IN MANY WAYS, officials do trumpet the virtues of bike lanes. In the literature about the Cambridge Bicycle Program, you can read about the many advantages of lanes ó including, ironically, the claim that they provide "bicyclists with a path free of obstructions." According to the cityís Web site (www.ci.cambridge.ma.us), in fact, one of the main reasons the administration has designated lanes is to "increase safety for bicyclists." Yet nowhere in the reams of online literature does the city mention the possible hazards for cyclists who ride in a lane in the door zone. Nowhere does it convey the message that these facilities do not guarantee safety.
Itís hard to know whether city officials would defend bike lanes so boldly today. Cara Seiderman, the cityís transportation manager who oversees bike projects, responded to the Phoenixís interview requests with an e-mailed five-paragraph statement, in which she said that she and her colleagues "are deeply saddened by the tragedy." But she also stressed that all the Cambridge bike lanes "follow the same well-established national standards that are followed throughout the country." Seiderman continued, "City staff works closely with the Cambridge Bicycle Committee to review designs for each street and to take into consideration the experience we have on existing streets, as well as experiences around the country and world."
Seiderman points to national and international studies that have shown that bike lanes can actually promote safe cycling. Two California surveys conducted in the 1990s examined comparable streets with and without bike lanes in Santa Barbara and Davis. The studies found that bicyclists who rode in a lane were 30 percent less likely to ride against traffic than those who did not. As a result, the lanes reduced bike-car crashes by 31 percent in Davis and 14 percent in Santa Barbara. In Cambridge, meanwhile, the city has performed what Seiderman calls "some counts analysis" that determined that the Mass Ave bike lanes have cut in half the number of cyclists who ride on sidewalks in Central Square ó a politically hot topic in the mid 1990s, when city councilors banned sidewalk bicycling in Central, Harvard, and Inman squares, among other areas.
To hear proponents tell it, pointing the finger at bad bike-lane design seems as easy ó and misguided ó as pointing the finger at reckless motorists. Dooring incidents happen everywhere, they note, striped lane or not. On July 10, Cambridge police received three reports about collisions involving cyclists who were hurt when they smacked into car doors. All occurred on roads that offer parallel parking, but no bike lanes. This, proponents argue, only goes to show how the dooring problem cannot be defined as a bike-lane problem.
"Itís unfortunate that the Laird tragedy might turn into a referendum on all Cambridge bike lanes," laments Ken Field, a Bicycle Committee member.
Michael Halle, the committee chair, echoes this sentiment. When asked if the city, in its zeal to boost cycling, had installed bike lanes that compromise safety, he replies, "I would say the bike lanes at the point where Dana Laird was hit conform to federal guidelines, which is what people who design roads fall back on." He then adds, "Itís impossible to say that, had a bike lane not been there, Laird would still be alive."
This is not to say that Cambridge wonít consider changing its policies, however. The one thing on which defenders and critics agree is that the Laird tragedy requires re-examination of the safety of bike lanes. At its meeting last month, on July 10, the Bicycle Committee began discussing what the accident might mean for city policies. Some members, such as Smith and Nesbitt, have called for officials to remove all bike lanes painted in the door zone, including those on Mass Ave. Others have suggested modifying the conventional design by, say, marking a single stripe and a bike stencil beyond the door zone, showing cyclists where not to ride. Still others have recommended that the city create space for bike lanes by reducing traffic lanes or eliminating on-street parking altogether.
The debate has already led to results. Because of the Laird fatality, officials have put plans to stripe a conventional bike lane on the recently re-paved Hampshire Street, in Inman Square, on hold. According to Halle, the city intends to investigate how cyclists and motorists interact by videotaping how they navigate the unmarked road. The point of the exercise is to determine whether cyclists ride outside the door zone when there are no bike-lane stripings guiding their way.
Of course, what Cambridge will do beyond Hampshire Street is anybodyís guess. Seiderman, in her statement, maintains that officials "will continue to follow new research [on facilities] and consider new or innovative solutions where appropriate," and adds that "when we do find new guidance we are willing to make appropriate modifications." But some cyclists remain skeptical. After all, the city has already invested thousands of dollars to build bike lanes on as many as 20 streets, many of them of the traditional variety. If officials were to draft a policy that would ban striping lanes in the door zone, that would mean not striping lanes at all in certain areas ó which, it seems, contradicts the oft-repeated desire to encourage cycling. As Halle observes, "We should be doing things to promote cycling safety, but also promote cycling. That is a very tricky balancing act."
If Cambridge officials need a reminder of the harm that badly designed bike lanes can cause, they need look no further than the 400 block of Mass Ave, where a makeshift memorial honoring Laird stands. Thereís something about the scene ó with its scrawled notes, wilted flowers, and red spray-painted outlines marking the crash ó that shakes the soul. Here, it becomes painfully obvious that Laird was not just another statistic, but a human being. Something else becomes apparent, too. As Smith, of the Bike Committee, bluntly puts it, "The real mitigating factor in Lairdís death is that it occurred in a poorly designed bike lane. On this, thereís no doubt."