Cambridge’s Cycling Safety Ordinance is a concrete plan to improve bicycle safety through physical infrastructure, and improves the community outreach process by clearly defining the project scope. Passed in 2019, the CSO lays out a plan to install a 25-mile network of protected bicycle lanes across the city by 2026, with yearly milestones and deadlines (note, there are provisions that allow for extensions up to 2028 under certain circumstances, acknowledging that there can be extenuating conditions that may delay installation). As the first-of-its-kind legislation, it was the culmination of many years of public input. The streets specified within the ordinance, such as Hampshire Street (where bikes can account for as much as 80 percent of all traffic turning from Hampshire Street to Broadway) and Massachusetts Avenue, were initially identified in the 2015 Cambridge Bicycle Plan as high-volume, high-stress corridors connecting homes, businesses, schools and other destinations. The 2015 Bicycle Plan was based on two years of online and in-person community input, and an updated plan was published in 2020 that was similarly based on several rounds of online and in-person community input between 2019-2020. The writing and passing of the ordinance also involved many public City Council meetings and was widely discussed in local and regional media.
Although the corridors defined in the CSO were identified as priority corridors in 2015, up until 2020, actual installation of separated bike lanes had been piecemeal or sluggish. Between 2014-2020, only 11.3 miles of separated bike facilities were installed in Cambridge (including grade-separated, one- and two-way separated and bike/multi-use paths, where bikes are separated from general traffic by more than just a line of paint). Within the first three years of the CSO (i.e., as of April 30), Cambridge installed or at least started construction on 9.81 miles of separated bike lanes, nearly as many miles as in the six years before the ordinance. The deadlines and mileage requirements work to ensure a steady rollout of separated bike lanes.
Beyond setting deadlines, the CSO also makes the community outreach process more efficient. Every CSO project has a series of community outreach events before street changes are made, and these meetings are important for understanding local needs. The beauty of the CSO is that everyone goes into these outreach meetings knowing that bike lanes will be installed on the street in question. There is no hemming and hawing about why a bike lane is coming to this street and not moved to that other street, or whether people who ride bikes have demonstrated sufficiently good behavior to “earn” a bike lane for safe travel. Several years of public input have already been dedicated to selecting the streets that need separated bicycle infrastructure, based on traffic volumes, crash rates and importance in accessing major destinations. Thus, city staff can dedicate more time gathering input from the community to come up with the best local implementation. For instance, city staff can find out where accessible parking spaces are needed, or where local businesses need short-term loading space. If maximizing car storage is a major priority, city staff can discuss options such as converting a two-way street into a one-way street, or installing a two-way separated bike lane on one side of the street instead of two, one-way bike lanes on each side.
It is easy for people to say they support bike safety as a general, abstract concept. The real test is seeing what people do when faced with a specific project on a specific street. As we go into the November council elections, it will be important to look at what actions candidates have taken in regard to bike lanes: among incumbents, who has a voting record that shows they support the steady installation, versus who has sought delays. Among new candidates, who has made specific statements about supporting bike lanes – for instance, taking Cambridge Bicycle Safety’s pledge to support implementation – versus who gives only sweeping statements about safety and compromise; or, of even greater concern, who has taking actions to reverse Cambridge’s progress and filed lawsuits against the city to halt installation and remove existing bike lanes.
We are halfway through implementing the CSO, with projects planned for Broadway, Cambridge Street east of Inman Square and Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Porter squares in the next three years. These are all high-volume streets with high crash rates where protected bike lanes are clearly necessary. Let’s keep the momentum going so people can move safely within and through Cambridge.