October 17, 2016’s many policy orders regarding bicycling in Cambridge

Regarding tonight’s many bicycling-related policy orders, and this moment where we might finally tip toward public way design paradigm shift:

POR 2016 #263 (general “what can be done?”) and POR #269 (Vision Zero working group). Yes, good long-term stuff. Although, to the former, refer to the extensive decades old design standard literature that proliferates around the world (we don’t need to reinvent the wheel). Our staff knows what to do, and we have enormous design talent and innovative thinking within our borders; let’s aggressively enlist it.

POR 2016 #264 (pilot flex-post/protection areas on Mass. Ave., Hampshire, Cambridge). The first pilots should roll out by next week, and it can be modest to start with and build from there. No reason to wait, we can find a few places right now.

POR 2016 #265 (Pearl Street). We really missed the mark on Pearl Street and it’s too late for the most part. I would love to see a “what could have been” design from the city who failed to even produce a basic complete streets concept or design. I have talked about Pearl extensively and I hope that the sad failure there contributes to inspiring more city council candidates like it contributed to my own political foray. I didn’t think we had “win” the design process and get it exactly our way, but the city failed to even produce an option with a separated bike lane, real bus stops, or ecological features with any vigor (the PO should be amended to reference this fact: that the city didn’t present a basic world-standard complete streets option, but ruled out real complete streets before the process began).

POR 2016 #266 (Mass. Ave. reconstruction standards) Yes, and all streets. Some of us thought this was already city policy. If it is, city practice isn’t even close (not in execution or design, or even in concept).

POR 2016 #267 (specific roll out of a protected lane on Mass. Ave. between Cedar Street and Harvard Square) Yes. Also, Mount Auburn Street between somewhere close to Harvard Square & Putnam Square; Broadway in Area IV; somewhere on First Street; somewhere on Oxford; could think of many places…

POR 2016 #268 (Huron). Absolutely, just like Pearl Street, here’s a classic left-holding-the-bucket failure. What happened? Anyway, let’s fix it. Also, please include bus stop consideration; standing next to a marker on a benchless and shelterless sidewalk by a pull-off zone for 70 minutes isn’t transit priority.

At this point, it all can’t end in a capitulation to push things off onto a working group, come back with findings in months or years, and too heavily emphasize “education and enforcement.” (Design is 95%+ of the issue.) The Cambridge Bicycle Committee has been that working group for a long time and released a plan which city council adopted and instantly ignored. For instance.

It has to be ‘pop-up’ protected bicycle lanes, right away. It has to be vigorous, all-hands-on-deck redesign of our streets to maximize biking and transit safety and convenience — particularly streets and areas that are up for reconstruction.

The stakes are not just our willing choice to accept a violent death by someone riding the simple, beautiful instrument that is a bicycle, every few months or even more frequently. The stakes are also our soul — the essence and quality of the city we give to subsequent generations — and the stakes are the example we give to the world: what Cambridge can do, rapidly, in a visionary way, innovative, harnessing the enormous energy and design talent that lives within our borders (people who are likelier than anywhere else in the world to win Nobels and Pritzkers and radically change the world over the coming decades are walking our streets right now as freshmen and grad students, and we are foolishly wasting their talent by not bringing them in to tackle the problem of our public way and public spaces being stuck and failed).

Moreover, our stakes are the world itself. The livability of the world, in both a human-spiritual sense (what we choose to live among, how we choose to design and experience our Place), and in the face of climate change, doing everything we can (and we have to do a lot, more than almost anyone else in the world, given the privilege of our circumstances and resources and unique ability to drive change in Cambridge), to combat the ruin and desertification of the world. It’s all interconnected and codependent and linear: consumption, extinction, barren oceans, suburban sprawl, atmospheric depletion, human health, automobile-oriented planning.

We aren’t even living up to the most basic standards that are rolling out all over the country and world, let alone being that experimental beacon that Cambridge ought to be — that Cambridge must be.

Please, see past the political locks and dams and dare to build something (boldly, rapidly) that is truly for the ages. Even, see past this moment of crisis and the begging to prevent death — of course, a worthy policy endeavor— because this is moreover a question of what is the city, what is civilization, what is our time on earth, where can our children go safely and easily and by what means, how do we do something so transformational that we inspire cities and towns across the Commonwealth and across the nation? — because anything short of that is consciously contributing to the world desertification crisis, the coma of mankind in a concrete world stuck inside cars on highways and paving over and missing out on the web of life and Creation around them. If we don’t do better, then we are derelict, and active participants in doing worse: watching the world careen into the final extinction crisis as the earth evaporates into a barren Mars, for wont of what, exactly?

I happen to agree that intersection improvement is the real priority; while there are many areas where I think there are low-hanging opportunities for rapidly implemented protected straight-lanes, intersections are the most dangerous and most prohibitive. Obviously intersections are the most complicated, and we may have to (at least in the interim) accept things like 30-60 additional seconds of “traffic delay” for automobile movements in order to accommodate safer bicycle movements. Again, obviously, it’s complicated, and of course that’s what we will hear from the staff and the state and consultants in the future, but the complexity is not a reason not to implement a shared (safety) goal.*

Protected lanes, though, as difficult and politically fraught as they might seem, are the easy stuff. Yes, the more we have, the more we demonstrably cause natural mode shift— more people choosing to bicycle as default, normalized means of simple travel. However, the real danger and the prohibitive obstacle preventing another massive chunk of people shifting to bicycling are the intersections and the ability to make desired turning motions in a low-stress manner. Porter Square and Inman Square obviously. But also little ones here and there. We should dare to hold to (even minimum) design standards for all intersections, every time we redo them, and in the meantime, enact policy orders like those on the table today that try to safety-up some of them more quickly.

Of course, the transit discussion can’t be sidelined and should be had at the same time and in complementary terms. Pearl Street, again, is a fine example of where we drop the ball in prioritizing transit use. Signs on sidewalks are not bus stops, at least if the bus is something we want people to use and not be a punishment. Waiting for the bus on Pearl Street (and virtually all other streets in Cambridge) is a punishment. Transit is a punishment, a dive into a filthy, uncomfortable, and unreliable misery pit. It doesn’t have to be this way. And it’s a poor, sad excuse to throw our hands up and say “MBTA.” We can’t do everything, sure, but we can do vastly more than we do now. We have full power over most design aspects as concerns transit movement and waiting areas and accessibility and wayfinding in our public way, and we too often fail to even try to design for transit priority (not just traffic signals, but real bulbed-out bus stops with comfortable accommodations that take buses out of the ditch and place them at the center of how we get around — an easy, happy choice) when we ought to be designing the best, most innovative infrastructure for transit. Instead, we celebrate meeting poor minimum standards at least most of the time.

And that then gets to the crux of it all, with again Pearl Street and Huron Ave as prime examples of how Cambridge has actively decided to regress in street design: we never even considered robust options to begin with, because the city chose not to even design, let alone conceptualize, them. We were never presented with the simple protected bike lane + real bus stop (+ complete streets water retention rain gardens, but I dream) options on Pearl & Huron & others. It was never on the table, never even a consideration. The city chose before the processes began that it was a bridge too far even for simple conceptual pondering. This is several steps behind where we should be. The city should be planning complete streets by default, and walking back from the most robust design treatment only in the face of overwhelming engineering obstacles.

It hasn’t been engineering obstacles. It has been, frankly, murmurs about parking from a small group and it has been a subtle vitriol about “cyclists” whoever those are, from an even smaller group. And then there are 10 or 15 people who prefer vehicular cycling and don’t care about closing off simple-choice-bicycling for the other 98%.

The overall design standards failure is already coming to represent a political flop, as the policy makers of Cambridge are simply wrong about where people are on this issue. It also represents, obviously, a failure of leadership — not of our leaders per se— but by our lack of collective will to bite the bullet a little harder and see through to the beautiful public way we can have, and moreover the urgency with which we need to get there.

It’s a choice, it’s a choice, it’s a choice. It’s not engineering. It’s not that we don’t know what design standards work. It’s not that we don’t have the money (and, if we had been doing it correctly/negotiating with developers etc., the cost would be marginal for the most part).

Although I’m busy enjoying my new life as a sex symbol in New York and largely refraining from weighing into Cambridge politics, I just can’t bite my tongue on this at a time when the balance could truly tip and the city council has the opportunity to vigorously catch up, a decade-plus after Vassar Street which we should have a dozen more of by now. And while today’s policy orders have huge potential, it’s also just nipping at the critical stakes. In another world, I could return and I think I could win (big) on this issue alone. It will be an issue in the 2017 elections in a very big way, and it’s time to catch up to the world and reclaim the political and innovative territory out ahead of everyone else.

John

*Another quick anecdote is the Green Line Extension, where I thoroughly believe we could have created zoning packages and density bonuses and in turn gotten developers to build stations at least 3 times better than what we now are getting, while keeping a billion or two out of the publicly-funded slush fund. Sure, the zoning would have been complicated and taken a lot of effort, but would it not have been worth the multiple times better transit service and saving enormous cost while getting excellent transit-oriented development? Bike lanes (including street reconstructions adjacent to developments, another area where we have completely dropped the ball) are 100x easier, and we still aren’t even trying in the first place. I.e., this is the failure to do better because of the difficult excuse, when this is the very reason we have city government, not to mention an enormous budget.

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October 17, 2016’s many policy orders regarding bicycling in Cambridge