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Flat Tires: How A Divisive Debate Over Cambridge Bike Lanes Left Everyone Unsatisfied

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{shortcode-097912bcb5705790fe60eafaa545d1c65c60540e}rew M. Nelson was a second-soloist dancer with the Boston Ballet. Then, a bike crash changed his life.

Five years ago, Nelson was involved in a car crash while biking, fracturing his fibula and tibia and tearing his ACL. Even after three surgeries, his body never fully recovered — he doesn’t think he will ever return to his professional dance career.

This was the story Nelson shared with the Cambridge City Council on April 29 — one of nearly 300 people who, over the course of more than five hours, gave personal accounts of how bike accidents have impacted their lives and urged against extending the timeline for the city to construct separated bike lanes.

“These kinds of traumatic experiences change our lives forever,” Nelson said.

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The marathon meeting was the latest episode in a contentious battle for the expansion of the city’s bike lane network.

In 2020, the City Council passed an amended Cycling Safety Ordinance, setting the ambitious goal of installing a 25-mile separated bike lane network by May 1, 2026. Last month, in a controversial 5-4 vote, the Council pushed the deadline for the CSO’s completion by 18 months, to November of 2027.

Proponents of greater bike lane expansion, like Nelson, say it is a matter of life or death. An equally committed constituency of residents worry that bike lanes would be detrimental to the city, particularly in impacts on small businesses, senior citizens, and pedestrian safety.

As construction slowly moves forward on bike lanes, the physical separation on a growing number of Cambridge streets has come to represent a bitter division in the city’s politics — and many in the city are at a loss for how it can be bridged.

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‘A Step Backwards’

The April vote came as a disappointing setback for a bicycle safety movement that, since 2019, had experienced wind in its sails.

The CSO, first passed in 2019, required the city to construct separated bike lanes as part of a five-year street reconstruction plan. Though the vote was a win for bike safety advocates — namely the local group Cambridge Bicycle Safety — a more resounding victory came in 2020, when the Council passed a set of amendments setting an ambitious goal for 25 miles of separated bike lanes criss-crossing the city.

Just more than 13 miles of the 25-mile network have been completed to date.

For former Vice Mayor Jan Devereux, who helped pass the initial CSO, the policy was motivated by “a string of really tragic deaths of both cyclists and pedestrians.”

The emphasis on safety came as bike ridership in Cambridge experienced a fourfold increase from 2002 to 2019. Bluebike usage similarly skyrocketed, with 1.8 million trips beginning or ending in Cambridge in 2022.

Though the number of crashes per bicycle miles traveled decreased between 2004 and 2019, there were still 142 bike crashes in 2019, not including Nelson’s who chose not to report his accident to the police.

Vice Mayor Marc C. McGovern, who voted against the extension of the CSO deadline, said the issue was a matter of life or death.

“I don’t know how you can listen to stories of people fearing for their lives and almost losing their lives and not want to try and mitigate that as quickly as possible,” McGovern said.

For Devereux, the safety benefits of bike lanes make the CSO’s delayed deadline a disappointment — particularly for a city which “prides itself on being a leader” on progressive causes.

“This particular Council voted to walk back what I view as really critical safety improvements and a lot of progress that Cambridge has made,” Devereux said. “It’s just really, really frustrating.”

“To me, this is a step backwards,” she added.

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Resisting the ‘Bike Lobby’

Those calling for a delay in the installation of bike lanes bristle at the idea that their advocacy is jeopardizing public safety.

Rather, they say, safety — the safety of pedestrians — is one of many reasons to be wary of the CSO, along with adverse economic effects and the integrity of the political process.

“As somebody that has 13 stitches in my chin from when I took a header on my handlebars, I am not anti-bike,” Mayor E. Denise Simmons said in an April interview. Simmons was one of five councilors to vote for delaying CSO implementation.

“I actually want cycling. I want cycling safety,” Simmons added. “But I also have to balance it with the small business owner or the senior citizen.”

The effort to delay or kill the CSO has been led by Cambridge Streets for All, a nonprofit advocacy group formed in 2022 in response to the first installation of bike lanes in North Cambridge.

That year, after raising more than $75,000, the group — including former CSA Chair Joan F. Pickett, now serving on the Council — filed a lawsuit against the city asking it to remove existing bike lanes and stop ongoing construction. The motion and its appeal were ultimately dismissed by the Middlesex Superior Court.

Victoria L. Bestor, the group’s secretary, said the organization was created for residents and businesses in the area who “felt that their voices were not really heard” as the Council debated the CSO.

Since then, Bestor said, the CSA’s initiatives have been misrepresented by what she calls “the bike lobby.”

“I have never heard of anybody in this city, or anyplace else in fact, say that all bike lanes should be banned. That’s certainly not our position,” Bestor said.

Rather, she said, the group is concerned that the removal of parking for bike lanes could adversely affect small businesses or endanger pedestrians.

Picket said that the passage of the 2020 amendments during the Covid-19 pandemic lacked necessary input from local stakeholders, which led to a bevy of unaddressed concerns.

“I fully believe,” Pickett said, “in the case of the Cycling Safety Ordinance, a lack of opportunity for residents and the business community set up a conversation that was going to be divisive.”

Under sustained pressure from CSA, the city commissioned an economic impact study in 2022 to analyze the effects of bike lanes on small businesses. The results, everyone hoped, could settle the debate on whether the city was sacrificing the health of its small businesses in service of bicycle infrastructure.

The Small Business Conundrum

They did the exact opposite.

The study’s results, released in February, had inconclusive findings: a combination of confounding variables due to Covid-19 and the state’s refusal to send the city tax returns for its businesses, left “unexplained inconsistencies in the data.”

Faced with more questions than answers, three councilors — Pickett, Paul F. Toner, and Ayesha M. Wilson — proposed extending the deadline for the CSO by more than a year, allowing for some breathing room as residents and businesses adjusted to the new reality.

“All we asked for was some additional time to actually meet the needs of the residents of East Cambridge, Main Street and Broadway,” Toner said, referencing issues like diminished parking and difficulties with deliveries as a result of expanded bike lanes.

“Some people think that their companies aren’t gonna be able to survive in this environment,” he added. “If that’s the case, I want them to have the time to be able to make that decision and move if they need to.”

But some experts suggested that the economic impact may be overblown.

Jim Aloisi, a lecturer of transportation policy and planning at MIT, said small businesses’ concerns with bike lanes oftentimes require “myth-busting” as their impacts are “counterintuitive.”

“There’s no data that you can find from anywhere — no credible data from anywhere — that protected cycling lanes, or dedicated bus lanes for that matter, harm local businesses,” Aloisi said.

“The opposite is true. They usually improve foot traffic and improve businesses,” he added.

Bridging the gap in understanding between small businesses and cyclists, Aloisi said, is incumbent on “city leadership.”

“People don’t want to be lectured,” Aloisi said, “what they want is to be engaged collaboratively.”

An ‘Unhappy Medium’

For pro-bike lane activists like Clyve Lawrence ’25 — a Crimson Editorial editor — “by no means is the fight over.”

Moving forward, Lawrence wrote in a statement to The Crimson, “we need radical leadership that not only improves street infrastructure, but bolsters community and connection.”

On the other side of the debate, advocates concerned about small businesses are also worried about leadership, asking that the city listens to input from various stakeholders when legislating over controversial issues.

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Bestor said that as construction moves forward CSA intends to work with the city to “amplify the voices of citizens that are concerned.”

Councilor Patty M. Nolan ’80, who said she supports the CSO’s overall vision, nonetheless acknowledged that the Council had “ruptured trust among many residents due to the speed with which we installed the bike lanes in place now” in remarks at the April 29 meeting, where she cast the decisive vote in favor of delay.

“Those who hate the bike lanes won't be happy. Those who are begrudgingly coming to accept them are the ones I considered as I wrestle with this vote,” Nolan said. “We have a city where we need people to come together and work together.”

Brooke McKenna, the city’s Transportation Commissioner, said the extended timeline would give residents greater engagement with the expansion process.

Still, she emphasized that the department is not experiencing “a change in direction,” and the city intends to complete the network by the new deadline.

The additional 18 months, McKenna said, will allow the development of existing modifications to zoning, permitting residents to utilize off-street parking to “help offset some of the loss of on-street parking,” as well.

Pickett attributed the existing deep divide among residents on the issue of bike lanes as a result of the council’s inadequacy in considering local business owners’ perspectives during initial CSO discussions.

“I'm not 100 percent sure how to close divisions,” Pickett said, “except for making sure that if we do something that is as controversial again, we leave sufficient time to process and for people to really listen and hear both sides.”

But despite the division, Simmons expressed cautious optimism that the city could arrive at what she called an “unhappy medium” in the April interview.

“We’re not all going to be happy but hopefully we’ll be better off,” she said. “You get a little, you give a little.”

Correction: May 24, 2024

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that there were 24 bicycle crashes in 2019 reported to police. In fact, there were 142.

—Staff writer Ayumi Nagatomi can be reached at ayumi.nagatomi@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @ayumi_nagatomi.

—Staff writer Avani B. Rai can be reached at avani.rai@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @avaniiiirai.

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