City To Look at ‘Near-Term’ Solutions for Bike Lanes on Cambridge Street

The city is soliciting the public’s feedback on “near-term” solutions for adding protected bike lanes to Cambridge Street, which comes with the caveat that these potential short-term changes would be limited by “design constraints.”

City officials will be holding in-person “pop-up” sessions at the intersection of Cambridge and Joy streets on Wednesday, July 6, from 7:45 to 9 a.m.; on Tuesday, July 12, from 3:30 to 6 p.m.;  and on Saturday, July 23, from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., where constituents can view project materials, share their comments, and ask questions.

A protected bike lane on South Charles and Boylston Streets (above) installed using “quick-build” materials including flexible bollards and roadway striping.

Otherwise, constituents can talk with a member of the project team one-on-one during office hours from 3 to 7 p.m. every other Wednesday, including on July 6. Sign up for a 15-minute phone call or a virtual meeting at https://calendly.com/active-transportation/connect-downtown-appointments?month=2022-07.

A city spokesperson wrote in an email: “City officials are still working on a design plan for Connect Downtown.  To ensure a transparent, community-driven process, the City is hosting office hours for constituents to have one-on-one time with project team members. Community members will be able to voice concerns for any portion of the project, including Cambridge Street, and get questions answered.”

Connect Downtown is the city’s plan  to redesign downtown streets to provide better access for pedestrians and bicyclists, including enhancing the pedestrian experience at the Boston Common and the Public Garden.

Besides being a “critical link” in the citywide bicycle network, Cambridge Street is in the top 3 percent of streets citywide for injury-causing crashes involving bicyclists, according to the city, while recent transportation plans, including Go Boston 2030 and North Station Area Mobility Action Plan (NSAMAP), have identified Cambridge Street as a “priority corridor for better bike facilities.”

Meanwhile, Cambridge Street is the location of two major developments—the  Hurley Building redevelopment  and the  MGH Clinical Building — now moving forward. The Mass General project is expected to be built over the course of five to 10 years, and the city is now working with the hospital to ensure that bicycle and pedestrian access can be fully maintained during the course of construction.

The MBTA is also undertaking preliminary analysis for its  Red-Blue Connector, and if this project comes to pass, much of Cambridge Street would need to be rebuilt after the subway tunnel is finished.

“Because of these projects, it does not make sense to make big changes on Cambridge Street now,” states the city’s website on the Cambridge Street design constraints. “It would not be cost-effective. And, we wouldn’t be able to deliver on the near-term improvements you’ve asked us for.”

Instead, the city is now pledging to make short-term improvements without altering the existing curb lines and curb extensions at crosswalks, and without making any changes to the median or to existing trees there.

The project will focus on the section of Cambridge Street under the city’s  jurisdiction between Court Street (Government Center) and West Cedar Street (where the Red Line viaduct passes over Cambridge Street). Changes to Charles Circle can’t be made without close coordination with the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which has jurisdiction of Cambridge Street near West Cedar Street and extending westward from there.

“We meet regularly with DCR, and they are aware of the project,” according to the city. “We plan to continue conversations in 2022. However, we don’t want to delay any changes we can make on the City-owned portion of Cambridge Street while our conversations with DCR move forward.”

The city intends to use “quick-build” materials, like flexible bollards, precast concrete curbing, roadway striping, signage, and changes to signal timing, to allow for designing and building the project on a condensed timeline.

“Cambridge Street has several sections where the curb-to-curb width is very constrained,” according to the city. “In those sections, major construction would be needed to make space for protected bike lanes. While we may have an opportunity in the future to take on major construction, we are also looking for what can be done in the near-term.”

Since the concept has yet to be finalized, its impact on traffic, as well as its effect on outdoor dining and deliveries to area businesses, is currently unknown, according to the city.

While the city has pledged to consider a range of configurations including one-way bike lanes on either side of the street or two-way bike lanes, center-running bike lanes have been deemed unfeasible for Cambridge Street due to the large number of vehicles turning at multiple intersections. Center-running bike lanes would also require “major changes to the median and traffic signals, which “would significantly extend the project timeline,” according to the city.

Moreover, the city has committed to not making any changes to existing sidewalk dimensions or using any of the existing sidewalk spaces for bike lanes at this time.

“In looking at the possibilities for Cambridge Street, the most important dimension we have to consider is the distance from the sidewalk curb to the median curb,” according to the city. “That’s because we’re not planning to move any of the curbs in order to design and build this project quickly. Cambridge Street does not have standard dimensions from block to block. The distance between the sidewalk curb and the median can range from 25 feet to 35 feet.”

Becca Wolfson, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union, expressed concern with the city’s short-term plans for bike lanes on Cambridge Street, especially regarding the perceived “design constraints” of the project.

“Based on our interpretation, it’s pretty disappointing to see the report, even the way, it’s put into words – ‘design constraints,’” said Wolfson. “We had hoped this administration would see past these constraints and be more creative when it comes to them to look at the tradeoffs and make them in the name of safety and sustainable and equitable mobility.”

Wolfson also laments that the city appears to be giving precedence to other uses on Cambridge Street over providing safe accommodations for bicyclists.

“Our interpretation is the city expressed the likelihood they can provide separated bike lanes on the majority of the corridor from City Hall towards MGH,” she added. “Traveling in the other direction, our interpretation is that the city is saying there are too many competing interests, primarily car travel and truck loading zones, and there doesn’t seems to be a willingness to give either one of those up in the name of safety and mobility.”

Before attempting to tackle the installation of bike lanes on Cambridge Street, Wolfson suggests that the city first take a closer look at Charles Street.

“And all along, we knew this would be a challenge if they didn’t remove the median, and we’ve been saying it would be much easier to provide bi-directional bike travel on Charles Street first and take more time to plan for the median removal, which clearly seems to be needed on Cambridge Street,” said Wolfson. “So in the wake of this report coming out, we either think the city should take away more access onto Cambridge Street to provide safe, two-way bike travel or pivot to add safe, two-way bike access to Charles Street before the end of the construction season.”

Moreover, Wolfson said, “Another reason is that the city has invested in and designed a really good network [of bike lanes] downtown with Connect Downtown, and without at least one connection to MGH and the Longfellow Bridge, this network is effectively useless.”

In contrast, Rep. Jay Livingstone applauds the city for moving forward to find short-term solution for bike lanes on Cambridge Street.

“I’m glad the city is moving to improve bike infrastructure, particularly going from downtown to the Longfellow,” he said, “and I’m pleased the city is doing a thorough look at the constraints that exist in our neighborhood streets.”

Added Rep. Livingstone, “I look forward to the city moving as fast as possible to implement a plan on Cambridge Street, where I constantly hear concerns about pedestrian safety, bike safety, and traffic from cars.”

Unlike Wolfson, Rep. Livingstone believes that bike lanes on Cambridge Street should take precedence over bike lanes on Charles Street for the city.

“The city has done more work, engaged the community to a much greater degree, and received more complaints from key stakeholders on Cambridge Street, especially pedestrians and bicyclists,” said Rep. Livingstone, “so I’m glad that the city is focusing on the street about which the city has expressed the most concern.”

Underscoring the urgency of making improvements to Cambridge Street in a timely manner, Rep. Livingstone also pointed to an accident on May 29 in the vicinity of Cambridge and Blossom streets, which resulted in the death of a West End resident at an area hospital several days later.

District 8 City Councilor Kenzie Bok is similarly pleased to see the city taking more immediate steps to address safety issues for bicyclists on Cambridge Street – the one corridor she said she has heard the most concerns about from her constituents.

“I’m excited that they’re not waiting for the big projects on Cambridge Street,” said Councilor Bok, who added that “community outreach is critical” to this project.

Meghan Awe, chair of the Beacon Hill Civic Association board of directors, praised the city for taking this initiative, which she believes will promote more equitable bike access throughout the city.

“The BHCA is as usual very interested in the process,” Awe wrote in an email. “We are confident the city is approaching the matter with a thoughtful lens, considering the unique aspects of the neighborhood and streets, just as it does with the other neighborhoods in the city.”

 Awe added, “While the constraints of the report make sense, the city’s own crash data (available at https://apps.boston.gov/vision-zero/) clearly indicates that the safety of Cambridge Street is an issue, especially when the crash data is observed. The BHCA is confident in the city’s thoughtful prioritization of safety matters, and that the data will drive their results, especially given the effort at collecting and relaying accurate information. I also applaud the city on their focus and efforts of equitable cycling solutions citywide.”

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