By Eve Zuckoff
BU News Service
Cambridge resident Eric Connally was riding his bike down Beacon Street in Somerville on March 3, 2016, when he was suddenly thrown to the ground and everything went black.
He woke up in Massachusetts General Hospital with no idea what had happened. It was only by reading the accident report that Connally learned a pedestrian most likely walked into his path.
Somerville had just built a new protected bike lane on a raised path between parked cars and the sidewalk. It was intended to protect bikers from the perils of the road.
Connally’s experience goes to the heart of the controversy over Cambridge’s promise to build new bike lanes in the city.
Cambridge is struggling to serve its growing cyclist population by promoting safety for all, while at the same time supporting small businesses owners, some of whom say the new bike lanes are bad for business and won’t protect people, anyway.
In the summer of 2017, Cambridge installed 0.8 miles of protected bike lanes on Cambridge Street, and more were added to Brattle Street. Cambridge has a total of four miles of bike lanes along Vassar Street, Western Avenue, and Massachusetts Avenue.
The Cambridge Bicycle Plan, released in October 2015, calls for adding 20 miles of bike lanes to Cambridge’s 200 miles of city streets.
At a Sept. 25, 2017, City Council meeting, both councilors and residents expressed dissatisfaction over the newly installed bike lanes and their usefulness.
“I’m walking proof that bike lanes don’t stop you from breaking a bone in your spine,” Connally said in a telephone interview.
Connally broke a bone in his shoulder, two bones in his face, and he burst the T5 vertebra in his spine. A severe concussion from the accident has kept him from driving for the last seven months.
While Cambridge residents remain deeply divided about the effect bike lanes have on the community, Cambridge police and city officials have been tracking the data for years.
According to the Cambridge Bicycle Plan, seven percent of the city’s residents bike to work. Bicycle use increased three-fold between 2002 and 2012, and that number continues to rise.
In that time, approximately 160 crashes per year have involved cyclists, and 28 percent of those resulted in a cyclist needing emergency transport to a hospital.
No data has been released since the new bike lanes were installed, but Lt. Rick Riley, who has worked with the Cambridge Police Department for 26 years, and has spent the last five in the traffic division, said he and other officers have been asking for feedback from the public.
“We’re feeling from the cycling community that they feel much safer,” Riley said in a phone interview. “When you separate bikes from motor vehicle traffic it absolutely has to have a positive impact on safety.”
Riley explained that if a car strikes a pedestrian at 40 mph, the pedestrian only has a one-in-ten chance of survival. Separating the modes of transportation can be the difference between life and death.
But not everyone believes bike lanes are the answer.
At the Sept. 25 Cambridge City Council meeting, Irving Allen, a small business owner and lifetime Cambridge resident, explained his frustration to City Council members.
“This city was driven and built on small businesses. And what we’re doing to these poor businesses, at this point, is really destroying them,” he said.
Allen told the council that small businesses are losing valuable parking to the bike lanes. The bike lanes also run through loading zones, which endanger both bikers and delivery truck drivers, he said.
But many Cambridge residents fervently disagree with Allen. Community organizations like Cambridge Bicycle Safety helped drum up support for the new bike lanes.
“We’re just Cambridge residents who feel unsafe on the roads and want the city to make things safer for us and for other people,” said Nate Fillmore, one of the group’s founders.
Fillmore said members of his group sent city councilors more than 300 letters supporting the new lanes between July and September 2017.
After a passionate public comments session where Fillmore, Allen and other Cambridge residents voiced competing opinions over the bike lanes, city councilors and Mayor Denise E. Simmons acknowledged the city’s role in satisfying all stakeholders.
“We have an obligation to everyone, whether they are in ground floor retail, a pedestrian, a motorist or a cyclist. We have a responsibility to fix what we have done,” she said.
Now, she and the rest of the city councilors are calling for more data, more communication with city residents, and compromise.
“We’re going to get to the unhappy medium,” Simmons said.
While city officials continue to work toward a resolution, Eric Connally has come to his own conclusion, while recovering from his injuries.
“The problem is people being unable to share and be patient with each other,” he said. “Cars have to get around, bikes have to get around. They’re not going anywhere.”
Correction: an earlier version of this story mistakenly put the number of residents cycling to work at one-third. That number has been changed to seven percent.