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On Biking: a cycletrack coming to Cambridge and maybe Boston, too

Posted by Your Town  May 15, 2010 02:08 PM

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Boston Metro’s deep freeze on bike lane paint has thawed considerably in the past few years. Leaders in the Hub and other communities including Cambridge, Somerville and Brookline are starting to get into the routine of laying down bicycle markings of some kind for most major streets that get repaved. Even Newton is getting ready to stripe a new lane—a short section of Beacon Street near the Boston line.

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Cyclists, at least the majority of those that prefer bike lanes to the open road, are riding high. But show them a cycletrack, and the bike lane tends to pale in comparison.

There is no codified definition of cycletrack, otherwise known as a “traffic-separated bike lane,” and no national standards for them as of yet, but they are generally considered to be a bike lane that includes a physical barrier to auto traffic, such as a curb, a line of bollards or Jersey barriers, or a line of parked cars. There are Cycletrack designs at sidewalk level, and others at street level. Both styles are positioned between pedestrians on one side and cars, or parked cars, on the other.

Around here, Cambridge and Boston are both looking at potential cycletracks on Western Avenue that would combine to stretch from Central Square to Allston Village.

Cambridge is also building a cycletrack on Concord Avenue near the Fresh Pond Reservation, and bicycling advocates in Newton and Brookline are pestering their transportation departments for cycletracks on streets like Beacon, Hammond Pond Parkway, and Route 9.

Cambridge’s new project won’t be its first. In 2003, MIT and the city of Cambridge installed a blue-colored cycletrack that jumps on and off the sidewalk of Vassar Street near MIT. Some criticized it for a lack of separation from pedestrians.

But Cambridge’s new proposal for a cycletrack on Concord Avenue, where it passes by the Fresh Pond Reservation and the municipal golf course, is closer to a “Copenhagen-style” cycletrack, where trees and other street furniture separate the pedestrian path from the bikeway, and a curb steps down from the bikeway to the road.

“There are some trade-offs if you’re a fast cyclist,” said Chris Porter, a member of the Cambridge Bicycle Committee that reviewed and generally approved of the design. “But we felt it was going to make it easier for people who aren’t out there now.”

The Concord design has detractors as well, many of them traditional bike lane opponents, such as former Bike Czar Paul Schimek who lives in Jamaica Plain. But the city of Cambridge is holding strong, citing the Federal Department of Transportation’s encouragement of local transportation agencies to go beyond minimum standards to provide safe and convenient facilities for bicycling and walking to promote “health, safety, environmental, transportation, and quality of life.”

“What we continue to hear from the community is there are more people who want to ride than currently feel safe riding, particularly who are older or want to ride with their children,” said Cara Seiderman, Cambridge’s bike and pedestrian coordinator. “We would like the city to eventually be designed as such that anyone who would like to cycle is able to do so.”

Common in Holland, Germany and Denmark, it seems a good bet that the feeling of safety one gets riding in a cycletrack was a significant contributor to the relatively meteoric rise in the cycling rates of those countries since the 1970s.

San Francisco, Portland, New York City, and a number of other cities, are already experimenting with their own innovated versions of the cycletrack. And Montreal, Quebec, incidentally has had miles of them since the 1990s.

Out in Portland, Oregon, an “experimental” seven-block long cycletrack was unveiled in 2009 on SW Broadway near the Portland State University campus, and a longer cycletrack has been proposed for a half mile of NE Cully Boulevard in a residential section of the city. Portland’s new bicycle master plan positions cycletracks as the most preferred facility when the local context allows for it.

“Any street that requires a bike lane you’d want to see if you could do a cycletrack,” said Portland’s bicycle coordinator Roger Geller. “European cities, they use them a lot in their commercial cores. We’ve got an RFP out now to take a look at finding an opportunity for one in our downtown area.”

Downtown Montreal, Quebec has been crossed by miles of cycletracks since the 1990s, and their popularity has encouraged that city to embark on a new $7.5 million effort to expand the network this year.

Very few bicycle researchers have their thumb on this trend as does John Pucher, a bike researcher based at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He travels the world comparing such things, and most recently took the much shorter trip over the Hudson River with a few colleagues to analyze New York City’s growing phalanx of bikeways, including 4.9 miles of cycletracks. The result: “Cycling in New York: Innovative Policies at the Urban Frontier,” was published in this summer’s edition of the quarterly World Transport Policy and Practice.

“The whole point of this physical separation is not just to improve the safety, which I think it does, but to improve the perception of safety and comfort,” said Pucher. “They create less stress. Ninety-five percent of people you ask, but especially women and children, prefer cycletracks when they know what they are.”

One of the more interesting findings in “Cycling in New York” comes out of a look at the gender divide between riders of on-street bike lanes and riders of multi-use paths (including cycletracks). In Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, women made up only around 14 percent of the riders observed on streets with bike lanes, but they made up more than 34 percent of the riders seen on multi-use paths.

“Women tend to be more risk averse than men… They are more likely to make detours to take a less stressful route,” said Pucher. “I make detours for the same reason. Speed is not my top priority. Safety is.”

Pete Stidman lives in Boston and is a co-founder of the Boston Cyclists’ Union, a group focused on making everyday cycling safer for everyone.

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