Our bike lane network: A doctor’s perspective

A photo of the Porter Square intersection. In the foreground is a white ghost/memorial bike. In the background, a cyclist wearing a high visibility fluorescent vest is riding in the bike lane, and up ahead a truck is parked in the bike lane,

By Joel Sawady

A van hit me Nov. 12, 2020, while I was biking in a painted bike lane on Brattle Street with no physical separation from traffic. I was on the way back from accompanying my son to school. I broke five bones and didn’t walk for three months. This could have been prevented by a separated bike lane – lanes that our city has since started building. These lanes are on the line in this November’s election.

As a primary care doctor, I advise my patients to be more active and to get outdoors. I see people of all ages – children and teens who could bike to school; adults who can exercise while they commute; and older people looking for ways to keep moving. The benefits for their physical and mental health are enormous. I’d love to recommend biking to my patients without putting them at risk of injury or worse.

To do that we need infrastructure to support safe bicycling. Cambridge has been a leader, with our Cycling Safety Ordinance instructing the city to install a full network of separated bike lanes by 2026. This moves biking from the realm of the risk-taking few to a safe option for many. It’s a proven model based on cities where people of all ages routinely bike to work, a neighborhood store or a friend’s house.

Our bike lanes are on the ballot Tuesday, when Cambridge elects a new city council. Candidates differ widely in their support for or opposition to finishing our bike lane network. While the network is very popular, some complain that it reduces parking and slows down traffic, potentially hurting our small businesses. Critics also contend that it leaves out people who can’t ride a bike due to age or disability.

But I don’t think this is an either-or trade-off. Many bikes can be parked in the same area as one car. Every additional bike on the road replaces a car – leading to less congestion. Small businesses in Cambridge already see a lot of foot, bike and bus traffic, and this will only grow as our network improves. According to the City’s 2023 Bicycling in Cambridge Data Report, we’ve seen a near-tripling of bike rides in the city since 2000 and a fourfold increase in bicycle miles traveled. As more people bike, walk and use public transit, we will improve driving and parking for those who truly need them.

As a doctor, I can speak directly to the question of who can bike. With a complete network of safe, separated bike lanes, many people who wouldn’t dream of biking on our current roads could safely do so. These are the very people who would benefit most, health-wise, from physical activity. The Cycling Safety Ordinance is a powerful tool for health and equity in our city – a way to make it accessible to more people. When you consider that a third of Cambridge households don’t own cars, the case for equity becomes even clearer.

I’m thrilled to see the tremendous progress we’ve made in reducing crashes and injuries. The Bicycling in Cambridge Data Report shows that crashes have come down as ridership has gone up. Crashes per mile have gone down by a factor of 2.5. And severe injuries have plummeted.  This means I can recommend biking to my patients, and my family, without putting them at risk.

This year I saw a patient named Don (not his real name). Don is 62. He’s looking to be more active to better manage his diabetes and high blood pressure. He hasn’t been able to make time to exercise, but he just restarted his daily commute to Boston. Although he used to bike when he was younger, he’s worried about riding in the streets. “At my age,” Don said, “I can’t afford to get hit.” And he can’t imagine making a left turn across Massachusetts Avenue on his way home.

Completing our bike lane network is a critical public health initiative that will enable people like Don to ride on our streets safely. For each person that bikes it will mean one less car on the road twice a day during rush hour. It will mean less carbon burned, and one more person who can be active every day – because Cambridge has prioritized making this choice available to people of all ages and abilities.