It was a terrible week on our streets with the death of a cyclist on Mass Ave opposite the Porter Square shopping center and another serious crash involving a cyclist and a truck near Kendall Square. Like the crash that killed Amanda Phillips in June in Inman Square, this week’s fatal crash involved a large truck and a congested intersection well known to be very dangerous; in fact, the Porter Square intersection has been under study since a pedestrian, Marcie Mitler, was struck and killed in February. The latest victim, Bernard (“Joe”) Lavins, was a doctor and research scientist who regularly bike-commuted from Lexington to Kendall Square. Joe was an experienced cyclist whose luck ran out crossing the Porter Square juggernaut. The truck, an 18-wheeler, was delivering eggs. Large trucks have many blind spots, and there is no physical protection for a cyclist trying to turn left from Mass Ave southbound onto Somerville Ave. It was a crash waiting to happen and it did.
Ironically this fatality occurred on the heels of Cambridge being named the 8th best city in America for cyclists, one of two small cities in the top 10 (ahead of Boulder at #10). To some we are making too many accommodations for cyclists (don’t take away any more parking!), while to others we are not doing enough (paint is no protection!) or are doing the things that make them feel less safe (no more traffic calming curb extensions!). More residents (many of our younger ones, and we are a young city) are choosing to drive less or not to own a car, relying instead on bikes, transit, Zipcar and Uber (and guess which vehicles are most often stopped in bike lanes along with the UPS trucks and Amazon vans delivering the online purchases too bulky to carry on a bike or the T?) Our choices all seem to have unintended consequences.
I was interviewed by a couple of TV reporters a few hours after the Porter Square tragedy, and in the brief time I stood on the plaza by the T entrance several 18-wheelers heading north on Mass Ave awkwardly swung wide to take a hard right onto Somerville Ave; each time the truck’s rear wheels almost ran over the curb, and once a cyclist rode so close beside the truck that I feared for his life. Did he not realize what had happened just a few hundred feet away and why the area was still blocked off to spare us the sight of a mangled body still lying under the truck’s wheels?
The exact series of human errors that caused this crash are not yet known, but there is plenty of blame to go around. Some are eager to lay it at the feet of the City Council, and certainly we are as much to blame as anyone. But the truth is we are all responsible for each other, and for helping elected officials, city staff, and individuals make decisions that prioritize safety. Collectively we have failed to do that.
People demand to know what we are going to do right now to prevent any more fatal crashes. The answer for the short term is more study, more debate, reduced speed limits and more enforcement, and probably some green paint on the road. More major changes (such as restricting large trucks, requiring truck side guards and additional mirrors, redesigning the Porter Square intersection, creating a protected or dedicated cycle lane on Mass Ave, adding a traffic signal for bikes, requiring hands-free cell phone use to name a few possibilities) will take time, regional/state coordination and money.
The pace of change depends on what people — not only bike and pedestrian advocates, but drivers, transit riders, merchants and residents — are willing to do to help accelerate it, and to compromise. It can’t continue to be cyclists against the world. Cities can only do so much. We text while driving (and while walking and biking), we jaywalk, we double park, we carelessly open car doors without looking, we don’t use bike lights, we blow red lights, we ride against traffic. We are always running late or in a hurry. We take chances and make mistakes. We are human. We are all in this together. We have much work to do to build a broad consensus that protecting the safety of all users must become our top priority in the ways we design, build and navigate our public ways. I say “public ways” instead of “streets” because we all have to rethink how we share this very limited space. We have committed to Complete Streets and Vision Zero policies that put safety first, but demonstrably it is not (yet). We can do much better by each other and by our environment. But we won’t get anywhere unless we work together. With climate change and population growth we are running out of time and excuses not to.
Here are a few articles that have informed my thinking on this subject:
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Jan Devereux City Councillor Cambridge, MA