[Table of Contents]
[Next: Snowed under]
|To make along story short, the Vassar Street project is rooted in aesthetics
rather than in engineering. The primary impetus for the project is to transform the
ambiance of Vassar Street from an industrial one into a more inviting, campus-like one by
planting trees, providing more pedestrian space and reducing the width of the roadway. So
far, so good.
But the project also created those sidewalk bike routes. State-of the art engineering for urban bicycling, both in Europe and in North America, accommodates bicyclists not on sidewalks but on streets, with adaptations as appropriate to provide adequate width for motor vehicles to overtake and/or to hold down the volume and speed of motor traffic. Other details such as signal timing and actuation also may need adaptation to provide the best possible bicycling conditions. The fundamental principle remains, however, to treat bicyclists as operators of vehicles.
Bicycling in the street is safer for the bicyclists and for pedestrians too. Sidewalks are used by pedestrians for a dozen different activities, and only one of those is purposefully heading towards one's destination. The other 11 activities are proscribed by the presence of bicycle traffic. Pedestrians should not have to pay attention when on a sidewalk as they do when crossing a street.
How did these insights bypass the MIT Facilities Department, and the City of Cambridge, which also had to lend its approval to the project? Several reasons may be put forward.
How do these factors apply to the Vassar Street project?
The MIT Facilities Department, and its predecessor, the Planning Department, have been enamored of what they consider to be advanced, European bicycle facility designs for over a decade. Problem is, the designs that the Facilities Department regards as advanced are in fact old and discredited [more information]. Vassar Street is not the only place that MIT has proposed facilities based on discredited European designs. In 1994, it proposed bike lanes behind rows of parked cars on Massachusetts Avenue.
The fascination with things European is only one aspect of a wider problem. The Facilities Department has shown itself to be wildly out of touch with good design for bicyclists in projects that do not involve issues of European practice such as, for example, the Martin Annis Crossing and the gated entryway behind Building 39.
The City of Cambridge is heavily invested in the goal of discouraging motor vehicle use by encouraging bicycle use. That goal has been expressed explicitly in connection with the Vassar Street project. But what problem is there to solve on the MIT campus? Nobody uses motor vehicles to travel around the MIT campus. There is way too little short-term parking to allow that. Everybody already walks, or rides a bicycle, or uses the campus shuttle buses. And the bicycling population around MIT consists almost entirely of healthy young adults of high intelligence, easily capable of learning quickly to operate bicycles safely on the streets -- a skill which they need, in any case, for most of the riding they do in the Boston area.
City of Cambridge bicycle coordinator Cara Seiderman has described the Vassar Street sidepaths as an "experiment". She has also said that they are "not an experiment." She and Cambridge Traffic Director Susan Clippinger have published a strong condemnation of sidewalk bicycling, in accord with the opinions of experts on bicycle facilities design. The City has posted signs to prohibit sidewalk bicycling at several locations in Cambridge. Go figure. All in all, if the Vassar Street sidepaths are to be described as an experiment, then they are not a scientific experiment but a political experiment, to test acceptance of them -- a strategy that critics have described as a "Pied Piper of Hamelin" or "Pickett's Charge" approach to increase bicycle use.
Clippinger has explicitly admitted in a meeting that she was not familiar with the research record regarding sidepaths.
The City has explicitly indicated interest in "European practice," in this case meaning sidepaths. Seiderman has provided perhaps the most cogent justification possible for the project: "It's European." But, as Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition Board member Tom Revay likes to point out, a bit wryly, "so was World War I!"
[Table of Contents]
[Next: Snowed under]