My Remarks at Bike Talk Social Hour (10/2/19)

Here are the remarks I gave at the October 2nd Bike Talk Social Hour, hosted by the Somerville Bicycle Committee at Aeronaut Brewing. See the schedule of speakers at this monthly gathering. The photos that accompanied my talk are here.

Thanks to Ken Carlson and the Somerville Bicycle Committee for inviting me to be your speaker tonight. When Ken asked me last spring, October seemed so far away; it may even have been before I announced I would not be running for re-election this year.

So, preparing my remarks for tonight has given me a chance to take stock of my almost four years of experience on the Cambridge City Council. It’s a great honor to be asked to share my reflections. I’m humbled, and I mean that most sincerely.

Many of you have been fighting for safer, more complete streets far longer than I have, so I want to start by thanking all of you and by saying that my decision not to continue advocating from a seat in Cambridge City Hall will not change my commitment to being your ally in fighting to change minds and streets.

It can be hard to step back and reflect when you are still in the thick of it. I have three months left in my term — and many “crisis” issues other than transportation safety will continue to compete for my attention. But here’s a first cut at a look-back on how much ground we’ve gained and on how we can work together to keep up the momentum.

The experience of being a city councillor has changed me immeasurably, but by far the greatest and most positive personal change has been on how I “see” and use our streets. It’s also made me one of those people whose camera roll is full of images of new street facilities, sidewalk defects, bike lane obstructions, confusing road signs, and green pavement markings.

A little background: I grew up in a beach town in north Florida. My family lived in a suburb where in that era it was safe enough for a young girl to ride her bike alone to friends’ houses starting at about age 6 or 7 — no one wore a helmet and none of us used, or even owned a bike lock. And my mom didn’t have a cell phone to track my whereabouts, either. In the 1960s and early 1970s two-wheeled mobility was a suburban child’s independence, pure and simple. Of course, I also spent a lot of time in the backseat of a station wagon while my mom “ran” errands. I rode a bus to school, and the day I turned 16 (literally) I got my driver’s license and began driving myself to high school about 30 minutes from home.

When I started driving my once-prized 10-speed bike sat neglected in our garage. I didn’t take my bike with me when I went north to college, but in my second year I did bring a car to park in a satellite lot for occasional weekend use; a bike would have been really useful to cover the long distance from my dorm to the indoor tennis center where my team practiced all winter. (But I walked, wearing uninsulated boots.) After I graduated I lived in Manhattan at a time (the 1980s) when bike messengers were about the only ones brave or crazy enough to pedal the mean streets. I spent a few years living in Paris as a new mother, but that was long before Paris launched its celebrated bike-share program or turned one of the parkways along the Seine into a “beach.” Here in Cambridge we have Magazine Beach Park but what if more of Memorial Drive was reclaimed from cars to serve as the parkland it originally was?! The newly formed Memorial Drive Alliance is advocating to do just that: proposing a road diet to make room for a bi-directional bike lane that’s separated from the pedestrian path.

Maybe if my ex-husband’s job had taken us to Amsterdam or Copenhagen instead of Paris I’d have discovered cargo bikes and become a pioneer in the family biking movement that was depicted in “Motherload,” the inspiring documentary whose recent screening in Harvard Square I helped to organize. But instead I wound up behind the wheel of a minivan chauffeuring three kids, paying richly for garage parking in Harvard Square when I worked at a real estate office and had to meet clients all over town, and later car-commuting to Brookline, and even driving to Kendall Square because both jobs gave me free parking, and I owned a car, not a bike…. 

I wish I could take back those miles and do more of them differently, whether on a bike or by transit or some combination. I could beat myself up, but I was acting rationally for the choices and incentives I was offered and could afford. Trying to change those choices and incentives for others now and in the future is the part of my work as a councillor that I’ve felt most passionate about, and where I think I’ve been able to make the greatest difference. But it had to start with changing my own habits and even my language, starting with learning to say “crash” not “accident.”

So how did I find my way back onto a bike? In 2014 I bought a bike on Craigslist from a Tufts grad student and started riding in the city, nervously at first. It took me about a year to work up the nerve to ride on Mass Ave. I found inspiration and mentoring from politically-minded members of the bike community who were scouting for candidates to carry the standard. Shout outs to former Councillor Nadeem Mazen and the indomitable Megan Ramey for bringing me into the fold early in my first campaign. Megan and Kyle Ramey introduced me to Steve Miller of LivableStreets Alliance and Carice Reddien, proprietor of Bicycle Belle. I also connected with Steve Bercu and the Boston Cyclists Union. And a big thanks to my friend Doug Brown who had a cargo bike and the brilliant idea to wrap it with my campaign logo, which if you look closely features both a bike and a tree. “Biking in Orange” quickly became my political identity, even if the Twitter handle had already been claimed by another early coach and supporter, Colin Durrant.

They and others — including some of you here tonight — helped me get elected four years ago, knocking off an incumbent, who in early 2015 had  helped to kill the Complete Streets plan for the reconstruction of Pearl Street, which would have provided a dedicated bike-bus lane on one side during the day, eliminating parking on that side between 8am-6pm. I would note that another Pearl Street opponent remains on the Council, and is running for election, and still undermines our advocacy, though somewhat less vocally now. 

This spring — four years after that bitter battle over the loss of daytime “car storage” on one side of Pearl St — the Council passed the Cycling Safety Ordinance that requires protected bike lanes be provided when streets designated for protection in the city’s Bike Vision are fully reconstructed. A separated facility on Pearl Street was in the original version of the Bike Plan. If Pearl Street were being reconstructed today it would be a much safer street. Another lost opportunity was Huron Avenue, which was reconstructed during the West Cambridge sewer separation project; at the time, there simply wasn’t enough grassroots advocacy to effectively push for more protection than a painted buffer during the design process.

My entry into local politics came as the number of fatal crashes spiked. There hadn’t been a fatal bike crash in Cambridge since 2011, and there were no fatalities of either pedestrians and cyclists (“vulnerable road users”) in 2013 and 2014.

But in March 2015, as the Pearl Street battle raged and I launched my first campaign, a beloved activist and musician Marcia Diehl was killed riding her distinctive bike with its streamers. A dump truck hit her on Putnam Ave near the Whole Foods.

Then in August 2015, Cambridge resident Dr. Anita Kurmann was right-hooked and crushed by a 48-foot truck at the intersection of Mass Ave and Beacon Street in Back Bay. The police report noted the truck’s blind spots, but blamed Anita for having remained to its right, riding in the bus lane. In turn, MassBike blamed the truck driver for failing to stop as required by law before beginning to turn, since he had passed and should have seen Anita before reaching the intersection. No charges were filed. 

In response to these tragedies I co-authored an editorial in early September 2015 with Councillors Mazen and Dennis Carlone, calling for the City to adopt Vision Zero. The City Council officially did that in March 2016, and our Vision Zero Action Plan followed in February 2018. This month (on October 15th at 3:30pm) I am chairing a Transportation Committee hearing to discuss the 2018 Vision Zero progress report and to look ahead.

2016, my first year as a councillor, was a turning point, a year when the urgency of taking action became impossible to ignore. First, we lost two pedestrians in February (one in Porter Square and one near Inman Sq), and then we lost Amanda Phillips in Inman Square in late June. Amanda and Her bike were pulled under the wheels of a large commercial truck without side guards. The DA’s report on the crash that took 27-year-old Amanda’s life, which was not issued until early this year, pronounced it “unavoidable.” 

Just the night before Amanda died I had attended a community meeting about the redesign of Inman Square. I can’t tell you how shaken I was when the news of the crash came the next day. My three children are Amanda’s contemporaries in age and as a mother, my heart broke. Later I learned she had lived a block away from me, though we’d never met. Everyone knew Inman Square was dangerous, but we didn’t act fast enough. The following Monday I brought in a policy order to “fast-track” the redesign, to form a Vision Zero Advisory Committee, and to place a memorial sign for Amanda in Inman Square after its reconstruction.

The exhaustive — and exhausting — community process to get to a final design for Inman Square lasted until early 2018, and outrage over the removal of four mature trees in Vellucci Plaza brought a still-pending appeal about whether the city had followed its own rules for the approval of changes to open space. Still, no one could say we rushed this design process, or even that everyone was happy with the final product. All stakeholders had to make compromises. The Inman Square intersection is finally under construction, but at this rate it could be about five years after Amanda’s death before it’s finished. Her memorial sign has been designed, however, and its inscription is apt: “If you meet resistance, take comfort — it’s a great way to build muscle.” 

The horrors of 2016 weren’t over yet (and I’m not referring to the presidential election that fall). On October 5, 2016, a huge tractor trailer delivering eggs to the Porter Square Star Market crushed Joe Lavins as he tried to travel east from Mass Ave onto Somerville Avenue, a route that herds of cyclists follow every morning on their way to work. The DA’s report stated that the truck driver could not have seen Joe on his bike due to the blind spots — not only are our roads designed with a bias toward cars, but truck design reflects the same deadly bias. No charges were filed against the truck driver in Joe’s crash. I will join many in this group to remember Joe this Friday morning by riding from Porter to Kendall. As we ride through Inman Square we will continue onto Hampshire Street, which must be prioritized for protection as soon as the Inman Project is complete. I pray it is soon enough to prevent another tragedy.

Two heartbreaking ghost bike ceremonies in the space of four months led to an unprecedented number of bike-safety related policy orders — eight — on a single city council agenda in October 2016. The weight of the responsibility I felt as someone newly “in power” was great. In the aftermath I wrote a blog post entitled “A Crash Waiting to Happen Did” that feels as true to me today as it did three years ago. Here’s part of what I wrote:

“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.”

One positive development to come out of a crisis year was the formation of Cambridge Bicycle Safety in 2016. This grassroots group mobilized around the Inman Square design process. CBS gained momentum in 2017 with neighborhood canvassing and then helping to counter the bikelash around the quick-build protected lanes on Cambridge Street and Brattle Street and on a section of Mass Ave coming into Harvard Sq. Looking back, it seems like a tempest in a teapot — the world didn’t end because we removed a few parking spaces and added some flex posts and applied some “ugly” green paint in a historic district.

In May 2017 I attended the PeopleforBikes conference in Madison, Wisconsin, and came back more committed than ever to building a multi-modal future for Cambridge and myself. I wrote an op-ed that advocated for creating a network of protected bike lanes to produce the “Big Jump” in ridership that we still need to tip the balance. Critical mass isn’t a new concept in this room, but the general public is still a long way from being convinced that “if we build it, they will come.” With me on that trip were Nadeem Mazen and Dennis Carlone as well as members of the city staff and our bike committee and CBS’s Nate Filmore, Elena Saporta and Amy Flax. I also visited Copenhagen for the first time with my family in June 2017 and saw what’s possible when street design prioritizes biking, walking and transit.

Thanks to CBS, bike advocates held greater sway in the 2017 municipal election, and the dynamic in City Hall has shifted in our favor since. 

We made it through 2017 and most of 2018 without any bike fatalities in Cambridge, but in late 2018 and early 2019 we lost two people on bikes in crashes with commercial trucks. Meng Jin died on Cambridge’s border near the Museum of Science, on a state road where planned improvements for cyclists had been delayed. And Cambridge resident and activist Paula Sharaga died in the Fenway area early this year. I attended both ghost bike ceremonies. After Meng Jin’s death I co-authored an editorial in the Globe with Michelle Wu and Becca Wolfson, where we called for “an end to the immoral pattern of waiting for tragedy to push us to action.” And yet inaction seems to be another thing that’s “unavoidable.”

We also lost three pedestrians in 2018. In our focus on protecting people on bikes we must not ignore the dangers motor vehicles pose to pedestrians, and while assuredly vehicles post by far the greatest danger, I ask everyone here to commit to yielding to pedestrians and being extra-courteous when passing them on paths. They are our natural allies, but too often they see people on bikes as greater threats than vehicles and we cannot give them reasons to. Just last month a Cambridge woman died in Harvard Sq, another victim of a very large truck without side guards whose driver said he never saw her crossing. Blind spots again. And bias, an explicit connection I made in remarks to a CBS Safe Streets rally in late 2018:

“As people advocating for the rights of those road users who have chosen not to operate in the dominant mode — motor vehicles — we understand how bias works — it starts with calling cycling an ‘alternative’ form of transportation and then justifying street designs and enforcement policies that make us more ‘vulnerable’ than we already are on 2 (or 3) wheels. It is perpetuated through a drivers’ ed curriculum that still doesn’t do enough to educate new drivers about sharing the road. And it’s ingrained through a societal mindset that preferences investing in highways over public transit. Bias pervades our culture, and changing attitudes will take patience and persistence — and more public discussions.”

I have asked for a safety review of the design of the plaza around the Harvard Sq T station and the kiosk, which is due to be fully reconstructed next year. We are still waiting for the city staff to share their long-promised Truck Safety Ordinance to require side guards and other safety features on more of the commercial trucks working on jobs in the city. And progress at the state legislature is slow, too. The truck safety bill is still in committee, and the hands-free law is held up over legitimate concerns about racial profiling in traffic enforcement.

I would say that enforcement remains our greatest challenge and opportunity, and not only from an equity standpoint. We need camera enforcement, especially at the intersections of DCR-controlled roads where the state police are unable to conduct regular enforcement, and more boots on the ground at intersections where there are high rates of illegal left turns and failures to stop. I also think we need a police commissioner who bikes regularly. And is it too much to hope that our next city manager will be someone who knows what it feels like to be riding a bike in the door zone on Mass Ave when an Uber or a delivery truck blocks the bike lane, or a car passes too close or turns across your path? For me, the experience of making biking my default mode has been absolutely fundamental to shaping my policy perspective. 

We also need to overcome the bias in the way police crash reports are designed so that we can systematically collect data on crashes with injuries regardless of whether an ambulance is called. Regular riders know where the hot spots are, but policy makers and the police need reliable data on less serious crashes and near-misses to help prioritize street redesigns and enforcement.

I’m frustrated that it’s been about a year since we decided to reduce the citywide speed limit to 20mph on most residential streets, and we still don’t have the new signs posted so that we can enforce lower speeds. Speeding cut-through traffic is one of the top complaints I hear from constituents, followed by complaints about cyclists who don’t stop at crosswalks or use lights at night. Drivers don’t need new reasons to resent having to share the road more equitably, and we all share the responsibility for setting the bar high in expectations for riding with caution, common sense, and courtesy.

Our Participatory Budgeting program has highlighted a lot of public support for projects to improve the safety of our streets. Protected bike lanes installed in 2017 were the result of votes in Participatory Budgeting in 2015.  Residents consistently vote these proposals into funding, but the time it takes to implement the winning projects can be too slow — a flashing beacon for the crosswalk on Putnam Ave near where Marcia Diehl died was voted on in 2017 but still hasn’t been installed, though the contract has been bid out and awarded.

One the bright side, the long-dreamed of Cambridge-Watertown Greenway is under construction, and the next segment of the former rail line that goes behind Fresh Pond Mall and New Street to Danehy Park just got awarded $350,000 in Community Preservation Act funds for design. And the Grand Junction Path could see its next major segment completed in two or three years, pending the Alexandria Met Pipe site re-zoning that comes up for a vote soon.

And last week the Council was unified in sending the transportation staff back to rethink their initial go-slow approach to adding protected bike lanes on Mass Ave through Central Square between Putnam Avenue and Sidney Street. Cambridge Bicycle Safety and the newly formed Central Square BID came together in support of fast-tracking this work, and the Council was united in our support for a faster timeline — it is unprecedented that the debate was about how fast we could do this, and not about whether it should be done. River Street’s reconstruction is already in design and is expected to have a separated bike lane.

Thinking back to the Pearl Street battle, we’ve come a long way over the past five years. And while I’ve played a role, it is your voices, your expertise and your commitment that have made this progress possible. We’ve met resistance, for sure, but we have built a lot of political muscle. I hope the results of the upcoming municipal elections in both Cambridge and Somerville will show the power of our critical mass at the polls and that our Vision Zero goals will become less aspirational and more of a reality.

Coda: My daughter who is almost 29 recently bought an e-bike to commute to business school in Berkeley from Oakland. The first thing I did when I heard she was going to be biking daily was to make a donation to Bike East Bay to make her a member. I hope their advocacy will help keep her safe. She no longer has a car and when the lease is up on my EV at the end of this year I’m seriously considering going car-free, too.

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Jan Devereux
City Councillor
Cambridge, MA