BU News Service
An ongoing controversy over protected bike lanes in Cambridge has left some residents celebrating the new infrastructure and others questioning their impact.
After two Cambridge cyclists died in separate crashes in 2016, the city expedited installation of protected bike paths. So far this year, the city has added 1.1 miles of protected bike lanes. Out of 200 miles of city streets, there are 4.2 miles of separated bike lanes, according to Patrick Baxter, engineering manager with Cambridge Traffic, Parking, and Transportation Department. There are a total of 25.8 miles of bike lanes citywide, including separated, and 16 more miles of bike paths will be added within 15 years if the city follows the Cambridge Bicycle Plan, published in October 2015.
“Note that all of these numbers represent road miles with bike lanes, so if there are bike lanes in each direction on a one-mile segment of road – that counts as one mile. Other cities may count that as two lane miles,” said Baxter.
Three goals of the plan are to shift toward making biking a sustainable way to travel, create a system that is safe for all ages and abilities and adopt innovative bicycle infrastructure.
Since the city’s most recent bike path additions, many residents have expressed support and opposition, respectively, in letters published in the Chronicle. While one side praised the city for prioritizing the safety of bikers, the other expressed dismay over the dangers the bike lanes pose to drivers, pedestrians and emergency vehicles.
Anne Lusk, a researcher at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has been working on bicycle facilities for 36 years and strongly supports the city’s efforts to install protected bike lanes.
In a recent study, Lusk found that cyclists in Montreal, Canada who traveled in bicycle-exclusive paths had a 28 percent lower injury rate than those who biked in the road.
“The bicyclists now who are having to share the road with the cars can’t predict what a car will do,” she said. “It’s better if we can separate the bicyclists from the car drivers and give them their own separate lane.”
If the bicyclists have to share the road with vehicles, Lusk said, there is little incentive to travel by bike.
However, Robert Skenderian, owner of Skenderian Apothecary on Cambridge Street, where some of the new lanes have been installed, said the city must consider the needs of people who rely on wheelchairs and crutches.
One of his most loyal customers has been particularly affected by the new bike lanes.
″[He’s] paralyzed from the waist down. He has a car…. He’s proud to be able to run errands for himself. He can’t come here anymore,” Skenderian said.
For three decades the man has parked on Cambridge Street near the shop, exited on the passenger side, put his wheelchair out by the curb and pulled himself onto it.
“Now if he does that, he’s putting his chair into the bike lane. Because he’s a spinal injured person he can’t do that in a matter of seconds. If cyclists are going by, and they aren’t courteous, it creates conflicts,” Skenderian said.
In recent months the man has relied on others to run errands for him.
“These bike lanes have robbed him of his independence,” Skenderian said.
Lusk empathized with Skenderian and his customers.
“We understand the issues of … the individuals in wheelchairs … and we only ask for patience,” she said. “We’ve really only had the cycle tracks since 2010, and therefore it’s taking us a while to improve the facilities.”
Other city residents have been weighing the pros and cons of the newly installed bike lanes, as well.
Mae Tal, a Harvard University student studying city planning, said she hopes the city will address accessibility issues moving forward.
“I think wheelchair and other handicap accessibility is really important in a city,” she said. “And I think those issues definitely need to be addressed by authorities.”
Pat Singleton, a cyclist and teacher at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, said he has mixed feelings.
“I feel safer with the new bike lanes, but I’ve seen a lot of cars impinging on them,” he said. “Someone blocking a bike lane or opening a car door into it is worse than having no bike lane at all.”
Harvard University student Youssouf Camara expressed similar feelings.
“I’ve seen a couple places where turns have been kind of treacherous, and operating between lanes and cars can be kind of tight, but I think generally it’s positive,” he said.
Despite some of the complaints, the city plans to follow the Cambridge Bicycle Plan. Ultimately, some residents said, the city just needs to start somewhere.
The Cambridge Bicycle Committee will host its next meeting open to the public on Nov. 8.
This article was originally published in the Cambridge Chronicle as part of a pilot program between the paper and BU News Service.