Cambridge, You’ve Done it Again

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Residents of Cambridgeport have been putting up with construction along the length of Western Ave for over a year now. Finally there is a light at the end of the tunnel. After doing major utility work along the corridor, construction crews are starting to put the street back together. But what was once a wide, highway-like roadway cutting through the neighborhood will return as a human-scale city street. The design maintains two lanes of one-way traffic going westbound and parallel parking on both sides of the street, but moves the bike lane up onto sidewalk level where people riding bikes will be protected from roadway hazards like double-parked cars, aggressive drivers, potholes, and opening car doors. 

This configuration, commonly known as a “protected bike lane” or “cycle track”, has been standard design practice for decades in countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany, and has been shown to increase safety and boost ridership. Cambridge has taken the lead in installing cycle tracks and introducing them to the Boston area. Current examples include Vassar Street and Concord Avenue. You should get familiar with them, because there may be a cycle track coming to a street near you in the not-too-distant future.

Recently, I caught wind that the Western Ave cycle track was finally starting to take shape and went to check it out. Construction is far from complete; at present only two blocks of the track have been built between Putnam Ave and Dodge Street. However, if this small portion is any indication, the final product should be quite impressive. To the naked eye, the lane appears to be at least six feet wide, wider than those on Vassar Street, and easily wide enough for two to ride side-by-side or for a faster cyclist to pass a slower one. The travel lanes for cars have been narrowed, which has shown to reduce speeding and improve roadway safety for all users.

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The design uses different materials to indicate who goes where: concrete sidewalk for pedestrians, asphalt cycle track for people on bikes.

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A concrete buffer strip separates bicycle riders from opening car doors, and makes space for people getting out of cars.

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When complete, this cycle track will connect Central Square to the Charles River, where people riding bikes can connect to the river pathways or continue on Western Ave on the Boston side, which currently hosts Boston’s only cycle track facility. At minor intersections along Western Ave, there will be raised crossings, meaning that pedestrians and bicyclists don’t have to “ramp down” to street level, but rather cars must yield, then “ramp up” to sidewalk level. A lot will be determined by how the major intersections will be treated. Close attention should be paid to signal timing, signage, and pavement markings to ensure that visibility and awareness is maximized among all road users. Like many Camrbidgeport residents and bicycle commuters who use Western Ave, I look forward to seeing the final product.

UPDATE (12/7/13): It was brought to my attention by a representative of the City of Cambridge and by commenters on this post that the cycle track is constructed out of porous asphalt, which filters stormwater into the ground and will help reduce icing during the winter. I did notice that something appeared different about the asphalt when I was visiting. Check out this Vine video Cambridge Public Works posted about it: https://vine.co/v/hTlEH3dlPbv. Very cool!

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7 Comments on “Cambridge, You’ve Done it Again”

  1. John P says:

    A major reason why it is better than Vasser is it provides a clear green space separation between bikes and peds! While not quite up to Dutch standards (since it turns into a bike lane at the signalized intersections) I think it is(/will be) by far the best grade separated cycletrack in the northeast! (NYC has better ones but they are at street level)

    • John, it does seem like Cambridge is learning from previous experience and designing this with more clear separation between the sidewalk and cycle track. I assume that the final product will have bike symbols and possibly signage to educate people as to where they should go.

  2. Bill McGowan says:

    Will be great when it’s done. And yes, what a production this project has turned out to be. Let’s hope some of those lop-sided 3-family homes don’t tip over and tumble into the street though.

  3. It is wide enough for two bikes, but it will invariably support traffic going the wrong way towards Central Square (as the sidewalk does now). The other cool aspect is the asphalt is porous enough for water to seep straight through.

    • Keith, I would not at all be surprised if people end up using the cycle track to ride towards Central Square, especially given that the bike lane on River Street is so narrow. Thanks for letting me know about the porous asphalt- I updated the post about it.

  4. jerry f. says:

    Take a closer look when you’re next out there – or perhaps spill some water from your bottle. The cycle track asphalt is porous, meaning it infiltrates stormwater runoff back into the ground, and helps water the adjacent trees (more of which are to be planted). The porous asphalt will also help reduce ice build-up on the cycle track during the winter.


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