Safety First: Can a Complete Streets Policy Protect Cyclists and Pedestrians?

complete streetsPhoto by Gretchen Ertl.

When Cambridge kicked off its second round of participatory budgeting last year, giving citizens the opportunity to vote on how $600,000 in public funds were allocated, there were lots of flashy potential projects on the ballot: free wifi and solar-powered charging benches in area parks, a block party trailer, interactive technology for the library’s main branch.

But when the votes were tallied and the projects finalized, four of the seven winning proposals fell into the “really important but kind of boring” category. Constituents opted to improve signage for cyclists on Mass. Ave. and to build designated bike lanes separated from traffic. They also voted to paint green bike lanes in Central and Inman Squares and to install a signal priority system that speeds up the #1 bus.

Clearly, Cambridge residents are concerned with issues of transportation infrastructure—a fact that isn’t lost on Brooke McKenna, assistant director for street management in the Department of Traffic, Parking and Transportation.

“People in Cambridge are very interested in having a safe, sustainable city, and that includes the transportation system,” McKenna says. “I think we’ve been kind of ahead of the curve—and the people of Cambridge have been kind of ahead of the curve—in terms of really valuing safe, sustainable transportation pretty early in the game.”

And the city council is listening. On March 21, councilors unanimously passed resolutions to formally adopt Vision Zero and Complete Streets policies, two programs aimed at improving transit for all users.

Complete Streets are those constructed in a way that provides safe access to all users by ensuring that roadways have features like bike lanes, sidewalks, pedestrian signals and medians in addition to lanes for cars. Vision Zero, first introduced in Sweden in the 1990s, takes that one step further by providing a strategy to eliminate all traffic-related fatalities and severe injuries. Cambridge is only the 17th city in the country to adopt Vision Zero, a “cross-disciplinary collaboration” that brings together everyone from city planners and engineers to policymakers and police officers.

“Vision Zero is a great way to articulate exactly what your goal is beyond just saying that you want safe transportation for all ages and abilities,” McKenna explains. “What exactly is safe transportation? It’s doing everything we can possibly do to prevent serious injuries and deaths.”

Cambridge already has a host of policies in place designed to improve roadways, encourage sustainable transit and protect vulnerable users. The Vehicle Trip Reduction Ordinance was adopted in the early ‘90s, once again putting the city ahead of the curve. The Five-Year Street and Sidewalk Reconstruction Plan, introduced last year, was laid out using a Complete Streets framework, as was the Cambridge Bicycle Plan, which was formally adopted in October. Last spring, the city launched Safe Routes to School, which encourages students to safely walk and bike to and from class.

McKenna explains that committing to Vision Zero and Complete Streets will bring together these existing policies, and many others, and will encourage city departments like transportation to work with departments that might not be directly connected to transit issues, such as the police department and the department of public health. She says that in Cambridge, city departments already work closely together, but that committing to Complete Streets and Vision Zero builds off of and formalizes those relationships. And this won’t happen in a bubble—there’s a public and educational component tied into these programs as well.

Assistant City Manager Iram Farooq adds that this comprehensive look at transportation safety will allow for a more data-driven approach. For example, the city will map crash sites to pinpoint dangerous intersections and prioritize those streets for redesign. Whether or not a crash resulted in injury, police records usually show exactly what people were doing when it occurred—turning, continuing straight, crossing the street. Working with police, city planners can begin to identify patterns. Maybe, for example, cyclists are continually being struck by cars making right turns at a given intersection. “From there, we can develop an action plan that looks at all of the data and gives us a path toward greater safety,” Farooq says.

In many ways, Cambridge is already a bike- and pedestrian-friendly place. Local surveys have found that between 7 and 9 percent of residents commute to work by bicycle, and for every 100 households in the city, there are approximately 150 bikes. The city has a Walk Score of 87, putting it in “very walkable” territory. But it isn’t perfect, either; last March, Cambridge resident Marcia Deihl was killed after being struck by a truck while riding her bicycle. Just this past February, a Cambridge police officer was placed on administrative leave after he was allegedly involved in a hit-and-run with a cyclist.

“There’s always room for improvement,” McKenna says. “One death or serious accident is too many.”

And don’t worry, car owners: The city isn’t coming for your parking spaces. McKenna acknowledges that different people have different transportation needs, and adds that, when implemented correctly, these changes will benefit pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.

“The more that we build the bike network, and the more that we make our streets safer for pedestrians and users of all ages, the more attractive the changes become to everybody,” she explains. “As we make these really positive changes, it becomes more a part of the fabric of the city.”

This story originally appeared in our May/June print edition, which is available for free at more than 200 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription