Policy updates, August 14

A solution – click through for more details

Cambridge woman killed at Mass. ave./Beacon St. in Boston


  • Harvard Bridge needs a multi-modal design fix
  • Cambridge should take a leadership role among the stakeholders
  • Design solution are evident, so this is about political will

Anita Kurmann, age 38.

First, obviously, this campaign expresses our condolences. Moreover, we are moved to action because this a place where design failure, in the context of high travel demand, is extraordinarily pointed and obvious.

While the specific intersection is more of a Boston issue, the Harvard Bridge (aka “Mass Ave Bridge”) is a highly visible and high-demand corridor for biking, walking, and transit serving both Cambridge and Boston. Today, it is engineered for one use only: driving, with everything else getting marginal design treatment. The landings and intersections on both the Boston and Cambridge sides are tangled messes. Users—residents, workers, students, and visitors—deserve better than bureaucratic carelessness.

If I’m elected to City Council, I will raise the City of Cambridge to a leadership role when it comes to improved design of places like this in our city that are caught in these bureaucratic tangles.

  1. Immediate Action. We should employ temporary, emergency safety measures for biking within the Harvard Bridge corridor within the next month, e.g. barriers, cones, lighting, and signage, to achieve real safety benefits right away and to send a strong message.
  2. Vision Zero model corridor. The Harvard Bridge between and including the Beacon Street intersection in Boston and the Memorial Drive intersection in Cambridge should be established as a Regional Vision Zero model corridor, where walking, biking, and transit are safe and encouraged.
  3. Accelerated longer-term plan. The City of Boston, the City of Cambridge, MassDOT, and DCR must coalesce behind an executable design and commit to implementing it within two years. The City of Cambridge can take the lead on this, and if we are waiting for someone else to, hint: they’re not going to.

This is not Big Dig stuff. This is not enormously difficult. Every day we don’t take action, we encourage more traffic and less biking, walking, and transit use, and we deprive people of a safe, healthy, and sustainable experience. The above image, a design proposed by The Amateur Planner, is bold and doable. It’s a matter of choice. Important to note (at the same blog) is this:

Once in place, there will no longer be the merge/bus stop/right turn hell that has been the situation there for years. (Or as vehicular cyclists would call it: paradise. To be dead serious for a moment: the previous situation at Mass and Beacon was exactly what vehicular cyclists advocate for: a free-for-all with bikes acting as cars. People died because of it. It is high time for the vehicular cyclists to be banished to the dustbin of history.)

“Enforcement and education” vs. infrastructure and design


  • Better biking, walking, and transit infrastructure means a safer and better experience for all, including those driving
  • More people biking and safer biking comes 95% from infrastructure and design, with enforcement and education being small factors, often within a failed paradigm
  • Arguments for “enforcement and education” have historically been used as means of deflection by ‘vehicular cyclists’ and other opponents of dedicated biking infrastructure
  • This anti-infrastructure strain has an influential voice in policy despite overwhelming data showing the primacy of design to accomplish safety and mode shift goals (lowering the %age of trips by car => reducing traffic loads), and the overwhelming preference of users and potential users for dedicated design
  • Most people would bike (or use other non-automobile modes more consistently) if the infrastructure were comfortable and safe

We failed on Pearl Street. When there was an opportunity for the Cambridge City Council to champion a protected bikeway on Pearl Street* several city councilors deferred to the status quo interests of maximized street parking. We heard (from city councilors) that bikes can go somewhere else, that nobody bikes on Pearl Street anyway (somewhat true, because it’s horrible), and “do you expect the handicapped and elderly to just hop on a bike?” as though the proposal were to ban cars and driving and parking from the city.

We then witnessed a small parade of “vehicular cycling” advocates for maximized parking in the public way, asserting that Pearl Street is as good for biking as it can and should ever be. This line of thinking, originating in the 1970s, suggests that bicycles are vehicles and should operate in automobile travel lanes—the idea is that bikes don’t need separate infrastructure or specific design, and that bike-related advocacy should only be concerned with vague “education” of drivers/cyclists and enforcement of road rules (e.g. cars speeding and bikes riding on sidewalks).

It’s a paradigm question. The mantra of better enforcement and better education is fundamentally a pretend solution, but even if we take it seriously, it’s a solution after the wrong problem. It reinforces the paradigm of streets existing for one purpose, and for one legitimate form of transportation: driving a car. In this stale view of mobility and spatial appropriation, everything else is secondary, marginal, or worse. The historic failure to create robust bikeway design has confined biking to a minuscule minority status, rather than simply being an everyday means of healthy and sustainable travel.

Enforcement helps tilt toward safer streets in theory, but even simple design fixes are massively more effective. When it comes to enforcement, nobody, including and especially the police, has put together a credible case for even prolonged and intense speed/rulebreaking stings to provide anywhere close to the safety and comfort that walk/bike infrastructure—even modest and temporary protections—can. After a recent death and serious injury at Memorial Drive near the MIT Sailing Pavilion, a police officer in a discussion with stakeholders offered a rather obvious logic about the ineffectiveness of enforcement: traffic is too varied, voluminous, and unpredictable for even a massive and highly visible enforcement effort to have any long-term effect, or to prevent someone driving Memorial Drive, for the first time, from out of the area, to have any idea what the appropriate and safe practices are. Design can make expectations of speed and yielding plain and be self-enforcing.

Enforcement- and education-only advocacy has failed bicycling’s ability to achieve legitimacy as a means of mobility (particularly urban mobility) for decades, countered only very recently by a renaissance of prioritizing urban bikeway design that’s in fledgling form in U.S. cities like New York and Minneapolis. Cambridge’s Vassar Street, Western Ave., Binney Street, Ames Street, and Concord Ave. all feature protected bikeway design treatments that translate to an overall more human-scale street and public space experience in those isolated pieces.

However, creating more and better complete streets and safe intersections is NOT a given: the incumbent elected leadership in Cambridge tilts AGAINST expanding this network of complete streets.

Case in point: recent grumbles over the barely-finished Western Ave.

We must decide and be explicit: are transit and biking novelties, that sure, we can make a little safer here and there so long as they don’t interfere substantially with the physical status quo…or are they legitimate, equal forms of mobility that we should prioritize and encourage?

The broader point. As crude as it sounds (and bear with me) the safety of ‘cyclists’ like myself, i.e., those who will bike in a wide range of conditions because they have to or choose to, is NOT the priority in bike advocacy and street design. The goal and the priority is MORE people biking, fewer people driving, and a healthier, calmer, more sustainable, and more social public way. Safety is a byproduct of good design, and by normalizing biking and increasing the number of people who bike—strength in numbers and strength in normalcy—we will improve overall conditions for all users, and achieve real effective safety. Protected bikeways, efficient and comfortable transit infrastructure, and intersections designed for safe human movement, are not simply ends toward a specific mode, but are tools toward livability, and a cleaner, healthier, and more interesting human experience.

To make this case and to champion better design—that’s why I’m running for City Council.

*A temporary or permanent protected bikeway, and bus stop platforms, were favored by the neighborhood on and surrounding Pearl Street by a substantial margin according to a public record request for emails and public comment statistics. The repurposing of one of the two parking lanes for a bike lane was also supported by a city-commissioned parking data study.

Policy updates, August 14