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The Beacon Street Cycle Track: False Promises of Cycling Safety and a Burden on the Neighborhood

by in Beacon Street, Bicycles, Pedestrians, Politics, Public Health & Safety, Traffic & Parking, Transportation Projects, Uncategorized, Ward 2
Posted on February 24, 2013 at 8:07 pm

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Another public meeting for Beacon Street Reconstruction meeting is coming on up on Tuesday, March 5th at 6:00pm in the Argenziano School cafetorium (290 Washington Street). I strongly urge all with an interest in the following issues to attend:

I have been following Somerville’s Beacon Street Reconstruction project closely since October of 2012 since I travel down this road daily by bike, foot, and car. The Somerville Bike Committee had previously lobbied to get the street repaved, but of course, they were told to wait for this state and federally funded project because the city didn’t have the money to do it on their own. And I’ll admit, when I originally heard whispers and rumors about a cycle track plan on Beacon over a year ago I was pretty excited and thought it might be a good idea. But once I became more familiar with what the city actually had in store, my excitement quickly turned to frustration and disappointment  Here’s why…

A Neighborhood Left in the Dark

I didn’t know about anything about the Beacon Reconstruction until the business owners around the corner from my house told me what was going on. Even though they knew, only a handful of the merchants on Beacon Street  received any notice about a public Beacon Reconstruction meetings back in September and October 2012. Most of the residents – even those on the city’s resistat list, were not notified about these meetings. Not even a nice little flyer in the mail – nothing. Unfortunately it’s easy to forget that many seniors in our community aren’t very Internet-savvy, and the ones I’ve talked to would’ve deeply appreciated being directly notified by mail or phone.  We have a great “robo-call” system in place that tells us about snow emergencies, fire hydrant flushings, public works issues – why was this not utilized for these meetings?  Why did our Alderman not make use of her own list to let us know about these meetings?

Residents and business owners have every right to be upset about this lack of notice for such a drastic change for the neighborhood. The city’s design will present a myriad of issues not only for businesses and property owners, but pedestrians and cyclists as well. Several participants at the last public meeting noticed the relocation of a key crosswalk and the lack of new ones at key cross points which are sorely needed to make the street more walkable. Users of the 83 bus should know that the cycle track sections from Park to Washington St will force the relocation or possible removal of stops in that area. A silver lining? There will be new sidewalk installed from Museum St to Park St. on the side where there currently is none – in exchange for getting rid of those parking meters that hardly anyone ever uses except for those attending events at the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

However not all of the parking removal being proposed will have minimal impact on the neighborhood. The parking study conducted by the city’s contracted designers was so heinously flawed to the point of total invalidity.  Note that that the initial parking study proposed removing parking from the even side of the street, this has since changed in the most current iteration of the design which flip flops the parking removal to the odd side of the street.   From Oxford to Museum street, there are 160 residential and commercial units and currently only 125 on-street parking spaces, the city’s current design will leave this section with a mere 50 spaces left on the even side, possibly less, in order to accommodate the cycle track and provide adequate sight lines. Additionally handicap parking spaces will have to be removed or relocated.

Beacon is situated between the Cambridge border and the MBTA rail tracks on top of having a lack of non-private way side streets – several units do not have off-street parking. Even those buildings which do have off-street parking, may not have enough to accommodate all residents and some tenants are not legally allowed to park in driveways adjacent to their buildings per building leasing agreements. And of course, we have that generous policy of allowing residents to purchase 2 visitor parking permits per household; something that a significant number of residents take advantage of, even if they don’t own cars themselves.

Why the City’s Design Isn’t Actually That Great for Cyclists

After listening to several concerns over the parking loss from business owners and other residents, I wanted to make sure that cyclists were really getting what was promised with the track. After all – if the neighborhood is going to take the hit for this with the removal of parking, it should be something that truly delivers when it comes to making the street safer for cyclists.  So I dug into the track design – but instead of being satisfied with a state-of-the-art cycle track that would help improve cycling conditions from Porter to Inman, I had tons of questions for the impending obstacle course that is to be built.  Why was there going to be parking on both sides and regular bike lanes from Washington St to the City Line while the Northern section of Beacon has 2 small bits of cycle track with a bike lane section in the middle? Why was there a mountable curb on one side that vehicles could just drive up on when this was supposed to keep those fearful, new cyclists away from cars? Why was one side the same level as the side walk while the other side of the track was between street and sidewalk level? The more I found out the answers to these questions the more I realized that even with the severe parking elimination in the North, getting a proper cycle track on Beacon was becoming a pipe dream.

So I took a closer look at the proposed design for these two small sections of cycle track. The purpose of these cycle tracks is to make cycling more appealing people who are too timid or inexperienced to bike on the roadway by separating them from cars and “the door zone.” While I generally support efforts to get more people in my city to bike, I can not support a type of poorly designed infrastructure that can put them at a larger risk of injury or death. It seems like this design being proposed values the perception of safety over the actual safety of cyclists and could create more safety hazards than it mitigates:

Increased Likelihood of “Hooking” Motor Vehicle/Bicycle Collisions

The cycle track sections will make it extremely difficult for turning motorists to see cyclists who are traveling on the south side when there are parked cars blocking them from view. Since Beacon is lined by a number of cross streets and driveways, the risk of “hooking” style motor vehicle/bicycle accidents is higher compared to a street with few cross streets and driveways (such as the Vassar St. cycle track at MIT in Cambridge). The cycle track study on Copenhagen, which the city cites in the design exception report, shows a dramatic increase of these style collisions after cycle tracks are implemented. For a cyclist to safely travel behind parked cars on a cycle track, they must bike along at an excruciatingly slow speed in order to be able to stop themselves from being “hooked” from turning vehicles that can not see them. Believe it or not – those bike lane and sharrows on Beacon today provide much better overall visibility between cyclists and motorists when it comes to turning movements. As a cyclist who also drives, I make a conscious effort to always check over my right shoulder to make sure there’s no cyclist in my blind spot before committing a turn. With parked cars blocking oncoming cyclists from view, making any turn into a cross street  or drive way will become a dangerous game of russian roulette.

Lack of Safe Roadway Accommodations for Cyclists

The mountable curb section of 6’ cycle track on the odd side of the street will create major hazards for cyclists of all levels as delivery vehicles will regularly have to mount the track in order to not block traffic.  This will force cyclists to descend into the roadway and into the travel lane with motor vehicle traffic. Inexperienced cyclists descending into the roadway on a frequent basis will put their lives at risk if they do not signal and look for motor vehicles traveling behind or beside them. For motorists, many motor vehicle drivers will not be anticipating this type of movement from cyclists if they carry the belief that cyclists will only ride in the cycle track along these sections of the street.

Should the track be built, several cyclists will have to continue using the roadway (it is within our legal right to do so) – especially if they do not view the sections of cycle track as safe or if the cycle track is blocked with pedestrians, trash cans, snow, or unloading vehicles. The physical narrowing of the roadway in the proposed design will provide a severely reduced level of service to cyclists using the road since shoulder width for the travel lanes will be virtually nonexistent.

The extremely narrow shoulder also poses a serious risk to parked motorists and their passengers exiting on the drivers side since the road is a high volume arterial. The city and its designers have not accounted for this. Cyclists using the roadway in a legal fashion could also be subjected to harassment from frustrated motor vehicle drivers who can not safely pass them.

Increased Potential for Cyclist/Pedestrian Collisions

Most alarming to me is the lack of attention to the possibility of dramatically lowering pedestrian safety from both the city, its designer, and cycling advocacy groups. The famous Copenhagen cycle track study the city cites even points out that Cycling/Pedestrian collisions dramatically increase after the installation of their cycle tracks. Additionally, the south (even) side of the road with retained parking and 9’ wide cycletrack is at the same grade as the sidewalk which could exacerbate these pedestrian/cyclist conflicts.

As both a residential and a commercial street, Beacon has several pedestrians of all ages who will need to cross the cycle track sections on a regular basis:

  • residents and business patrons entering, exiting, and unloading motor vehicles
  • pedestrians crossing the street
  • pedestrians navigating around blocked sidewalks
  • joggers/runners passing those who walk
  • trash removal workers
  • city parking enforcement, etc.

Pedestrians would legally be allowed to walk in the cycle tracks if the cycle track has the status of a “separated bikeway” (similar to how both cyclists and pedestrians make use of the Community Path).  Pedestrians should feel safe in sidewalk areas and not be subjected to being anxious about getting hit by cyclists as they go about their regular activity. Cyclists should not have to worry about dodging pedestrians on a piece of infrastructure that’s designed specifically for their use.

No Public Vetting of Design Alternatives

I feel it is important to point out that Somerville’s Board of Aldermen passed a resolution in November requesting the city planners to put forth alternatives to the cycle track for Beacon Street. This was in reaction to a petition of nearly 800 residents, business owners, and business patrons against the parking elimination aspect of the cycle track design.

While there are “alternative designs” which appear in the PDF of the design exception report, these were not presented publicly during public meetings in October, November, or January. It is misleading when the city and their design firm state that the cycle track design is the one that is preferred by the community when no other designs were formally presented for public consideration.

In closing, I would like to state that I believe that the Beacon Street Reconstruction is certainly a project that is worthy of state and federal funding. It is an extremely vital street in the city of Somerville, not only to the people who live and earn a living here, but also to a significant number of commuters in the Commonwealth. However, it would be grossly irresponsible of MassDOT to let it materialize with the cycle track design that is currently being proposed by the city of Somerville. MassDOT even has several reservations about this track actually providing any real safety benefit to cyclists. There are viable alternative designs for reconstructing Beacon Street to improve safety for all users of the road that are far more worthy of our time and consideration, such as a community proposal for buffered, protected bike lanes to run the entire length of the street.

The Beacon Street neighborhood has waited decades for much needed improvements to this street – let’s get it right.


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