Homelessness, Protected Bike Lanes in Cambridge

Cambridge Charrette on Homelessness

The City of Cambridge hosted a Charrette on Homelessness over a two day period last week. I attended part of the second day’s talk. Here are a few takeaways:

  1. The issue of homelessness is multi-faceted, and not limited to the unsheltered; in fact that’s only a small part of a broad and structural issue.
  2. We have great regional and local resources to address the three main areas (homelessness, those at-risk of homelessness, and substance abuse) with an array of dedicated, engaged, often overburdened, and often under-resourced public and non-profit service providers.
  3. This gives us a sprawling bureaucracy, which has two natural solutions to “deal with” the persistent problems of homelessness: more funding and more coordination.

More funding and more coordination are reasonable suggestions in a system rife with inefficiency, contradictions, and natural limitations. We can probably get guy A to talk to guy B, we can incrementally increase budgets here and there, and do the old pat on the back for achieving something on paper. However, this is deferring the maintenance (so to speak).

Substance abuse is a major contributor to homelessness and to general urban unpleasantness. It takes more than adding resource coordinators to solve addiction and abuse, not to mention when mental health is a critical factor. Most of the individuals we see around the clock in Central and Harvard Squares who are clearly intoxicated are in environments and social situations that provide neither stability nor hope—whether that’s a decent bed or bathroom, healthy peers, or gainful activities; these environments are the opposite. We’ve become accustomed to panhandling, public bodily fluid issues, street violence, intoxication, etc.—things which should never be normalized or acceptable in our city.

Maybe there isn’t a “magic bullet.” Nevertheless, I wonder if there is indeed a cartridge of magic bullet solutions to the general problem of people with nowhere to go and/or who face cycles of poverty, displacement, and addiction.

What about adding a certain quantity of housing units as a baseline? Open question: if the money and coordination could fall out of the sky and lead to 500 decent units tomorrow in Central Square (studio through 3 bedroom), for the homeless or otherwise, would that quantity-of-housing-units approach actually alleviate some substantial part of this problem?

Recognizing that this is not immediately feasible financially, and that it’s fraught with issues related to the concentration of poverty (e.g., the old and broken “project” approach), as well as various mental health and safety concerns, and further, that it’s not a comprehensive, long-term approach to a structural socioeconomic challenge…

…I look to additional tools, like planning/zoning reforms. We could better incentivize e.g., affordable and accessory units. From an urban planning perspective, I celebrate and guard contextual form and massing, but I also believe it’s worth challenging the notion that we continue to constrain and limit the number of dwelling units per building or parcel based on outdated standards concerning the appropriate size of a dwelling unit/family. There is a place for new/tall/dense construction; we also have many places in Cambridge where there isn’t that place. There is a place (and urgency) in our neighborhoods for this fundamental rethink of how we use our built spaces, and particularly to allow and encourage accessory uses and small/dense configurations. For one very intriguing solution, see this recently filed zoning petition.

We are indeed in a new era of tolerance for—and even preference for—small/tiny living, with rising generations that largely favor walkability, dense neighborhoods, simplicity, social engagement, and productivity, over arbitrary largeness and largesse, which are hallmarks of a quickly fading era of suburban preferences. We even have new ideas of what a “family” is; we cannot continue planning around the faux suburban ideal that was propagandized on network TV shows a few decades ago.

All in all, we have a responsibility to the least among us. In many ways, it’s our first responsibility before we get to other, preference-oriented questions in our city.

It’s not simply about fixing and expanding the bureaucracy; this is a social and moral ill. Our solution may be partly bureaucratic, but, we need look no further than the Cambridge Public School system where throwing more money and more jobs hasn’t led to proportional positive outcomes. It’s not just about smart spending either.

There is a fundamental problem: we separate homelessness from our everyday social responsibility by compartmentalizing it into bureaucracy. We don’t need to think much about it or do much about it, because there’s someone out there dealing with it.

This is an issue that requires confrontation and proactivity; it’s too easy to sideline this as an “icky” problem—metaphorically and literally—and thus to be passive in our “actionable” solutions and say, well, the same, but more.

Adding Outreach Coordinators and Program Administrators and ACRONYMS sound nice, but without direct social, economic, and environmental action, it is derelict.

Central Square, physically, is depressing even for the privileged. How can we expect anyone to be uplifted in this setting? Cleaning and maintenance matter. So does good, useful, attractive design of the public way. We fail badly in Central Square on all these fronts. We must provide hope for those among us, especially the least among us, and in many ways it starts with the physical environment we create and keep.

Protected bike lanes in Cambridge

Breaking this week: Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announces that Boston will design Complete Streets by default everywhere in the city. This is huge. Cambridge does not do this, but must.

The Participatory Budgeting process (wherein citizens get to suggest and then vote on ideas for how to spend a chunk of the city’s budget, this year $600,000) once again features a great deal of suggestions for bicycle infrastructure. In fact, 6 of this year’s top 20 ideas (by # of support votes) are specifically for protected bicycle lanes/cycle tracks, and 15 of the top 20 deal with transit and/or bike infrastructure. Like last year, many of these highly favored ideas are not likely to make it into the actual voting rounds, because they are (1) outside of the budget limits, and (2) improvements that the city would/should do in theory anyway.

What’s most important here, though, is that we recognize this as yet another call for action, which falls on a city government that says, maybe/keep waiting.

We have heard that the reason we can’t have protected bike lanes is (if not free & unlimited street parking) that we have to wait for some unknowable and unknown future conditions–particularly when it comes to a road like Mass. Ave. (several of the most popular Participatory Budgeting suggestions specifically call for bicycle infrastructure on Mass. Ave.). Meanwhile street designs, street reconstructions, and major developments come and pass, yet these potential pieces of our ultimate network are not created.

My position is that this is a top issue with urgency that the city should be proactive about, starting with the many, many opportunities which exist that we don’t capitalize on.

Case in point: two major development parcels between MIT and Central Square are nearing completion. As part of those developments, the sidewalks and surrounding street infrastructure have been/will be extensively or totally reconstructed. No protected bike lanes on Mass. Ave., though, in either case, despite the fact that:

  • A private developer could build the protected bike lanes in these locations, integrated for the time being with “regular” bike lanes on either end, with negligible additional design or cost.
  • Utilities and e.g. water treatment were being dealt with anyway.

The reasons are simple: no specific policy and no real will. It’s not actually city policy to build protected bike lanes whenever possible, even in cases where it doesn’t get any easier to do so. Even when could potentially come at close to zero cost to the city. Even when it’s the city’s own policy to reduce vehicle miles traveled by increasing the usefulness of “alternative” transportation. Even when a street has been identified as in need of bike infrastructure treatment by the Cambridge Bicycle Network Plan. (This goes in many ways for transit as well: we don’t do nearly enough with the bus stops in our control, and we do virtually nothing for bus priority.)

This year on Main Street, major utility infrastructure was dug up cut-and-cover style along two blocks (specifically, between Windsor and Albany; the Kendall Square area is another story). The most thought given to bike infrastructure was…none at all. This, again, is an easily identifiable opportunity where we could have built protected bike lanes with immediate impact and as part of a future complete network, but we’re doing none.

These opportunities do not arise frequently. We must take them when they do, and it shouldn’t be a great effort. It should simply be default.

So often we don’t even study it or think about it. While there is some support from city councillors for progressive bicycle infrastructure design, there’s no proactive effort to create protected bike lanes—even when there is a simple path of no resistance, when they can be virtually fait accompli by simply asking for them, or even mentioning them. In the aforementioned cases, it’s not even a tough fight like it is in other areas. It’s only a matter of will and choice.

If there are more involved issues to consider case-by-case—and there will be—so be it. Today, though, in many, many cases, we aren’t even trying. Why did the city start with a watered-down temporary parking lane as a “bike lane” on Pearl Street? (No real bus infrastructure either, though there is an opportunity to build bus stop platforms and waiting areas. Nothing significantly ecological though the street will be comprehensively reconstructed).

The Participatory Budgeting process highlights the desperate appetite the public has for bicycle infrastructure. The public should know that the city is throwing away opportunities to get it.

Homelessness, Protected Bike Lanes in Cambridge