In Porter Square, a fight rages for the future of Cambridge streets

“The problem I have is THAT I ACTUALLY KNOW HOW TO RUN A BUSINESS and I know when it won’t work. So you can congratulate yourselves, ”Spirer wrote in a letter to the City Council. “You’ve managed to drive me out.”

An ambitious plan to add protected bike lanes around the city has spurred a raucous public spat between entrepreneurs like Spirer and transit advocates – evidence that even progressive havens like Cambridge are not free from the now-familiar debate about the future of American streets.

Right now, the battleground is Porter Square, where small businesses like restaurants and clothiers have urged officials not to nix parking for the sake of cyclists. That parking, business owners say, is essential to their survival as they emerge from the financial wreckage of the pandemic.

“I’m not anti-bike,” said Spirer, 68. “I just refuse to become the collateral damage of this plan.”

But supporters of the bike lanes – including frequent cyclists and residents – say they’re a common-sense solution to make Cambridge safer and more climate-friendly.

In 2019, the City Council passed a Cycling Safety Ordinance, which mandates separated bike paths on 25 miles of roadway by the end of the 2020s. An initial stretch was constructed on Mass. Ave. in North Cambridge in November, and Porter Square will be complete by summer’s end, followed by complicated street sections dubbed the “MassAve4.”

Joe Barr, the director of traffic, parking, and transportation, said Cambridge has devised policies for three decades that advocate for cyclists and pedestrians. It’s tried – often unsuccessfully – to reduce car ownership and emissions. And while the climate crisis has taken a back seat in the conversation about safety and small business, lawyers and city officials say slowing down the bike lane project would make it harder to achieve Cambridge’s climate goals.

Now, Barr added, is the time for bold action.

“It’s going to be hard and impactful, and we should do everything we can to mitigate the impact on businesses,” he said. “But whether it’s because of city policy, because of climate change, or because of the safety of our streets, we have a legal and moral imperative to make these changes.”

A bike lane along Mass. Ave. in front of the Porter Square T Station. Jessica Rinaldi / Globe Staff

The initial draft plan for Porter Square in March proposed removing almost all parking to add a bike lane along the curb, protected by a barrier of flex posts. Eventually, the Department of Public Works convinced the MBTA to quickly take down unused overhead wires from defunct electric buses in Porter Square, which will allow the city to remove 1,400 feet of median and create an extra lane – between the bike and travel paths – for loading zones and parked cars.

Cambridge also added metered parking to residential side streets, so that in the end only seven spots will be lost around the square, Barr said. And the Porter Square Shopping Center will retain its parking lot.

Bike advocates say that should be enough to appease store owners, and that the safety provided by dedicated lanes should be the priority. From 2000 through 2015, a car hit a bike nearly once every two days in Cambridge, according to police department data. A few of those accidents were fatal. In 2016, cyclist Amanda Phillips was killed in Inman Square. Four more cyclists – a Cambridge woman and Lexington man the same year, a graduate student in 2018, and an older man in Harvard Square in 2020 – were hit by motorists and died.

The issue is particularly pressing for a city where over a third of residents biked at least twice a month in 2020, said Nate Fillmore, a member of Cambridge Bike Safety. He also noted that many residents do not own cars, and so bike lanes offer them more flexibility.

The current street plan for the section of Massachusetts Avenue that runs through Porter Square. With the car parking lane and new side street spaces, the neighborhood will preserve nearly all of its parking, the city says.City of Cambridge

“We are motivated by a lack of safety and the reality of needless cyclist deaths,” he said.

Among the cyclists is Katherine B. A mom of three toddlers, Katherine – who declined to share her last name to protect her family’s privacy – commutes almost exclusively by bike with kids in tow. Even though “biking down Mass. Ave. is like a gauntlet, ”she completes her errands at neighborhood businesses or grabs ice cream at the Honeycomb Creamery.

“The beauty of Cambridge is that it’s an urban setting,” she said. “Businesses should know that people in your neighborhood will come to your store.”

And several studies back up that notion. A 2019 city survey of Porter Square customers found that 62 percent of shoppers walked to businesses. A third drove, and 16 percent arrived by bicycle. Promising studies have come from elsewhere, too, including a Portland State University analysis of six urban areas that showed bike lanes had “either positive or non-significant impacts on sales.”

Still, hard feelings abound. Mass. Ave. businesses near the Arlington town line, where bike lanes were introduced last fall, say revenue has fallen by up to 60 percent. In Porter Square, business owners publicly against the change have been targeted online, with angry cyclists posting one-star reviews on Yelp and plastering street signs urging boycotts. Leesteffy Jenkins of Violette Bakers penned an op-ed in the Cambridge Day accusing politicians of resorting to “single-issue advocacy” to satisfy cyclists.

This section of Mass. Ave. in front of Clothware is slated to have a protected bike lane.
Jessica Rinaldi / Globe Staff

For Louise Ciampi, owner of the women’s clothing store Clothware, it’s frightening to see a community she loves resort to public brawls. Most of all, she said Cambridge implemented the bike lanes too hastily and without enough public input.

“Up until now, Cambridge has been my friend,” Ciampi said. “They need to admit they were going too fast and made a mistake.”

At least one city councilor disagrees. Burhan Azeem pointed to numerous City Council meetings and an impact study on the MassAve4 plan. Recent modifications to the program have bumped costs from $ 2 million to $ 40 million to address community concerns. The money will fund construction, including median removal and private utility work.

“There’s understandably a lot of anxiety going around,” Azeem added. “But we have to realize that, at some point, no amount of meetings or studies will make people happy.”

Now what’s done is done, said Ruth Ryals, president of the Porter Square Neighbors Association. She helped form Mass Ave. For All to rally bicyclists and businesses together for a joint solution, because “the project is coming, no matter what we do.”

But the community remains riled up.

“In my dreams,” Ryals said, “we scrub the whole thing and start over.”


Diti Kohli can be reached at [email protected] her on Twitter @ditikohli_.

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