Some Thoughts on the Pearl Street Reconstruction Project

I have been contacted by many residents recently who are opposed to the proposal to eliminate parking for a dedicated bike lane on Pearl Street as part of an upcoming reconstruction project. I am also aware that there are a number of residents who support doing so. I submitted an order to the Cambridge City Council on Monday asking that the so-called “Complete Streets” proposal (the plan that eliminates parking) for Pearl Street be abandoned. An article about my order appeared on the blog BostInno, and I sent a letter to the author with some comments about the article and my position on this issue. I am publishing the letter here in hopes that it will provide some insight into why I submitted this Council order and help clarify my position on this issue. I tabled the order until the next regular Council meeting (January 26) to allow for more opportunity for public comment.  –Tim

Dear Nick,

I am writing to offer some comments on your January 6th article regarding the Pearl Street redesign and the order I submitted to the Cambridge City Council asking the manager to abandon the “Complete Streets” proposal.

I appreciate the past coverage that you and BostInno have given to the Pearl Street redesign issue and I want to say first and foremost that I agree that the status quo on Pearl Street is not acceptable. Improvements are needed to enhance safety and usability for all modes of transportation. I also firmly believe that residents must have a voice in deciding how the City approaches changes to the street they live on. After seeing the “Complete Streets” proposal and hearing from Pearl Street residents, I came to the conclusion that the proposal not only failed to reflect the needs of abutters and residents, but also did not offer enough safety improvements to justify the significant impact it would have on parking.

I think that it is worth pointing out for your readers that of the 54 crashes that you cited in your article, a significant number of them appear to have actually occurred on Massachusetts Avenue at the Pearl St. intersection, including four of the five collisions involving bicycles. This data makes a better case for focusing improvements on visibility at this intersection than it does for bike lanes on Pearl Street itself. To put the one accident that occurred on Pearl St. into context, during the same four year period there were 13 accidents involving bicycles on Prospect St. and 47 accidents involving bicycles on the section of Massachusetts Avenue between Magazine St. and Albany St. While it is true that both of these streets have significantly higher traffic volumes, if we are going to use collision numbers alone as justification for certain street improvements (as you do in your article), we should conclude that making improvements to visibility at the Mass Ave intersection would have a much greater impact on safety than bike lanes. With that said, I think that obtaining an accurate count of bicycle traffic on Pearl Street would be a good next step for the City and would help to further contextualize accident data.

I would also like to draw attention to your assertion that the “base plan” presents a safety risk because it keeps lane width at 11 feet. I was puzzled that you would bring up this detail but fail to point out that the “Complete Streets” proposal also keeps Pearl Street at 11 feet in width, albeit with a 7’ 6” bike lane during the day time. While this may give cyclists more breathing room for part of the day, the bike lane does not help reduce the most deadly factor in bicycle and pedestrian collisions with motor vehicles—speed. In fact, I would argue that the addition of a bike lane could have the effect of increasing speeds as drivers perceive the road to be wider between intersections, and while both the “base plan” and the “complete streets” plan include traffic calming measures like raised intersections and curb extensions, those may be made less effective under the “complete streets” plan due to the wider lane that some drivers will perceive to be available to them when no bikes are present.

It is my hope that you and your readers do not get the impression from my council order that I am somehow anti-bike or opposed to bike lanes. On the contrary, I have worked very hard to increase bike safety in Cambridge and in the areas of Somerville within my legislative district. I have worked with the Massachusetts Highway Department on coming changes to the McCarthy Overpass area in Somerville, which includes lots of new bike and pedestrian safety improvements (including some that come with the elimination of on-street parking spaces). I am also a member of the Grounding McGrath working group, which is working toward a re-design of McGrath Highway that will result in the construction of world-class bike infrastructure in an area of Somerville that currently has very little. Additionally, I have been advocating for and promoting the Grand Junction Rail Trail project for years, which, when completed, will achieve many of the same goals of the Pearl Street redesign, like safer routes to the Morse School and better bike access to Cambridgeport. I have secured funding for portions of rail trail, initiated feasibility studies with MIT, and have been successful in blocking proposed uses of the Grand Junction rail line that would conflict with future use of the right-of-way as a multi-use path.

My opposition to the Pearl St. “Complete Streets” plan is rooted in my belief that any roadway plan should balance public needs and safety. I think this plan fails in that regard and we should take another look at what our options are. As always, I am available to answer any questions you might have about my position on this matter.

Sincerely,

Tim Toomey

1 comment

  1. Joseph Poirier - Reply

    I appreciate all the attention you’re giving the Pearl Street reconstruction. I think you’ve identified some accurate flaws with the proposed Pearl St. redesign. However, abandoning the more progressive design model for the street will return the street to the status quo – which is an obsolete, outdated, auto-centric idea of what a street should be.

    For Cambridgeport to remain a sustainable neighborhood as tremendous amounts of housing and office space are developed around its fringes, we will have to develop transportation infrastructure that can carry additional loads. Adding cycling infrastructure is the most environmentally friendly way to do this, and adding transit infrastructure (in the case of Pearl St., better bus stops) is another necessary tactic.

    Asking the city to kill the more progressive of two options is not a good solution to this problem. It encourages the city to reconstruct Pearl Street to outdated harmful and unsustainable specifications.

    Resident parking concerns are not grounded in fact. Cambridge paid a considerable sum for a parking study (bit.ly/1sfwqYH) to evaluate parking availability on Pearl St. and abutting drives. The study found that 47% of the street is unoccupied during the day, which is the only time the ‘Complete Streets’ plan calls for removing 50% of the parking. If we’re paying tax dollars for information to inform our decisions and rejecting that information for anecdote, we’re making public policy in a bad way.

    I strongly encourage you reconsider your policy order and instead consider asking CDD and DPW to take this plan back to the drawing board, to design a street with better bus stops, a dedicated cycling lane on the opposite side of the street (which will preserve more parking space), more street trees, and more pedestrian and handicapped-friendly sidewalks.

    I know that you are a big supporter of cycling and progressive transit, so I was surprised to see this order on the agenda. I hope you can help the neighborhood bring Pearl Street into the 21st century and make a better public place for all.

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