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Uneasy riders
For Cambridge cyclists, the poorly designed Concord Avenue bike path is unsafe at any speed. Is it just a matter of time before someone dies using it?

ITíS 1 P.M. on a bright, breezy Sunday. This is supposed to be my day off. But Iím on the clock, in Cambridge, riding my bicycle along Concord Avenue, at the Fresh Pond Parkway rotary. Why am I doing this? Iím investigating a new bike path, the latest in the cityís much-touted network of "bicycle facilities." The quarter-mile, two-way sidepath ó which runs beside Concord Avenue ó represents a fraction of the larger, $3.2 million parkway revitalization program. Yet the pathís installation has stirred up enough controversy that the May 19 public ceremony to mark the renovation projectís official opening drew protests from cyclists.

On one side, you have John Allen, a nationally recognized bicycling expert who has written two books about safe cycling and has appeared as an expert witness in dozens of trials involving bike-car accidents. Allen claims this sidepath is so dangerous that itís only a matter of time before a bicyclist dies while using it.

On the other side, you have cyclists and government planners who want to get the average Joe off the couch and onto a bike. The sidepath, they claim, makes for a convenient way to accommodate even the casual cyclist.

In many ways, the battle over the Concord Avenue sidepath comes across as nothing more than an internal pissing match in the cycling community ó perpetuated by people with too much time on their hands. After all, the average person familiar with the two Fresh Pond Parkway rotaries could care less about the bike path ó most are simply thrilled that construction in the area is over and that the results look good. The rotaries are more clearly marked and the sidewalks are now adorned with historic lampposts, benches, and greenery. Whatís to complain about?

A lot, actually, at least when it comes to this new sidepath.

TO THE UNEDUCATED eye, the Concord Avenue sidepath doesnít look long enough to be called a bike path, much less to engender so much controversy. Lanes delineated with road-paint stripes take up the short stretch. The universal symbol of a bike path, a mini-bicycle stenciled onto the pavement, guides cyclists. It only takes minutes to get from one end of the path to the other. And, perhaps most important to city and state officials, the path allows inexperienced cyclists, often uneasy about riding roads, to steer clear of the motor-vehicle traffic that whips through the two rotaries on Fresh Pond Parkway.

On closer inspection, though, flaws become obvious. Take, for instance, the lamppost bases that crop up, suddenly, along the sidepath. These pose a hazard to cyclists squeezing past each other. So do the bright-red fire-alarm box and the series of steel barriers that line the path. And because a sliver of sidewalk runs beside the path, cyclists must vie for space with pedestrians who meander and stop to chat. But the driveways are the real problem: the path crosses two intersections, as well as seven privately owned driveways leading to a gas station, a Dunkiní Donuts, retail stores, and a hotel. These obstacles crop up approximately every 100 feet.

Allen, a bearded, bespectacled man who is the living, breathing epitome of the word "sincere," stumbled upon the Concord Avenue sidepath in early May, as he cycled from his Waltham home to the Fresh Pond Mall on Alewife Brook Parkway. When he spotted the sidepath, he says, "My jaw dropped." Allen, who helped found the Cambridge Bicycle Committee in 1991, recognized the dangers at once. "I felt betrayed," he recalls, without a hint of irony. "I trusted people in Cambridge to do the right thing." An experienced rider, who logs as many as 2200 miles yearly on his six bicycles (one of which folds in half), he set out to test the path by slowly riding up and down, remembering to look over his back. Although he considers the path dangerous, he took the risk because "I wanted to see what was there." He assumed that a knowledgeable cyclist could protect him- or herself on the path. Yet even Allen would end up face to face with the hood of a black sedan as it executed a turn ó something that hasnít happened to him in 38 years of cycling.

Turning conflicts are one reason why sidepaths, in general, rank among the worst bicycle facilities around. Like cyclists on roads, those on sidepaths ó in particular, two-way sidepaths beside roads ó must grapple with right-turning cars, left-turning cars, and cars that donít expect to yield to bicycles. Unlike road cyclists, however, those on sidepaths lack sufficient warning whenever motorists turn. Often, that means that the two collide head-on, without knowing what hit them. This is especially true when sidepaths cross streets and driveways, since cyclists travel much faster than pedestrians. The fact that half of all cyclists on sidepaths must move against traffic makes intersections even more treacherous.

Time and again, research has borne out these perils. According to a 1987 Swedish study, the bike-car collision rate at intersections for cyclists facing motorists while on sidepaths was 11.8 times that of their counterparts on streets. For cyclists traveling with traffic, the crash rate was 3.4 times as high. Similarly, a 1995 survey of bike-car crashes in Palo Alto, California, determined that sidepath cyclists facing traffic smashed into cars twice as often as road cyclists. Those riding in the same direction as traffic crashed 1.4 times more often. In fact, sidepaths have proven so hazardous that the American Association of State Highway and Traffic Officials (AASHTO) ó a trade organization of highway engineers, mind you, not bike advocates ó warns against building them at all. Ever since 1981, AASHTO has nixed any bike path that amounts to a roadside sidewalk striped for bike travel ó which, it seems, describes the Concord Avenue path to a T.

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Issue Date: May 30 - June 6, 2002
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