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Will Vehicular Cyclists and the “Right to Park” Trump Safer Streets in Boston?

Beacon Street in Somerville, just outside Boston, is perhaps the most biked route in the state of Massachusetts. It also has a terrible safety record. There have been 154 collisions involving cyclists on the corridor between 2002 and 2010, according to the state Department of Transportation [PDF].

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"There are more bikes going down Beacon Street in a sort of subpar bike path than anywhere else in the city," said Pete Stidman, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union. Having a safe and protected space to bike "would increase cycling numbers exponentially."

Working with officials from the city of Somerville, bike advocates have been promoting a safe solution. And it looks like it's on the way: The city recently presented preliminary designs that include the addition of a protected bike lane.

The Somerville proposal is the latest sign that as protected bike lanes gain currency, this type of street design isn't just for big city transportation departments. Evanston, Illinois, an inner-ring suburb of Chicago, recently built a protected bike lane linking residential areas to its downtown.

As with protected bike lanes in other cities, Boston-area advocates are running up against some opposition in their bid to make Beacon Street safer. The dynamic in this case is a little unusual: A handful of dyed-in-the-wool vehicular cyclists are giving a big assist to residents who value on-street parking in front of their doorstep more than street safety.

Somerville's plan calls for eliminating about 100 on-street parking spots on Beacon for the mile-long stretch where the bike lane will be installed. Although a local parking study found that there was more than enough on-street parking capacity to accommodate the reduction, some local residents have been grumpy about the proposed change. At a recent preliminary design meeting with the community, one neighbor called the plan "discriminatory" (against drivers) and said it violates their "right to park" in front of their homes.

"I want my parking place; I think this is a dumb project," said Somerville resident Marty Filosi.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that a handful of vehicular cyclists in the region have opposed the plan. One of them is John Allen, a prominent local follower of John Forester's transportation theories, which -- against the preponderance of evidence -- argue that dedicated cycling infrastructure makes cyclists less safe.

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Vehicular cyclists have long held inordinate sway in the Boston area. For many years, the city's bike planner subscribed to this philosphy, said Stidman. As a result, Boston had very little dedicated bike infrastructure until recently.

Protected bike lanes are a relatively new street treatment for the Boston region, Stidman said, and the lack of familiarity with these designs may be exacerbating the current conflict. There are only a handful of protected bike lanes in the Boston area -- two in Cambridge and one in Boston proper. This would be the first one ever constructed in Somerville.

Planners hope to complete the project in 2015, but this protected bike lane could be in jeopardy. State Senator Patricia Jehlen -- apparently responding to some of the parking gripes -- recently spoke out against the protected bike lane.

"That's really strange because typically she’s supporting issues that have to do with children and family and elders," said Stidman. "Those are precisely the people we’re trying to help out with adding a piece of bike infrastructure."

The $5.5 million plan is being led by the city of Somerville and funded by the state. Stidman and other Boston-area bike advocates hope the city will follow through on making the corridor safer for all instead of buckling in the face of irrational complaints.

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