Biking in Cambridge: better, but nowhere near good enough

June 18, 2013

We went for a ride on the tandem today (actually, months ago, I sat on this for a while), into Cambridge, to Inman Square, and we had to get there reasonably quickly. The conclusion from the stoker S was “that was not much fun; I would do it again on the tandem, but not on my own”. For all the claimed bike-friendliness of Cambridge, they’ve got a long long way to go.

The two main problems are (1) that the calm routes are not direct, and the direct routes are not calm and (2) avoiding nasty traffic and tight spots requires improvisation that is technically illegal, which makes it unsettling to many people, and hides it from official discussion of routes and infrastructure planning.

And people need to understand — me, personally, it’s good enough, but I’m a member of the biking 1% who tolerates traffic. The rest of you people, if you think to yourself, “gee, I’d like to commute to work on my bike, I need to lose 20 pounds, and I HATE parking in Cambridge” — until Cambridge gets serious, it’s probably not going to happen for you. You’ll try it, and hate it. And it’s not your fault; it’s Cambridge’s fault.

The most-direct route to Inman Square from our home runs out Concord Avenue, alongside two rotaries on a well-defined and nice path/track, and then straight up Concord into Harvard Square. This is not a recognized bike route and it is somewhat narrow in places, but it is the most direct route. Concord joins Garden, which for a short stretch is an extremely narrow 4-lanes-plus-parking, loops left, through a tunnel under Harvard, bear left onto Cambridge, and then on to Inman Square. That stretch from where Concord and Garden meet through the 4-lanes and tunnel up on to Cambridge might as well be a canyon for most people on a bike; they will not do it. It looks dangerous, and it probably is dangerous. In addition, neither Concord nor Cambridge is an especially fun street; they’re both somewhat narrow and often lined with parked cars, and (for someone on the back of a tandem) the pavement is entirely too lumpy.


An alternate route through that section continues straight at Garden, diagonally across, riding up a curb cut, across a sidewalk, down onto a marked lane, running a light that is ALWAYS red (no cross traffic at all), and then up on sidewalks to ride across Harvard Common. Of course, riding on that sidewalk is probably technically illegal, but never mind. Across the common, wait for the pedestrian signal to cross Mass Ave — except it turns out that one of the many car lanes to be crossed has a green light at the same time that pedestrians are given a walk signal; if you just rode straight across, you could easily be hit. From there, riding across open space at Harvard would not be too hard, except that there is some significant construction going on that routes all traffic (legitimate pedestrian and otherwise) into relatively narrow lanes, and there’s not enough guidance about where to go.

It’s worth comparing the tradeoffs that are apparently considered acceptable. The most direct route is 5.2 miles long. The first choice from Google, seeking bike routes, is 5.6 miles long, adding multiple digressions from the shortest route in search of allegedly calmer routes. The most direct route is just three named roads outside Belmont: Concord, Garden, and Cambridge.

The “calm” route is Concord, Fresh Pond, Vassal, Huron, Sparks, Brattle, Mason, across the Common, Cambridge, Summer, Kirkland, Beacon. Longer, and can you remember it without your secret decoder ring?

The route that makes the largest use of separate facilities is 6.2 miles long. It includes 3 additional roads within Belmont (Underwood, Hittinger, Brighton), a bike path, Alewife station, another bike path, left turn at Russell field, traverse Mass Ave, traverse Davis Square (no sidewalk riding!), Elm, Somerville, Park, Beacon, Cambridge.


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