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Elections and Politics

After Marathon Meeting, Cambridge City Council Narrowly Votes to Delay Street Safety Projects

New separated bike lanes on Massachusetts Avenue in front of Cambridge City Hall.

Massachusetts Avenue in front of Cambridge City Hall. Under Cambridge’s updated Cycling Safety Ordinance, the segment of Massachusetts Avenue between Central and Harvard Squares gained protected bike lanes in the fall of 2021.

Last night, after hours of public comment from hundreds of residents who overwhelmingly spoke out against the change, a narrow majority of Cambridge City Councilors endorsed a policy order that will delay bike and pedestrian safety improvements on several busy streets.

The policy order cites "loss of significant parking" as its reason for procrastinating planned street safety projects that had been mandated under Cambridge's Cycling Safety Ordinance.

While the policy order passed last night has no immediate impact on the Ordinance, it directs the city manager to draft a formal amendment to that law, which would go before the exact same Council for a formal vote later this year.

The order directs the city manager "to draft proposed amendments to the Cycling Safety Ordinance to extend the deadline associated with the completion of those sections of the ordinance that are required to be completed by May 1, 2026 to a new deadline of November 1, 2027 for the City Council’s consideration, with any such amendments requiring City Council approval and passage by December 31, 2024."

Because street safety projects need to be installed during the warmer-weather construction seasons, the city had initially planned to complete its obligations under the Cycling Safety Ordinance by the end of 2025 in order to meet the spring 2026 deadline.

Order will delay this year's Main Street safety project

Although the policy order has no immediate legal impact, its passage has already convinced the city to delay a planned safety improvement project that had been slated for installation this year on Main Street between Mass. Ave. and Portland Street (between Central and Kendall Squares).

The order stipulates three busy east-west streets – the western end of Main Street, Broadway between Harvard Yard and Hampshire Street near Kendall Square, and Cambridge Street from Inman Square to Second Street near Lechmere – where, if the proposed legal changes pass later this year, the city would be prohibited from installing new safety improvements until July 2025.

"The policy order directs us to draft that amendment language, and we expect to submit that pretty quickly," Elise Harmon-Freeman, the Communications Manager for the City of Cambridge Traffic, Parking, and Transportation Department, told StreetsblogMASS on Tuesday.

Harmon-Freeman also confirmed that the city would delay implementation of its Main Street project until 2025.

Hundreds of testimonials beg Council to prioritize safety over parking

During nearly five hours' worth of public testimony Monday evening, hundreds of residents begged their elected officials to acknowledge that their safety was more important than a few parking spaces.

Although it was a school night, many of those testimonials came from parents and their young children, who waited in Council chambers late into the night.

"I'm 9 years old and in third grade at Cambridgeport School," Zyler Sharpe told Councilors early in the evening. "Me and my twin ride our bikes to school every day on Hampshire Street, and I feel much safer this year this year when the bike lanes are protected."

Laura Borrelli, a teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, told councilors that she was deeply concerned about the safety of her students, hundreds of whom bike to school on Broadway and Cambridge Street.

"The longer we wait on safe infrastructure, the greater the chances of deadly crashes. I really don't want to attend a high school student's funeral," said Borrelli.

Councilor Nolan casts crucial vote

The policy order was initially sponsored by Councillor Paul F. Toner, along with freshman councilors Joan Pickett (who had previously been a plaintiff in a failed lawsuit against the City of Cambridge's street safety projects), and Ayesha M. Wilson.

In the final vote, two other city councilors – Mayor E. Denise Simmons and Councilor Patricia M. Nolan – joined the sponsors to pass the order by a narrow 5-4 majority.

A woman with short wavy brown hair and eyeglasses.
City Councilor Patricia Nolan. Courtesy of the City of Cambridge.

While Mayor Simmons has been a loyal opponent of street safety projects in the past, Councilor Nolan's vote was more unexpected.

Nolan had previously (in 2020) voted in favor of the Cycling Safety Ordinance and had been endorsed by the Cambridge Bicycle Safety organization in the 2019 election.

But late Monday night, Nolan made it clear that she would support the delay.

Reading from a long statement, Nolan offered many hedges: she admitted that the Cycling Safety Ordinance "does make our city a safer and more environmentally friendly place to live and work" and claimed "I've been doored, I've had many close calls, I've experienced firsthand the many problems of not having separated bike lanes."

But Nolan went on to assert that the delay "will mean less disruption on our roads and make for better planning," and that in her mind, those factors ultimately outweighed the additional safety risks her vote would impose on her constituents during the delay.

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