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How did the Vassar Streetscape project happen?

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.

  • Though sidewalk-type facilities have been discredited by research, they still may appear to be the preferred way to accommodate bicyclists in the northern European countries, which have a high rate of bicycle use. Government officials have a hard time admitting mistakes, and when mistakes have been made, design standards change slowly. The proponents of the Vassar Street project refer to Dutch and Danish design standards -- though, tellingly, not to German ones, which have shifted away from sidepaths.

  • The  populist notion persists that bicycling should be accessible as a universal mode of independent transportation, even to young children who can not operate safely on streets. This notion is faulty on three counts: 1) due to traffic conditions and crime risks, urban sidewalks and crosswalks are not always safe for small children on foot, or on bicycles; 2) facilities designed for children's bicycling cause undue delay to teenagers and adults, leading to increased travel time and/or disorganized and unpredictable behavior; 3) sidewalks and crosswalks are extremely dangerous if bicyclists ride fast.

  • It has been shown repeatedly that a higher rate of bicycle use leads to a reduced crash rate, because of a generally higher level of experience by both bicyclists and others. In the absence of scientific understanding, facilities, regardless of their quality, are often described as the reason for the reduced crash rate. This conclusion is easily disproved when it is shown that the same types of facilities are still the most dangerous in the countries with an overall lower crash rate.

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!"

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