Opinion guest column

Fighting for safer biking and better transit in Cambridge

A new plan aims to increase biking safety and reduce traffic on Mass Ave

This fall, welcome changes will be coming to MIT as the City of Cambridge plans improvements to the South Massachusetts Ave corridor from Sidney Street to Memorial Drive. In its current state, while navigating this section of Mass Ave, one needs to contend with narrow or non-existent bike lanes, double-parked cars, and distracted drivers speeding inches from your handlebars. The view from the bus is not much better. The 1 and CT1 buses, the most highly trafficked routes in Cambridge, are usually stuck behind a seemingly interminable row of cars during rush hour, reliably taking way too long to make what should be a short trip to Boston or Harvard Square. This project will be a huge improvement to one of the main thoroughfares on campus and will be a proving ground for similar steps to improve transportation around Cambridge.

The planned changes include protected bike lanes that will separate bikes from fast-moving traffic using vertical “flex posts” as seen on parts of Brattle Street, in Central Square, and other parts of Cambridge. The second prominent feature is a bus-only lane that will replace one of the two current vehicular lanes in some sections. This will allow buses to bypass traffic and more efficiently move a greater number of people through the corridor. Additionally, a new crosswalk with flashing signals in front of Flour will improve walkability and pedestrian safety. The city is holding an open house to discuss these designs with anyone who is interested this Thursday, Sept. 27 at 6 p.m. in 32–155.

This corridor is one of the most dangerous in the city for people biking — in fact, an MIT student was killed at the intersection of Vassar Street and Mass Ave in 2011. Crash heat maps show high incidence rates even after accounting for the large volume of bikers. Pedestrians face similar dangers given the long crossing distance and impatient speeding and swerving of drivers and cyclists. Just beyond the project boundary in Central Square, a man earlier this year was hit by a car and killed walking in a crosswalk at night, and another cyclist was recently struck by a opening car door in a hit and run crash.

For buses, the Mass Ave section around MIT has also been identified as one of the worst in the entire MBTA service territory, receiving a “failing” grade based on reliability and excess time sitting in traffic. Encouraging people to get out of their single occupancy vehicles and onto more sustainable transportation has been a city priority for over two decades, but late, infrequent, and slow bus service is a major barrier to attracting more riders. Those who cannot afford to own a car or take taxis are stuck with few alternatives. The bus priority lanes address this issue and make the sustainable and efficient option more attractive.

South Mass Ave is a short half-mile stretch in a much larger 20-mile citywide protected network that Cambridge designed as part of the 2015 Bike Plan. Connectivity is perhaps the most important feature of a bike network for occasional or aspiring bikers wary of dangerous conditions. As soon as protected lanes end, bikes are thrust uncomfortably into or next to traffic. Experiences in other cities from New York to Seville demonstrate that benefits in terms of usage are really only achieved when people can travel safely the entire length.

Unfortunately, the city’s efforts to build the network have slowed in recent years. The half-mile section addressed in this project is the only addition the city has planned for 2018. This delay is the result of efforts by a small group of angry abutters who show up to city meetings on individual streets that are key pieces of the network and fight the development of protected bike lanes. But the slow development is also due to the lack of a clear implementation plan and process for the city to include the bike plan in its projects.

A local petition effort, spearheaded by volunteers at Cambridge Bicycle Safety, is underway to ask the city for a five-year commitment to build the network, to complete a preliminary design street-by-street for the entire network by next year, and to incorporate the bike plan in all street reconstructions. This timeline is more than possible, based on experiences in other cities, but is nonetheless more than many city officials appear to be willing to do at present.

This project will go a long way towards making this section of Mass Ave safer and more efficient for MIT and the greater Cambridge community. It will also hopefully be the first step of many in building the sustainable and usable transportation network our city needs. If you have an opinion on the future of this project and on transportation in general, please make your voice heard at the public meeting on Sept. 27 (6–8 p.m. in 32–155). Cambridge should set an example for other cities by prioritizing public transportation, walking, and biking, and voices from the MIT community will be important in adding to the growing chorus in support of more action for safe streets.

Michael Davidson is a recent graduate of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, and is representing Cambridge Bicycle Safety on the project advisory board.

Dustin Weigl is a masters student representing MIT students on the project advisory board and is chair of the GSC transportation subcommittee.