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Cambridge Lags In Delivering Safer Streets for Physical Distancing

Memorial Drive in Cambridge. Photo by John Phelan, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 3.0.

It's been over a month since the Cambridge City Council endorsed a policy order to restrict car traffic on Memorial Drive and other neighborhood streets in order to give residents more space to physically distance on city streets, and the city's administration has still not taken any action, even as peers in surrounding cities have successfully implemented their own programs.

The Council asked the city manager to work with the state Department of Parks and Recreation (DCR) to close Memorial Drive to automotive traffic during its April 13 meeting, after the DCR closed several other park roadways elsewhere in the Commonwealth in order to facilitate safe physical distancing in its parks.

On April 27, the Council endorsed a second policy order that directed the city manager to identify "streets in each neighborhood that could be closed to all non-essential traffic for the duration of the Health Emergency."

To date, the City Manager and other City Hall employees have yet to report any progress on these initiatives, even as similar programs have been announced or successfully adopted in Brookline, Boston, Arlington, and Somerville.

"It’s embarrassing for me, as someone on the Cambridge City Council," said Councilor Patty Nolan, a lead sponsor of last month's policy orders, in a phone conversation last week. "We like to be the lead on so many things, and on this we’re not taking the leadership that we should."

"There's a real concern expressed by our city manager that if we close these streets they’ll become magnets," continued Nolan. "That’s worth considering, but now, we have evidence from neighboring cities, plus from Oakland, Seattle, Minneapolis, and many other places that are doing this. They have been opening their own streets and finding that it’s helpful to public health. In Cambridge we’ve only delayed it."

DCR typically opens "Riverbend Park" by blocking car traffic from Memorial Drive between Western Avenue and Mount Auburn Street every Sunday from the end of April until the 2nd Sunday of November.

This year, Riverbend Park didn't open until May 24 – this past weekend.

"I just don’t understand why this administration is so reluctant, given the Council’s support, the residents’ strong support, business owners’ support...  It’s a missed opportunity and really damaging," said Nathaniel Fillmore, a co-founder of the Cambridge Bicycle Safety advocacy group.

Cambridge Bicycle Safety has been circulating an online petition asking the city to "take immediate and comprehensive action to enable safe essential travel and to support local businesses" by widening sidewalks in neighborhood business districts, restricting car traffic from Memorial Drive, and "completing the 20-mile citywide network of protected bike lanes," among other things.

Fillmore said that the petition had collected almost 1,000 signatures as of Wednesday.

Responding to a request for comment, a Cambridge city official told StreetsblogMASS that staff would discuss the city's pandemic mobility strategies at a special City Council hearing at 2 p.m. Thursday.

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