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In 5-4 Vote, Cambridge City Council Approves Controversial Bike Lane Delay

In a tight vote, the Cambridge City Council approved a controversial proposal to delay a construction deadline for the city's bike lane network following a lengthy and contentious meeting.
In a tight vote, the Cambridge City Council approved a controversial proposal to delay a construction deadline for the city's bike lane network following a lengthy and contentious meeting. By Julian J. Giordano
By Ayumi Nagatomi, Crimson Staff Writer

The Cambridge City Council narrowly approved a controversial proposal to delay a construction deadline for Cambridge’s bike lane network early Tuesday morning, over the objections of nearly 300 Cambridge residents who urged the Council to reject the policy order.

Mayor E. Denise Simmons and Councilors Paul F. Toner, Joan F. Pickett, Ayesha M. Wilson, and Patty M. Nolan ’80 voted in favor of the policy order, which will extend the city’s deadline to complete a 25-mile network of separated bike lanes under the Cycling Safety Ordinance from May 1, 2026 to Nov. 1 2027.

The 5-4 vote capped off a fiery and arduous Council meeting, which began at 5:30 p.m. Monday and lasted for nearly seven hours — most of which was taken up by public comments. Though the agenda for the meeting included several other matters, the Council resolved to reconvene and consider them at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Nolan, who cast the decisive vote, said that the delay is “neither a ban or a stop to installations,” instead allowing city staff to better plan for potential disruptions to traffic patterns and small businesses.

She also used her remarks to try to appease the audience composed almost entirely of committed bike lane advocates, who attended the meeting in-person and virtually to try to sway the Council to vote down the proposal.

“Those of us who want a bike lane network across the city have basically won,” she said. “We must never lose sight of that.”

The policy order, which was first discussed at an early April Council meeting, reflects a significant division among Cambridge residents over the construction of separated bike lanes.

While bicycle advocates argue that the rate of traffic accidents make the construction of bike lanes squarely a public safety concern, opponents have alarmed the potential impact of bike lanes on small businesses — even going so far as to sue the city twice to halt their construction.

The Council commissioned an economic impact study on the amended Cycling Safety Ordinance — the 2020 measure mandating the construction of the bike lane network. But the study’s results, released in February, were inconclusive, prompting some Councilors to ask for more time to collect data on the CSO’s impact.

During the meeting, the Council rejected a toned-down substitution from the four Councilors who ultimately voted against the original order — Burhan Azeem, Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, Sumbul Siddiqui, and Vice Mayor Marc C. McGovern.

The substitute order, intended as a compromise measure, would have split the construction of bike lanes on Broadway and Cambridge Street into two phases, allowing half to be completed in 2025 and the remaining half in 2026 without having to delay the timeline.

Sobrinho-Wheeler, whose primary mode of transportation is by bicycle, said delaying bike lane installation would only cause more accidents — adding that he himself had been involved in a crash.

“I know it’s going to lead to more stories like mine and the folks in public comment: more lost teeth, more broken bones, more ambulance rides, more potential fatalities,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said.

“There just aren’t a lot of things that come before the Council where you can say, ‘this has the potential to save a life,’ and this is one of them,” he added. “I don’t know how I vote for something that could potentially cause a life to be lost.”

The proposal was also opposed by State Representative Mike L. Connolly, who urged the Council to vote the order down in a post on X before the meeting.

“I hope the Cambridge City Council allows the cycling safety ordinance to move forward on schedule,” he wrote. “We’ve made so much progress on bike infrastructure in recent years — let keep it up!”

But Toner said that the policy order will be able to bring flexibility for the City staff to implement the bike lane expansion.

“Everybody keeps talking about this as a delay,” Toner said. “What we proposed was nothing more than extension up to 2027.”

“We never called for a ban. We never called for a delay. We were asking for an extension of time to do this right,” he added.

During the marathon public comment session, many residents discussed the rate of bike accidents on Cambridge streets and said separate bike lanes needed to be built rapidly to ensure public safety. Austin Ledzian, a Cambridge resident, cited that 65 crashes took place on Cambridge Street since 2021.

“If the bike lanes are delayed, there’s a nonzero chance that one of us is going to be hit by a car and killed,” he said. “And it will not be the biker’s fault or the driver’s fault, but it will be the fault of inadequate infrastructure.”

Though a small minority of the commenters agreed with the co-sponsors of the proposal that bike lanes could have a negative economic impact, others said cyclists bring more support to local businesses.

“People like us who don’t own cars are more likely to support the local businesses because we can’t drive to Costco or Home Depot,” said Cambridge resident Irene Kang. “We go to all the local stores— we shop and dine all locally.”

Pickett — the former chair of Cambridge Streets for All, the advocacy group which twice sued Cambridge over the CSO — said the extended deadline would mitigate concerns of small business owners over bike lanes.

“We now have a potential solution that is going to help smooth the transition by allowing the zoning amendments to be put in place prior to removing parking caused by the installation of the bike lanes,” she said.

But McGovern, opposing the proposal, stressed the public safety risks that would accompany a delay in their installation.

He shared that his son was hit by a car door a few blocks from where cyclist Amanda Phillips was killed in a 2016 crash.

“He too fell into the street. He was lucky that no truck was coming,” McGovern said. “People’s safety shouldn’t rely on luck.”

“I believe that bike lanes are necessary,” he added. “We offered a substitute that would have given everyone a win, but it didn’t pass. So unfortunately this is going to come down to some people feeling like they won, and others feeling like they lost.”

Correction: April 30, 2024

A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed several quotes to Burhan Azeem. In fact, they were said by Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler.

—Staff writer Ayumi Nagatomi can be reached at ayumi.nagatomi@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @ayumi_nagatomi.

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