Cambridge does it wrong

Ahhh, Cantabrigia, a fantastical land full of graduate students, biotech companies, public pedants, and bikes, bikes, bikes! I recently visited the city which is distinguished by classical learning and new institutions to dine in one of its fine establishments, specifically, Rendezvous. It was the best restaurant I’ve ever been to that used to be a Burger King.

But, as usual, I digress. And I’m about to digress some more into a reverie of memory because on this most recent trip, I realized that Cambridge was the first city I’d ever been to that had actual lanes in the road designated for use by bicycles. Picture the year 1999: Dot-com bubbles were frothing away, and Prince was on the radio everywhere you went. For the Fourth of July, I was visiting a friend who lived in Somerville (Cambridge’s slightly shabbier neighbor). We rode our bikes from the Davis Square area down to the Charles River, not far from MIT, in order to watch the fireworks. After the show, we hopped back on our bikes and made our way through the crowd. I’ll have to admit that it was a lot of fun, weaving through the pedestrians on Memorial Drive as a few cyclists would form a mini-peloton, only to scatter around a clot of slow walking families. I’ll also have to admit that we probably looked like a-holes to the people just trying to walk back to their cars. I wasn’t biking particularly fast, but probably fast enough to scare a few people in the dark. What can I say, I was a young man of 25. I’ve learned better since then.

The car traffic near the fireworks was at a standstill, so it was great to be on a bike and completely avoid all of that. Eventually, we made our way up to Mass Ave and headed back to Davis Square. There was some traffic on Mass Ave, but certainly less than at rush hour. As we made our way between Harvard and Porter Squares, I noticed that we kept passing the same cars as they waited at lights. These cars would then pass us between lights and we’d catch up to them again at the next intersection. If I remember correctly, there were bike lanes on Mass Ave at the time (I think they have been replaced with sharrows since then). Back and forth we went with the cars for about a mile.

This was a real “lightbulb” moment for me, seeing that a bike could be just as fast as a car in an urban environment. Coincidentally, I was reading The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler which spends a lot of time on how placing the automobile at the center of city planning has helped to ruin American cities (etc.) There’s a fair amount of BS in that book (and the author is a real jerk, evidently), but it was eye-opening to someone who grew up in a car-centric suburb and had trouble imagining a different world. Staying in Somerville while reading a book about New Urbanism was certainly the best place to do it since Somerville is a great example of “Old Urbanism,” in that it is densely populated with neighborhoods where people can walk to places of business and transit. I’ll have to say that I was inspired. After my visit to Somerville, I returned to Troy, NY and was determined to ride my bike more. Then I tried to go up that damn hill.

Anyhoo…. back to today…

As inspiring as Cambridge might have been to me back then, as you may have guessed from the title of this post, I was a little disappointed on my most recent visit. Enough with all these words, let’s go to the pixels!

Here we have a nice looking bike lane, keeping our happy Cantabrigian cyclists safe from all the big, bad cars, right? Well… there’s a little problem which can best be seen if we ENHANCE!

Hmm, I can see two cars with their tires on the line of the bike lane. Even if all of the cars were parked closer to the curb, the placement of this bike lane makes it a “door zone lane.”

That is, if one were to ride anywhere in the orange zone, one risks being hit by someone opening their car door before looking to see if a cyclist is coming. Any cyclist can tell you about being doored or near-doored. (“Winning the door prize” is another popular name for it). So far, I’ve only had near-dooring experiences. (My apologies for the haphazard photo edit. Gary Rides Bikes has a much better illustration of door zone lanes in California.)

So, what’s a cyclist to do? I caught it on camera just to show my reader(s):

Okay, this cyclist is kind of just avoiding the pedestrian, so let’s take a look down the street:

A motorist might be thinking, “there’s a bike lane right there and that cyclist is riding in MY lane!” But really, the cyclist is just avoiding a road hazard. It’s an unsafe bike lane. In fact, a cyclist was killed in 2002 a few yards from this spot when she was doored and then run over by a bus. I know that Cambridge was an early adopter when it came to putting in bike lanes and that’s great, but it may be time to revisit some of them and make them more safe. You can’t really make Mass Ave any wider, so the only thing to do would be to remove parking on one side of the street and re-stripe so that the bike lanes are out of the door zone. This would result in the loss of a few dozen parking spaces, but back when I was driving, I was always able to find a parking spot in Central Square within a 5 minute walk of my destination. I think a little bit of inconvenience for the motorists is a fair trade for the safety of everyone.

That, or you could go with sharrows.

3 responses to “Cambridge does it wrong

  1. Hmm, interesting choice universe. IMO, providing parking at taxpayer expense is expendable. Let the cars find a place to hide at fair market values. It is the “small government way.”

    • In general, I agree, but I doubt that a city could take away that much parking -even in Cambridge- and not face a potential revolution from its citizens. Central Square would be a great place to implement some of Donald Shoup’s ideas on dynamic pricing for parking – the idea being that it should be priced at a level that 15% of the spaces are available at any one time. I think that the pay lots in the area are all owned by the city, but I’m not certain. Either way, the on-street spots are obviously underpriced since they are always full.

  2. Hmm, would toll car and bike lanes or market parking prices bring in more money? It would be interesting to find out.

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