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A Compromise For the Cambridge Common

By Kenneth A. Katz

It's shaping up to be a battle between the councils, and the prize is the Cambridge Common.

Cambridge's City Council is considering a bill that would impose a $50 fine on bikers who ride through the Common, where many Cambridge parents bring their small children to play and where many senior citizens enjoy the fresh air.

There are already "no-biking" signs around the Common, but there is currently no law on the books to back them up. The bill pending before the council would add teeth to the signs, effectively making the Common off-limits to bikers--including the many Harvard students (and Quad residents in particular) who cycle through the Common to and from the Yard.

In response, the Undergraduate Council sent a letter expressing its opposition to the bill to all nine members of the City Council. The U.C. letter argues that banning bike-riding in the Common would endanger bikers, who would have to face the significant hazards of cycling on Cambridge's congested and often-snowy streets.

Who's right?

Niether--both sides have equal merits. The City Council's plan to protect little kids--certainly a noble goal--would put big ones in danger. And the Undergraduate Council's letter ignores the risk of bike accidents in the Common.

One of the best things about the Common is its playground, a mecca for Cambridge's parents and their toddlers. The Common is also a favorite spot for the local over-70 crowd.

These people are the ones the City Council is rightly trying to protect by making biking through the Common illegal.

While there's no history of bikers running into small children in the Common, there have been, no doubt, many near misses (I myself have seen several). And the possibility of an accident always exists, especially given the high speeds of bikers and the high concentrations of both kids and cyclists in the Common.

In this light, it seems hard to justify opposition to a law that would protect kids--just for the sake of convenience of bikers who don't want to go a halfminute and a quarter-mile out of their way.

But that's not the whole story. One of the worst things about the Common's playground is that it's located right next to the path that cuts through the Common. This path provides the shortest route for Harvard bikers to commute from the Quad to the Yard.

Sure, the Common is more convenient for bikers--but it's also safer.

These legitimate concerns about safety are the cornerstone of the U.C.'s case against the biking ban in the David A. Aronberg-drafted letter to City Councillors. The Undergraduate Council letter notes that for bikers, the alternatives to the Common are Massachusetts Avenue or Garden Street, both of which are Jam-packed with notoriously crazy Cambridge drivers.

That's dangerous for bikers most of the year, but particularly in the winter, when roads are made more narrow by cleared snow.

The Undergraduate Council also argues that bikers prevented from cycling through the Common at night would face the doubly dangerous choice of battling traffic on dark streets or walking their bikes through the Common, making them easier targets for muggers.

Student safety is a real concern.

And the Undergraduate Council writes that it will inform all of Harvard's undergraduate student body--more than 6400 people strong and a potentially big voting bloc--about how each City Councillor votes on the bill.

So both sides are essentially right. Cambridge kids and senior citizens deserve to be protected from unnecessary dangers--and so do Cambridge bikers.

The best solution would be a short-term compromise and a long-term plan to solve the problem once and for all.

The short-term compromise would allow bikers to use the path that runs around the perimeter of the Common--but not the paths that run through the Common. Signs would be posted that warn both bikers and parents of the danger of accidents when using the perimeter path.

The long-term solution--which the Undergraduate Council, to its credit, mentions in the letter--is the creation of special bike paths in the Common or special bike lanes on city streets. Such an arrangement would serve the interests of both parents and bikers. It would cost money, to be sure, but it beats the dangers of either the status quo or the pending City Council bill.

Whatever happens with the vote in the City Council, however, this battle will be a victory for the beleaguered Undergraduate Council. Coming from an organization best-known these days for losing money on concerts and rigged Social Committee chair elections, the letter to the City Council provides an example that the Undergraduate Council is indeed capable of looking out for the interests of Harvard students.

Kenneth A. Katz '93 is an editor of The Crimson. His column appears in this space every other Monday.

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