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Cambridge passes ‘first-of-its-kind’ law to add protected bike lanes when reconstructing roads

The Cycling Safety Ordinance requires the city to add permanent separated bike lanes when doing reconstruction of certain roads.
The Cycling Safety Ordinance requires the city to add permanent separated bike lanes when doing reconstruction of certain roads.(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2018)

The Cambridge City Council on Monday night passed an ordinance to help expand the network of bicycle infrastructure across the city, a move that bike advocates and city officials called a “first-of-its-kind” law and one they hope will inspire surrounding communities to adopt similar measures.

The Cycling Safety Ordinance requires the city to add permanent separated bike lanes when doing reconstruction on any roads that have been previously identified in the Cambridge Bicycle Plan — a proposed network of 20 miles of protected lanes — and its five-year sidewalk and street reconstruction plan.

“This ordinance gives the bike plan teeth,” Sam Feigenbaum, a volunteer with Cambridge Bicycle Safety, a local bike advocacy group, said in a statement. “The intent of the ordinance is that when the bike plan says a street needs a protected bike lane, that street will get a protected bike lane. That’s a huge step forward for the city.”

The ordinance was a collaborative effort between City Manager Louis A. DePasquale’s office, Mayor Marc McGovern’s office, and members of Cambridge Bicycle Safety. A proposal was first introduced by City Council members in January, after a year of conversations with advocates.

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In an interview with the Globe before Monday’s vote, McGovern said the law would move the city in the direction “of more expeditiously installing this type of infrastructure” for cyclists.

McGovern said prior to the law, a lot of time was spent debating whether roads under construction would include new bike infrastructure. The ordinance should cut out any sort of impasse.

“People would fight about it and it would divide the community,” he said. “We have now said, ‘All right, look, we’re doing it.’ When we do it, and how we do it, will depend on specific projects — and there will be opportunities for community input — but people can expect that the city is moving in this direction.”

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McGovern stressed that residents shouldn’t think that every street in Cambridge that undergoes reconstruction will get a bike lane.

“I don’t want people walking away thinking that,” he said. “But it does move us forward to completing this network that we have been talking about for many, many years.”

Joseph Barr, Cambridge’s director of traffic, parking, and transportation, said that while the city will implement the law, there could be situations “where it may not be physically possible to do what was in the bicycle plan.”

“We have been clear with the bike community about this,” he said. “But it’s something that could occur rarely, if ever.”

According to details of the ordinance, DePasquale, the city manager, can nix the addition of a bike lane based on a street’s physical features, the use of a road, or because of financial constraints, according to Cambridge Bicycle Safety.

In those circumstances, DePasquale would have to provide a written analysis of why the bike lane couldn’t be built, however.

“I have been asked about the term ‘rare circumstances’ and how it may influence the Cycling Safety Ordinance,” DePasquale said in a statement. “I take rare to mean rare in a layman’s sense of the word, and in the context of the Ordinance, it is something which is infrequent, irregular, and exceptional.”

Barr, who is unaware of any other city across the country with a similar ordinance in place, said next steps will include educating residents about what the ordinance does and doesn’t mean, and how it will be rolled out.

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“This is one of those things when you first start to talk about it that can seem a little unique and scary,” Barr said. “But there was a good partnership that occurred and we were able to come to an agreement on an ordinance that the city manager and the vast majority of councilors were happy with, and that’s not necessarily something we might have expected.”

While the law passed, members of Cambridge Bicycle Safety stressed Tuesday that more work needs to be done in the meantime to ensure cyclists traveling through the city are safe.

“We’re so happy that the Cycling Safety Ordinance is now law,” the group tweeted. “But we will need to keep advocating for quick build protected bike lanes so that the network can be built in five years.”


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.