Meet a Mayor Who Figured Out How to Neutralize Anti-Bike Lane NIMBYs


A small city in Massachusetts may have just pointed the way for the Big Apple to finally vanquish bike lane opponents who hold too much sway over city officials willing to sacrifice street safety to some vague notion of community consensus.

The Boston-area city of Cambridge just passed the Cycling Safety Ordinance,” which requires the city of 115,000 to install barrier-protected bike lanes whenever a street is upgraded. The ordinance allows the city to bypass community pushback by mandating the life-saving road improvements even if a community objects — something that has stalled much-needed bike lanes and other street redesigns from coming to fruition here. 

New York City has a similar bill — the Vision Zero Street Design Standard — which has the support of a veto-proof majority of City Council members. But it remains stalled because it lacks the support of Mayor de Blasio, who has preferred a piecemeal approach — overruling community boards when he wants, but deferring to them when he doesn’t want to rock the boat.

Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern
Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern

That’s where Cambridge comes in. Streetsblog spoke with Mayor Marc McGovern about the city’s pioneering bill and how it can show the way forward for good urban planning and less NIMBYism from community boards:

Streetsblog: What was the catalyst for the ordinance?

Mayor Marc McGovern: There has been a lot of conversation over the last handful of years about how we improve bike safety in the city. There were a number of deaths the past few years, cyclists that have been hit, and it increased the urgency. There was still a lot of opposition from certain folks in the city who don’t really feel that dedicated bike lanes are helpful.

Streetsblog: What’s the city’s general attitude towards cycling and bike lanes before this ordinance?

McGovern: A lot of people are moving into Cambridge who are younger, want to bike, and don’t own cars. It shifted, not just the politics shifted, but a lot of conversations about how important bike lanes are. There are a whole bunch of people who have lived in the city for a long time who don’t ride bikes and don’t see the value of bike lanes, who feel, “We’re losing control of our city, and who are these new people moving in and telling us what to do.” Bike lanes are really symbolic of that.

Streetsblog: Why do elected officials feel the need to listen to uninformed, non-professional resident groups that are so disconnected from the new residents who actually live in these communities?

McGovern: It is our job as elected officials to listen to all groups and all sides of an issue and then make the most informed and best decision possible for our city. Cambridge is a changing community with many families who have lived here for generations and many new residents. We need to listen to all of them.

Streetsblog: Can the bill help cities function on a basic level?

McGovern: If you mean “function” in terms of helping people to get around the city safely, then yes. I think separated bike lanes are safer for all modes of transportation and if people feel safer because of these lanes, then we can get more people out of their cars, which will help with traffic.

Streetsblog: How have communities responded to bike lane proposals in the past?

McGovern: It was often controversial. The conversation was, “Will we or won’t we install a bike lane?” What we’re moving to is, “We are going to [build a bike lane]. The question is now, ‘How do we do it, and how do we minimize negative impacts?'” … [The new law] took that ambiguity off the table so now people know, “Yes we’re doing it. Stop arguing, ‘Will we/won’t we?’ and start having conversations about how do we most effectively.”

Streetsblog: What steps did you take to make this ordinance happen?

McGovern: The city made commitments to do Vision Zero. We created a bike networking plan of dedicated bike lanes so people can get around the city more safely. What we did was we said, “Let’s bring in folks from the bike community to sit at a table with city leaders, let’s all sit down at the same table talk about, hash it out.” Which we did probably a year worth of meetings to come up with the ordinance that everyone felt good about. When redesigning streets that are part of the bike network, we committed to putting in bike lanes — finally making that a promise and would follow through. Everybody walked away and felt good, got something out of the ordinance.

  • sbauman

    I lived in Cambridge for the better part of 7 years during my undergrad and grad school days. That was more than half a century ago.

    Cambridge still uses proportional representation (PR) to elect its 9 member city council. The city council chooses one of its members to be mayor. There is also a city manager.

    PR means that all members are elected at large. This means that identification to a specific neighborhood by an individual council member is tenuous. There’s less pushback should a council member vote the interests of a specific neighborhood at the expense of the Cambridge’s greater good.

  • Reggie

    Cambridge is a city that is smaller than most New York City community boards and has a median income of $118,376 and 76.5 percent of the population over 25 has at least a four year bachelor degree. (Both statistics from the 2013-2017 ACS.) Yeah, this was probably not as big a challenge as making changes here.

  • Jonathan Krall

    In my experience, NIMBYs who feel extremely entitled are the fiercest NIMBYs around. A prevalence of wealth and education in Alexandria, VA, where I live, certainly hasn’t made for enlightened discussions of transportation.

  • Tom McCarey

    The Vision Zero Initiative seeks to reduce traffic deaths to zero–certainly a worthy goal. However, I looked throughout its web site and couldn’t find anything about how they propose to achieve that goal. Instead, there is a lot of mumbo jumbo along with a few poorly chosen statistics about how safe roads are in Sweden. The lack of specific recommendations combined with the misuse of data leads me to believe that this initiative is no better than a cult trying to get money out of gullible government officials with the promise that, if they pay enough, they’ll get a magic formula to safer streets.
    The statistic they most commonly use is number of traffic deaths per 100,000 residents. The problem with this is that this number is bound to be higher in countries where people drive the most. Considering that commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, you could just as well argue that countries that have totally destroyed their fisheries due to overfishing have superior policies to ones that still have healthy fisheries. However, there are better ways of improving safety than destroying the utility of whatever it is that might be dangerous.
    Only by searching other web sites, including Wikipedia, do we learn Vision Zero’s secret: they make streets safer by slowing traffic down to a crawl. In other words, they greatly reduce the utility of the automobile. We know from various research that slower speeds means lower economic productivity.

    Yet there are better ways of making streets safer without reducing people’s mobility and income. The Vision Zero people brag that, since adopting the policy in 1997, fatality rates in Sweden have dramatically declined. Yet, in that same period, U.S. fatality rates per billion vehicle miles (a better measure than per 100,000 residents) declined by more than a third.

    Far from being some new Swedish discovery, safety has, in fact, been a high priority for traffic engineers ever since the profession began. Fatality rates in the United States fell by 50 percent between 1910 and 1922; another 50 percent by 1939; another 50 percent by 1958; another 50 percent by 1986; another 50 percent by 2008; and 15 percent more since then. There are many reasons for this steady decline, but slowing down traffic isn’t one of them. Instead, the reduction in fatalities is mainly attributable to safer road and automobile designs.

    There are many cases where faster is actually safer. The safest roads in our cities are the interstate freeways (4.1 deaths per billion vehicle miles), followed closely by other freeways (4.7), while the most dangerous are local streets where traffic is slowest (11.3). Despite faster average speeds, one-way streets are safer than two-way, even for pedestrians.

    One of the biggest one-year declines in traffic fatalities in American history was in 2008, when fatalities fell by 10 percent. One of the most important factors in this decline was the 1.9 percent decline in driving due to the recession. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, this resulted in 10 percent fewer hours of congested traffic per day and 15 percent less fuel wasted in traffic. Less congestion meant faster traffic speeds and fewer fatalities. (The other big declines were in 1932 and 1942 for similar reasons: less driving, less congestion, faster speeds, fewer fatalities.)

    Contrary to the hoopla, even slowing down cars is not going to reduce traffic deaths to zero unless, of course, cities reduce speed limits to zero. But the real point of the “Vision Zero” name is not to set a realistic goal but to silence potential opponents: “If you are not for Vision Zero, you must want to see people die in traffic.” While there’s nothing wrong with seeking to make roads safer, there is something wrong with following a cult that treats its prescription as a religious dogma and demonizes anyone who disagrees.

    Despite the questionable assumptions, the Vision Zero cult has attracted a lot of followers. Portland has joined, of course. So has Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington. Officials in many of these cities spout off about the zero-fatality goal without mentioning that this goal is unattainable and the real effect of their policies will be to reduce people’s mobility.

    Let’s make roads safer. But let’s do it cost-effectively in a way that doesn’t reduce mobility.

  • Flatlander

    Oh my goodness, it’s a much harder sell in Berkeley, which is very similar in many regards. Wealth and education are a double-edged sword, to say the least.

  • Jame

    Yeah, Berkeley is resting on its laurels in terms of bike infrastructure. Lots of design fails on the major streets.

  • lori

    The article didn’t tell us what the title said it would tell us. How did he neutralize NIMBY’s? Just by saying the decision has been made, quit arguing about it? I don’t think many mayors would say that to an upset NIMBY.

  • Jonathan Krall

    You are correct that this wasn’t spelled out. I suspect it was the decision to discuss an ordinance that enables the bike network to be built instead of discussing each bike lane, one at a time, as they are built.

    IMX, people favor change in the abstract while actual, specific changes generate opposition. That’s how we get a nice bicycling master plan but few bike lanes. Or how we get a vision zero policy without robust implementation.

    My city, which just fell from #5 to #136 in the People for Bikes rankings[1], did a big public process to get a bike/ped master plan, but builds the bike lanes, seemingly at random, as streets are repaved. Not every new segment of bike lanes is a fight, but too many are and the policy on implementation continues to allow lethal “bicycle accommodations.” Specifically, they are still placing sharrows on arterial roads. A strong ordinance governing implementation could be a game changer.



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