Following last week’s tragic crash in Porter Square — this year’s third traffic fatality in Cambridge involving a pedestrian or a cyclist — the City Council will take up a record-setting number of policy orders related to street and bike safety when we meet on Monday, October 17. Eight of 13 orders seek to address the heightened public concern that the City’s efforts to encourage and incentivize sustainable modes of transportation, as reflected by our policy commitments to the Vehicle Miles Reduction Ordinance, Complete Streets and Vision Zero, are at risk when street conditions still place vulnerable users at a higher risk of serious injury and death when collisions occur.
I sponsored or co-sponsored 7 of the orders related to street and bike safety including one (#8) to form a Vision Zero Working Group to “collaboratively develop and review traffic safety plans, street designs, public education initiatives, traffic enforcement and related policies with the shared goal of eliminating crashes that result in serious injuries and deaths as quickly as possible.” I also brought forward orders to install and /or pilot protected lanes on Mass Ave, Pearl St, Huron Ave, Cambridge St, Hampshire St, and Broadway, and an order to review what powers we may have to restrict the routes and delivery hours of very large tractor-trailer trucks like the 18-wheeler that struck and killed Joe Lavins last week.
A high percentage of Cambridge residents already commute by transit (28%), foot (24%) and bike (7%), and resident car ownership is steadily falling, based on the declining numbers of resident parking permits (this despite significant population growth over the past decade). This is a cultural shift, especially pronounced among the younger generation, that foretells the end of the era of our over-dependence on single-occupancy vehicles. As our climate heats up we may no longer have the ready excuse that biking is impractical in snowy New England, as new studies say that we may see as few as 20 days below freezing per year by mid-century (compared to an average of 90 now). More electric and autonomous vehicles are on the horizon, but meanwhile many are discovering that for short trips around town it is quicker and more pleasurable to bike (perhaps to connect to a T stop to continue a longer distance via transit) than to drive, battle traffic and hunt for parking. However the publicity surrounding these statistically rare but horrific crashes risks deterring the broader mode shift that would put greater numbers of people on bikes — the critical mass that’s needed to reach consensus that installing protected, separated bike lanes on major arterial streets and at congested intersections is a win-win for all of us.
Scott Kirsner has a piece in today’s Globe that drives (pedals?) home this point: “While it can seem like Boston roads are packed with bikers, it’s hard to know how many people have stopped biking, or never started, because of the perceived danger level. That’s a problem if you support, as I do, zero-emission commuting, fewer cars on the road, fewer sardines on the T, and a way to get a good workout without joining a gym.”
Pedaling defensively, following the rules of the road, and using lights after dark are all actions cyclists can take to reduce their risk — but actions under our control are only effective up to a point. Drivers can help reduce the potential for crashes by slowing down, making turns more cautiously, looking before opening doors, not obstructing bike lanes, and staying off cell phones. However cities can make the biggest difference by creating more separated and protected bike lanes. As Kirsner writes, “When I surveyed people on Twitter earlier this week about how we could enhance biker safety, I got an earful, and very little of it related to better gear or gadgetry. The Twitterati told me about drivers with phones perennially in hand; the need for more consistent police enforcement of proper cycling and driving behavior, like not parking in bike lanes; and better training for new drivers — and cyclists — about the rules of the road. But the top item on the wish list, amid more than 200 replies, was protected bike lanes.”
No one questions why we devote space to sidewalks because we all walk on them at some point; we need to reach the tipping point where bikes are a common enough form of urban transportation that no one questions the need for equal protection. We won’t get there until more people overcome their notion that bicycling in a city will never be as safe as driving. Experience in other countries shows that it can be, but only if we are willing to change our attitudes as well as our streets.
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Jan Devereux City Councillor Cambridge, MA