At first glance, the stretch of Cambridge Street west of Inman Square might seem like a case study in how bikes, cars and pedestrians can peacefully coexist. In quieter, more orderly moments, cyclists head toward and away from Harvard in dedicated bike lanes, flanked by parked cars on one side and the sidewalk on the other, as drivers and walkers patiently await their passage.
At other times, though, pedestrians walk directly in front of bikes, seemingly unaware of their approach — and delivery trucks edge into spaces designated for parked cars and cyclists, forcing vehicles approaching behind them to swing out toward oncoming traffic.
When this occurs, the road simply seems too small for everyone attempting to use it. And that’s not the only hint that things aren’t quite as harmonious as they might initially seem.
“These bicycle lanes, the way they’re designed right now, they aren’t designed well,” said Robert Skenderian, a pharmacist who owns Skenderian Apothecary.
As Skenderian tells it, Cambridge rolled out the dedicated bike lanes on Cambridge Street without fully considering the potential impact on local businesses.
“They reduced the 15 or 20 parking spaces in this two-block area to three,” Skenderian said.
Ultimately, he notes, some additional parking spaces were created later after people complained. Even so, Skenderian says, the new bike lanes have “actually pushed my business down about 15 or 20 percent.”
Not that he’s opposed to new bike infrastructure, Skenderian hastens to add. But he says it has to be done right — and that in this case, it wasn’t.
“You’ve got to spend millions of dollars,” Skenderian argued. “You’ve got to reset curbs, you've got to move [sidewalk] bump-outs, you’ve got to make more space on the street for the travel lanes, and the city doesn’t want to do that."
"The goal here was to do it now, and do it fast. And do it cheap,” he added.
Where Skenderian sees poor urban planning, however, others see a systemic shift that’s long overdue.
He thinks the wisdom of the new bike lanes on Cambridge Street — and another, on Brattle Street — is indisputable.
“Safety is a really serious issue on Cambridge’s streets,” Fillmore said. “Every other day, on average, according to the Cambridge Police Department, a bicyclist is hit by a car. The type of bike lanes the city’s been putting in here are of a sort that’s been proven again and again, around the world, to make a huge impact on reducing the severity or bike crashes with cars,” he said.
The accident rate Fillmore cites is a bit high. According to a recent analysis by the Cambridge Police Department, there are an average of 160 car-bike crashes in the city every year.
But Fillmore is confident that his views are shared by Cambridge voters. He notes that almost every winning City Council candidate in last month’s election backed Cambridge Bicycle Safety’s platform, which calls for four new miles of bike lanes every year.
Concerns like Skenderian’s should be considered, Fillmore adds. But ultimately, he says, “We have an unbalanced system that’s weighted in favor of cars. So when we make changes to make things safer for other constituencies, there will be trade-offs.”
For his part, Skenderian isn’t convinced there’s been a net gain in safety at all.
“The road is already so very narrow,” Skenderian said. “And when you have large vehicles, delivery vehicles, trying to pass each other, then you have an emergency vehicle trying to get by at the same time, it creates a lot of conflicts.”
According to Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons, the new bike lanes have also generated a fair amount of confusion — especially in the heart of Harvard Square, where bikes are now going in both directions on Brattle Street, which remains one way for cars.
“We had people not understanding, should you go right or left?” Simmons said. “One of my seniors, [a] 90-plus-year-old man, gets struck in the lane because he can’t figure out which way the traffic was going.”
But Simmons also says that lately, Cambridge’s back-and-forth over bikes has become way too heated.
“We need to bring our best thinking, and tamp down our passion a little bit … because when everyone’s talking loud and screaming no one’s listening," she said.
Moving forward, Simmons says, the city has to do a better job balancing a range of competing interests — and so do Cambridge residents.
“We may never get to Kumbaya," she cautioned. "Cyclists have to accommodate me as a pedestrian and a motorist. I have to, as a motorist, accommodate the cyclists, and I’m getting better. We have pedestrians that are tethered to their devices, walking the streets and not looking up. We all have to learn to be more mindful."
“It’s a huge job,” Simmons admitted. “But we’ll get there.”
Which may mean learning to coexist slowly — street by street, and lane by lane.
Click the markers on the map below for details about the types of bike lanes located along Brattle and Cambridge Streets.