists and pedestrians, motorists too — commit traffic-signal violations because they get annoyed with waiting. Compliance improves if a traffic-light system is designed to minimize waiting time. This one doesn’t, and right-hook conflicts don’t protect anyone’s safety.

I am about to attend the summer meeting of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD), where I sit on its Bicycle Technical Committee. Two proposals currently before the Committee, in experimental status, are special bicycle traffic signals, and right-turn lanes with a bicycle lane inside their left side. I would have hoped that Cambridge had submitted a formal Request to Experiment from Cambridge for either of these proposals — which would add to the knowledge base, and confer immunity from legal liability — but I’ve seen none. I should have. The Federal Highway Administration calls on the NCUTCD to review them.

Oh, and also — in the Globe’s photo, it looks as though a car is sitting in the bikeway.

More to come.



June 11, 2012

On the Agenda – Highlights of the June 11, 2012 Cambridge City Council meeting

Filed under: Cambridge,Central Square,City Council,planning — Tags: , , , , — Robert Winters @ 12:45 am

On the Agenda – Highlights of the June 11, 2012 Cambridge City Council meeting

There are several substantial items on the agenda this week. Among them:

City Manager’s Agenda #1. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to Awaiting Report Item Number 12-33, regarding a report on a plan for implementing separate trash or recycling curbside pickup for small businesses along existing curbside pickup routes. ["Please be advised that I am not recommending the implementation of such a program given the cost impacts to the City."]

This responds to an Order that grew, at least in part, out of East Cambridge traffic congestion problems caused by multiple collection vehicles. Needless to say, the suggestion that the City should take over all collection did not resonate with these multiple waste haulers. The real deal-breaker is the very substantial additional cost.

City Manager’s Agenda #28. Transmitting communication from Robert W. Healy, City Manager, relative to the purchase of 53.6 acres of watershed land in Lincoln, MA, for $1,152,247 from Community Preservation Act Open Space Reserve Fund, for the purposes of drinking water supply protection and land conservation.

This watershed land is located on the north side of Route 2 in Lincoln just east of Bedford Road. The City has in recent years acquired numerous parcels through which the Hobbs Brook flows en route to the Cambridge Reservoir (Hobbs Basin) in the vicinity of Route 2 and Route 128. Some may argue that Community Preservation Act open space funds should be spent exclusively within the city limits, but watershed protection is generally a very good investment.

Order #1. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Cambridge Police Commissioner, the Superintendent of Schools, and other appropriate personnel to organize a youth-focused community forum to discuss issues related to the shooting at Willow Street on June 3, 2012, to allow our young people a chance to openly communicate their concerns, grievances, and ideas directly with City officials and administrators.   Vice Mayor Simmons

Order #2. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Cambridge Police Commissioner and to urge him to reach out to the various stake holders in the community, including building managers, property owners, and local business owners, in an attempt to proactively address the summer violence before it has a chance to begin.   Vice Mayor Simmons

Though the law enforcement aspects of the shooting near Donnelly Field are appropriately in the hands of the Cambridge Police and the District Attorney, it is appropriate that Vice Mayor Denise Simmons should take a leadership role in the many other necessary responses to this incident that hit uncomfortably close to home. The greatest opportunity for leadership lies among the young people who know the victims and who may be able to help in the resolution of the case and in the prevention of future violence.

Order #4. That a Task Force be formed to review Cambridge’s current program to creatively encourage and maximize participation in PILOT agreements with the City, and to evaluate the possibilities of implementing SILOT (Services In Lieu of Payment) and/or GILOT (Grants In Lieu of Payment) programs.   Councillor vanBeuzekom and Councillor Cheung

The motivation of this Order appears to be a comparable program by the City of Boston that has achieved some success in generating addition revenue from tax-exempt institutions. Though the prospects are not great for additional payments in lieu of taxes, there is clearly plenty of opportunity for non-profit and educational institutions to offer services in lieu of taxes. The major colleges already provide many such services and could probably do more with some facilitation.

Order #6. That the City Manager is requested to confer with relevant City and Harvard staff to determine who is doing what on the Cambridge Street Overpass, how through passage is being safely managed, how signage has been displayed, what the overall plans for this project are and the timing of the work and its expected completion date.   Councillor Kelley

There was a very comprehensive presentation about this made at a recent meeting of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association. Though substantial work is planned, the disruption both to the tunnel and the plaza above should be acceptable. The redesigned plaza will no longer have its familar grassy areas, but it will have the potential to become an important new public space for both Harvard and the City. [Details on the project (DPW) – Check out all the tabs.] I just hope the Harvard planners have an alternative for driving stakes into the ground when they want to install a tent. It’s not so easy to drive stakes into concreate pavers.

Order #7. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council with an explanation of how the City plans to maintain grade separated bikeways and keep them as free from sand, branches and other debris as the adjacent streets.   Councillor Kelley

The larger issue is the grade-separated facilties themselves. While City officials and the public continually frown upon bicycling on sidewalks, they are simultaneously designing it into the Western Avenue project commencing later this year. To those of us who choose to ride in the street with all other vehicles, the City proposal will be less safe for us and slower for the cyclists who use the sidewalk track. It is very unlikely that the sidewalk track will be kept free of snow and ice in the winter. [“Cycle track”: a sidewalk by another name]

Order #8. That the City Manager is requested to report back to the City Council with an explanation of how the locations for the three bike corrals currently in place in Cambridge were determined.   Councillor Kelley

Good question. One of these corrals appeared recently in front of the Broadway Bicycle School. It’s empty basically all the time. [Correction: On Monday there were 8 bikes locked up there, probably related to the City Hall Annex.] Cyclists coming to the Broadway Bicycle School generally bring their bikes inside to work on them. Meanwhile in places all over Cambridge there are derelict bikes chained up for months at a time taking up many of the available locations for locking up a bike.

Order #14. That the City Manager confer with the appropriate departments to discuss the potential of installing security cameras in the Donnelly Field area and report back to the City Council.   Councillor Toomey

The recent shooting at Donnelly Field does not in and of itself justify the installation of such cameras, but their presence could very well have resolved this case in short order. Though the government conspiracy theorists may feel otherwise, their arguments against these cameras remain weak. Public spaces are public and cameras strategically located along roads and on public buildings can and do help in solving crimes.

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 Ordinance Committee, for a public hearing held on May 15, 2012 to discuss the petition of Forest City/MIT to amend the Zoning Ordinances by extending the Cambridgeport Revitalization Development District from Green Street out to Massachusetts Avenue in the area adjacent to Blanche Street and further to provide for the potential development of a residential building on Sidney Street between Massachusetts Avenue and Green Street.

A few thoughts on this (more to follow in the coming weeks as the various advisory committees complete their efforts):

Though the proposal for the All-Asia block is similar to what MIT/Forest City proposed last year, the proposal for a 165-foot residential tower next to the Lafayette Square fire house apparently came out of the Community Development Department. Forest City was receptive to the idea, but it wasn’t their idea. A more human-scale residential building next to the firehouse might be more acceptable as long as an equivalent amount of open space is relocated to a site people would actually use. MIT/Forest City’s primary motivation is the development of the All-Asia block – something they would have done 20 years ago if they had sufficient control of the property. Significant height (about 140 ft.) and density is also proposed there. Of great concern to some MIT faculty is the current trend of MIT sacrificing properties close to the core campus to private development (e.g., Pfizer, Novartis) that might otherwise have supported the academic mission of the Institute.

I would caution people against taking an either-or view of this or any of the other proposals that will soon appear for future development in the greater Central Square area. Some will be opposed to any additional height or density and others will be receptive to any and all additional height or density. I find both of these points of view to be lacking. Surely there is room for people to express their own "vision" for what they want the future of Central Square to be – as opposed to simply reacting to the proposals of others. It’s ironic that the City Council has a Neighborhood & Long-term Planning Committee, yet two things the committee apparently doesn’t do are neighborhood and long-term planning.

I would much rather see the emphasis be on increasing density within the envelope currently prescribed by the zoning code with some strategic modification to induce good uses. The zoning is actually pretty generous already and there are many underbuilt sites in the area – including the All-Asia block. My "vision" for Central Square primarily consists of replacing the one-story and two-story "taxpayer" buildings with buildings that rise 3 to 5 stories at Mass. Ave. and possibly step back an additional story or two. I feel that a good-looking ten-story building like the Central Square Building at Mass. Ave. and Western Ave. should be the (anomalous) upper limit for height. I might be convinced that one other such building should be built, but this should not be the norm. Central Square is not Kendall Square, and it should not be redeveloped in the manner of Kendall Square. The Central Square neighborhood is already somewhat dense and can afford to be more dense if the gaps along Mass. Ave. are better developed and if some of the back lots see new construction. If housing in new buildings close to work is what is needed, I would suggest that the best place for new housing would be in Kendall Square, in the area between Main Street and Mass. Ave. replacing some of the old industrial properties, and on some (not all) of the parking lots.

Regarding the issue of shadows cast by taller buildings, I’ve always felt this to be primarily a naysayer strategy transparently intended to block a given proposal. In Jill Brown-Rhone Park (Lafayette Square), the City has installed umbrellas in that area because of the excess sunniness. I would prefer to see a shorter building than the 165 foot tower currently proposed, but I don’t really care about the shadows. I simply prefer a more human scale in an area that is primarily oriented toward neighborhood people rather than trans-national industries. We have Kendall Square and downtown Boston for that sort of thing.

Committee Report #2. A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, Interim City Clerk, transmitting a report from Councillor David P. Maher, Chair of the Ordinance Committee, for a public hearing held on May 23, 2012 to discuss a petition to amend the Zoning Ordinances of the City of Cambridge by adding to Section 5.50 entitled "Special Dimensional Regulations" a section 5.54 entitled "Special Regulations for Municipal Elementary and Middle (K-8) Schools.

This is largely a formality despite some of the scary and dishonest e-mail alerts distributed by some activists with nothing better to do than spread false rumors about unlimited heights, unlimited parking, exemption from all zoning, and the consolidation of all middle school programs into a single "supersized" building. False, false, false, and false. – Robert Winters

May 13, 2012

Ducks in a Row – May 14, 2012 Cambridge City Council Agenda Highlights

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council,cycling — Tags: , , , , , — Robert Winters @ 11:43 pm

Ducks in a Row – May 14, 2012 Cambridge City Council Agenda Highlights

This week’s meeting is in many ways the set-up meeting preceding next week’s meeting at which the FY2013 Budget will be approved. There are 5 loan authorization orders On the Table totaling $17,442,670 to cover various public works projects that will be voted this week to get all the ducks in a row. Beyond this, it’s all miscellany.

Order #3. That the Mayor is requested to confer with relevant City staff and City Councillors and report back to the City Council on the status of the process for filling the City Manager and City Clerk positions.   Councillor Kelley

Orders like this one make me laugh. Councillor Kelley is the house obstructionist who always votes in the most contrary way in all matters relating to the City Manager. This has earned him the privilege of playing no role whatsoever in the eventual selection of the next city manager (he may have company). If any other councillor offers a substitute order, it will likely eclipse Kelley’s order – even if the substitution is just a punctuation change. In matters of consequence, especially in matters such as this, I would expect the process to be begin with an Order from any of 6 councillors – a list that does not include Councillor Kelley.

Order #10. That the City Manager is requested to confer with the Cambridge Conservation Commission to provide an explanation of how the waiting lists for community garden plots work.   Councillor Cheung

This reminds me of the thoroughly unenlightened mandate laid down several years ago by the Community Development Department regarding the assignment of plots in community gardens. Rather than maintaining an organic mix of new gardeners and long-time gardeners, they proposed evicting any gardener who had tilled their plot for more than three years. It was disappointing to have the Community Development Department ripping the community out of community gardening. In contrast, the Conservation Commission staff generally kept a more balanced approach and I hope this is still the case. The best community gardens in Cambridge are generally the ones in which the gardeners manage their own affairs with adequate City support and minimal intrusion. They have always encouraged sufficient turnover for new gardeners.

Order #11. That the City Manager is requested work with the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department and report back on a proposed plan of action to improve safety in area of Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street.   Councillor Cheung

I pass by this intersection often and the white bicycle marking where Phyo Kyaw was killed in late December is a chilling reminder of how suddenly a life can end. There are rumors circulating about the circumstances of that death, but the matter is now with the District Attorney and details are hard to come by. The intersection is rated as one of the city’s most dangerous, but this is as much a function of the volume of traffic – motor vehicle, bicycle, and pedestrian – as it is about any design flaw. Indeed, it’s just an ordinary intersection of two roads. It would be interesting to see a comparison between the frequency of accidents before and after the City "improved" Vassar Street with its absurd "cycle track" design and narrowing of the roadway. For those of us who bicycle in the road rather than on the sidewalk, that was no improvement. The City is planning to "improve" Western Avenue in a similar manner beginning later this year. – Robert Winters

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

November 3, 2010

Specific issues with Western Avenue project

In this post, I’m going to examine some of the drawings of its Western Avenue project which the City of Cambridge has provided.

All of the illustrations below are from the City’s conceptual design booklet.

Western Avenue concept drawing

Western Avenue concept drawing

The cars shown parked at the left are real cars, in the original photograph that was modified to show the conceptual design. Typical sedans are about 5 1/2 feet wide, not counting the side-view mirrors, but common light trucks are as much as 6 1/2 feet wide. Big trucks and buses can be 8 1/2 feet wide.

The cars shown parked at the right are drawings added when the photo was modified. All of them are micro-cars, very much smaller than the cars on the left — only about 4 1/2 feet wide.

Bicyclists complain about “door zone” bike lanes — where opening car doors pose a threat. On the other hand, the door zone serves an important function. A motorist can open the car door without its protruding directly into the path of motor traffic, and can walk around the car.

In the drawing below, I have copied the nearest car in the original drawing into each travel lane. This drawing shows too little clearance between parked vehicles and moving ones to allow motorists safely to walk around to the street side of their vehicles or open the doors. The right lane as shown is especially tight, even with micro-cars parked on the right and ordinary sedans in the travel lanes — though Western Avenue is a designated bus and truck route.

Western Avenue concept drawing, modified

Western Avenue concept drawing, modified

To show how wide the left lane is at present, the white line in the foreground replaces the gray patch that is dimly visible in the original drawing, covering up the location of the present lane line.

The parts of the illustration that are from the original photo are to scale — including the cars I have copied into the travel lanes. The drawn-in elements are conceptual, and some are not to scale.

The drawing below, also from the City, is dimensioned, showing a 36-foot wide roadway. The elements are to scale: 10.5 foot travel lanes, 7-foot parking lanes and mid-sized cars 6 feet wide, not counting the mirrors — like a a Ford Taurus. This drawing shows more room between vehicles than the right lane in the photo, but on the other hand, the parked cars are tight against the curbs, and no trucks or buses are shown.

Cross-section of street with cycle track

Cross-section of street with cycle track

Now let’s look at an overhead drawing, which shows a typical treatment at an intersection.

Western Avenue at Jay Street

Western Avenue at Jay Street

Let’s put more cars and some bicyclists and pedestrians into the picture. I’ve put three bicyclists on the blue strip which represents the cycle track. Two are headed with traffic and one is headed opposite traffic. (Off-street facilities encourage two-direction traffic, and this is particularly so on a one-way street where there is no opposite-direction paired street conveniently nearby.) There also is a group of pedestrians standing on the bulbout before the intersection. Excuse me if the bicyclists and pedestrians look like ants, I’m no Picasso.

Pedestrians and parked cars conceal  right-way bicyclists from drivers of cars A and B, increasing the risk of a “right hook” collision. Also, Car B  is blocking the right-hand travel lane. Such blockages will increase congestion. The more bicyclists, the more often turning motorists will have to wait in the position shown. At present, motorists can keep moving as they prepare to turn right, because they can merge behind a bicyclist before reaching the intersection.

Car C in the drawing must wait far back from the intersection, what with the separate sidewalk and cycle track. Then, on reaching the intersection, as shown in the illustration below, the car must block the cycle track as the driver scans for traffic. If more than one car is in line, both the sidewalk and the cycle track will be blocked at the same time.

Western Avenue at Jay Street, cycle track blocked

Western Avenue at Jay Street, cycle track blocked

Presently, without the cycle track, this kind of blockage happens only for the sidewalk. It is more troublesome and hazardous for bicyclists than pedestrians, because bicyclists are faster, and farther away when the driver must first see them, and can be hidden by buildings or by pedestrians on the sidewalk. The crash rate for wrong-way cyclists on cycle tracks like this one is very high — research in Finland, Sweden and Germany has shown it to be about 10 times as high as for right-way travel on the street. Right-way travel on a cycle track located, like this one, behind parked cars, and with unsignalized intersections and driveways, has been shown only two or three times as hazardous.

There is also a much greater risk of collisons with pedestrians, and with other bicyclists, than when riding in the street. This cycle track has about 6 feet of width where bicyclists are clear of car-door hazards or plantings — very substandard for a two-way facility.

There is a question what the wrong-way bicyclists will do when they reach Franklin Street and the cycle track ends. Most likely, they will go up onto the sidewalk or ride opposite traffic in the bike lane.

Finally, let’s look at the intersection of Western Avenue and Memorial Drive. At present, Western Avenue has four travel lanes approaching the intersection.  The rightmost lane is a right-turn-only lane which the City describes as underutilized. I agree with that description — even in the evening rush hour, I have been able to filter forward to the intersection on my bicycle in that lane.

The City proposes to change that lane into a cycle track, so right turns are made from the next lane to the left. In this connection, I question the City’s conclusion that its plan will not increase congestion. In the evening rush hour, traffic already queues on Putnam Avenue and Memorial Drive, all the way back to River Street. Even one vehicle waiting to turn right, while bicyclists overtake on the right, will block all other vehicles in the lane behind it. This is aside from the issue of institutionalizing the “right hook” — placing all responsibility for bicyclists’ safety on the motorists, and stripping away bicyclists’ defense of merging into the line of right-turning traffic.

Western Avenue at Memorial Drive, conceptual drawing

Western Avenue at Memorial Drive, conceptual drawing

I suggest instead that bicyclists be encouraged to travel along the left side of the right-turn lane, by means of shared-lane markings and signage, or better, if there is room, a through bike lane.

The question remains of how to handle opposite-direction bicycle traffic. It does not admit of an easy answer.  At this point, I’m most inclined to try to address it on River Street.

And, I’ll add: the sacredness of on-street parking is the issue that makes the problem insoluble. If parking could be removed form one side of Western Avenue, a contraflow bike lane would be an option.

There is no such issue on River Street, because there are many parallel streets in Cambridgeport that allow travel in the opposite direction.

Signing off…

October 29, 2010

Burning bridges

I have removed my most recent post.

Though it was factual — and passed muster with Robert Winters, who manages this forum — it did not address the main issue that motivates me to post here: my intense frustration with some directions which the Cambridge bicycle program is taking. My post was an expression of frustration rather than a description of current issues, and as such, it created more heat than light.

In the post, I asked whether Jeff Rosenblum was a builder of bridges. I think that was a fair question, but on the other hand I have burned some, and not only with him. I am no longer a member of the Massbike Technical Advisory Committee. Executive Director David Watson had already explained to me that my presence on that committee was getting in the way of Massbike’s work with governments. My recent post was the last straw for him.

I had already considered resigning for a couple of months. I regret that I did not have the courage to ask for a resignation. Instead, I backed myself into this situation. In the light of some of my posts in this forum, it may come as a surprise to my readers, but confrontation does not come easily for me. Sometimes I do not manage it well, and it bursts out.

Massbike and its predecessor organization, the Boston Area Bicycle Coalition, have been a major part of my life over the years. I have been on the Board of Directors, been President, attended hundreds of meetings and public hearings, written large reports under contract. I part from Massbike with considerable regret. On the other hand, I am also feeling much relief with this change. I had become increasingly frustrated with some directions Massbike is taking. I was increasingly uncomfortable as a member of the Technical Advisory Committee, and Massbike leadership was increasingly uncomfortable with me.

My underlying drive, my lifetime quest, as I must acknowledge to myself, is as a journalist. When I see something that disturbs me, my primary instinct is to provide information, to explain my concern, to try to make it understandable to other people. I am highly uncomfortable with biting my tongue in the interest of political expediency and compromise.

I have now freed myself from that obligation as it involves bicycling issues in Massachusetts, and so I think I will now be able to do a better job here on this forum. I offer my heartfelt thanks to Robert Winters for hosting this forum and for his support.

I’ll sign off with a quote, which I think is apt:

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” –Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:57

October 27, 2010

Western Avenue proposal: ill-considered

Cambridge has posted its preferred design proposal for Western Avenue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also see Paul Schimek’s post on this blog.

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

Your comments on this post are welcome too.

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