Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The Boston suburb now mandates the addition of protected bike lanes on all streets due for planned upgrades. It’s a strategy other cities should follow.
There’s been a strategic breakthrough on the front lines of the American bike wars: This week, the Boston suburb of Cambridge mandated that protected cycling lanes be installed on all streets that are slated for reconstruction under existing city plans.
Passed by the city council on April 8, the ordinance appears to be the first of its kind in the U.S., and allows Cambridge—a dense university town that already has an unusually high share of bike commuters—to ascend into the ranks of the most progressive bicycling cities in the country. Local law now requires the city to erect vertical barriers between cyclists and cars on any roadway that’s rebuilt, expanded, or reconfigured if it’s part of the proposed 20-mile network of separated lanes known as the Cambridge Bicycle Plan. Only in “rare circumstances” where the city manager must cite physical or financial restraints will there be exceptions.
This doesn’t mean that pylons and planters will erupt in the streets around Harvard overnight. Permanent, protected lanes will only appear as the city advances those planned upgrades, which could mean that progress moves slowly. As Cambridge Day reported, last year the city only built one mile of new protected bike lanes.
But advocates intend to keep pushing to city to implement infrastructure plans more quickly, said Sam Feigenbaum, a volunteer with Cambridge Bicycle Safety. The activist group had been working with the city council and the city manager since 2017 to build support for the new ordinance.
“Increased bicycle use is most appropriate in our city, which is the fourth-densest city in the country,” said city councillor Dennis Carlone in a statement. “This emerging way of travel promotes personal health, a cleaner environment, and even greater retail sales.”
By passing a law that mandates bike protections, rather than administering a policy that merely calls for them, the city has created politically strategic armor to shield its transportation objectives from detractors. Before, when a street slated for cycling protections came up for reconstruction, “a noisy minority of folks would complain, and the city would slide back on its commitment to putting in that lane,” said Feigenbaum. (Yes, “bikelash” exists even in arch-progressive college towns.)
The ordinance gives teeth to the city’s existing bike plan. First, it protects it from the whims of future elected leaders who might not share its vision. And, when business owners and residents try to hold back new cycling infrastructure, officials can override them by pointing to the law and save themselves political capital that they’d otherwise risk. Similar logic applies to California’s SB 50, a proposed law that would preempt exclusionary local zoning codes in certain parts of communities, in order to allow for more housing development. It, too, is designed in part to insulate local leaders from the political pressure that “Not In My Backyard” groups are good at creating.
So far, in Cambridge, there hasn’t been much protest against the new ordinance. According to the results of Cambridge’s biannual survey, some 60 percent of residents say they want more protected bike lanes. But the ordinance may be replicable even in cities without the same level of existing enthusiasm for cycling, Feigenbaum said: “It’s tied to street construction, which is something cities need to do whether or not they’re putting in bike lanes. And the cost is basically sunk.”
But cycling protections can yield major safety benefits that draw more commuters to the saddle, research has demonstrated. And—despite the often ferocious objections from business owners—they also seem to be good for business on the whole. Cambridge’s political investment may be small, but it could yield big rewards.