Public Health & Recreation

Aquidneck Island Cyclists Visit Mass. to See Bicycle-Friendly Community

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Bari Freeman, Bike Newport founder and executive director, gets ready to cycle in Cambridge, Mass. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Dedicated bike lanes, separate signals for cyclists, bike corrals — these were just a couple of the mechanisms Aquidneck Island advocates, officials, and business owners experienced on a field trip meant to explore the ways their community could become a friendlier place for bicyclists.

Ride Island — an initiative to advance active transportation on Aquidneck Island run by Bike Newport, Grow Smart Rhode Island, and Toole Design and funded by the van Beuren Charitable Foundation — invited community members and decision-makers from Aquidneck Island on as recent trip to see how Cambridge has become a biking community.

Bari Freeman, Bike Newport founder and executive director, said that by biking and walking around the Massachusetts city, where 9% of residents bicycle to work, the field trip would allow attendees to come home and ask, “What’s the Aquidneck Island version of this?”

Survey data has shown that although many residents do not currently bike on the three-municipality island, many wish that they could — something Ride Island is working toward.

The tour started in Inman Square, where bright green paint guided bikers on the field trip where to go. Miniature traffic lights, sized for commuting cyclists, lit up with little green bike symbols.

The intersection at Inman Square in Cambridge, Mass., with a special traffic light for bicyclists. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

“This was one of the worst intersections in Cambridge,” said Jeff Rosenblum, principal planner at Toole Design, holding up a photo of the new and old designs.

At the intersection, the city moved roads to make a more traditional four-way stop, reclaimed some of the road for public space, and added bike lane infrastructure, finishing up the work last year.

The changes are a part of a larger plan to make Cambridge a safer biking community, according to Rosenblum, who worked for the city before he became a planner at Toole Design.

The Cambridge City Council set deadlines to install new bike lanes in response to several deaths, which spurred several projects like the one in Inman, Rosenblum said.

The work has paid off, he said, asking the group to take a look at the local bikers they saw throughout day, sitting relaxed on their bicycles, some with kids strapped in and helmeted in the back.

The cohort from Aquidneck Island agreed. Biking the section from Inman Square to a Cambridge public library felt intuitive, said Tuuli Martin, a Newport city planner who came along for the trip.

The city employed paint to draw attention to the bike lanes, especially in “conflict zones,” where cars and bicycles are likely to cross paths, Rosenblum said. Some of the paths are separated from cars by flex posts or elevated curbs, some of which have plantings that also operate as green infrastructure, which can absorb stormwater and improve the water quality of the nearby Charles River.

The next part of the trip, through Harvard Square, was the most difficult, with the most car and foot traffic. The group had to start and stop more frequently for lights, vehicles making deliveries to local businesses, and tourists.

“That was urban traffic,” Rosenblum said after the group had made it through and gathered together by Harvard Yard.

In that section, there was a mix of dedicated lanes and turns for bikes, with some areas where bikes are “guests” and pedestrians are king, he explained. In Cambridge, there’s a culture of stopping for the other non-vehicle travelers: pedestrians.

Sometimes there’s conflict between pedestrians and bicyclists, who are both relegated to the space that isn’t otherwise occupied by cars, said Rosie Jaswal, a senior planner at Toole Design.

Pointing to trees, planters, and other “street furniture,” Jaswal said there are ways to delineate bike lanes and walking space, including using different materials to separate bike lanes from sidewalk areas.

The bicycles used by the visitors from Aquidneck Island. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

In addition to arranging space for different modes of travel, there’s also brokering over parking.

“When I worked in Cambridge, I said my title should have been ‘parking negotiator,’” Rosenblum said. Usually, businesses were concerned about losing parking spaces, and thus customers, to bike lanes, he said, but surveys often showed that most patrons were coming on foot or bike anyway.

Some spaces around businesses that were visited by car stayed, while much of the parking got pushed to side streets short walks away from businesses centers.

Heading toward Central Square, where a bike corral next to the H Mart can hold more than a dozen bicycles in the same space that one car would take up, the group hopped off their bikes and continued the day by foot.

In addition to the bicycle-specific infrastructure, Cambridge also employs traffic-calming measures that keep cars from traveling faster than the speed limit.

Rosenblum said preventing cars from zipping down streets is an important step in encouraging walkers and bikers to move around.

On Columbia Street, Toole Design project planner Alexis Vidaurreta pointed to speed humps spaced out on the road and asked the crowd to wait for a car to come by to show how effective they are. Sure enough, a car came speeding down the street, blasting salsa music, only to have to slow down over the bumps.

The two-way street is a bit of an outlier, as most of the adjacent streets were one way, Vidaurreta said. The city redesigned them that way decades ago to prevent people from whipping through the side streets too quickly to avoid traffic.

Massachusetts Avenue is one of the main thoroughfares connecting most of the big Cambridge neighborhoods — Kendall, Central, Harvard, and Porter squares — together. To try to solve traffic issues and make the road safer, the avenue underwent a road diet In the 1990s, shifting from two lanes on each side of traffic to one lane, with bike lanes added to both sides.

Road diets tend to slow down traffic without hurting travel times by eliminating the stop-and-go traffic that comes from cars trying to take left turns across two lanes.

man holds street design
Jeff Rosenblum, principal planner at Toole Design, holds up a photo of the new and old designs for Inman Square in Cambridge. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

More improvements to the road came in the early 2000s, when the city modified the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Main Street. The project and Lafayette Square it created by reclaiming the road space was paid for in part with mitigation money from a nearby development.

Rosenblum explained that city officials are “opportunistic,” taking advantage of development money to make their own projects happen or adding bike and safety infrastructure to roads when they’re already being torn up for other projects.

Marco DiMattino, whose family owns Anna D’s Cafe and Ice Cream on East Main Road in Portsmouth, R.I., came along for the field trip and said the ideas that Cambridge is employing excited him.

Although he said he was hesitant at first about changes that could move toward other modes of transportation, as he has learned more, he realized infrastructure changes, like traffic-calming measures, are the right thing to do.

“Slowing people down in front of my business is great,” he said with a laugh.

“I felt seen,” Thomas Brendler, senior program officer for the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, told ecoRI News after the bike ride — both figuratively and literally.

Bicycling feels like a respected form of transportation in Cambridge, he said. “That’s what we want. We don’t only belong in cars.”

“We’re all here to experience each other’s lens on this,” Freeman said, at the end of the day of biking and walking. It doesn’t all have to happen at once, she emphasized. “We’re working in steps.”

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  1. Was glad to see the road diet recently canceled in Middletown. Half-baked plans that leave extreme exposure everywhere else along east and west main roads are essentially no plan at all and might increase risk.

    A dedicated separate area like the east bay bike path is the right solution that no one wants to pay for. Crazy that Tiverton’s town council supports a separated bike path like this leading up to the train station in Fall River on the condition that they don’t have to pay anything for it. Freeloaders off of the state for an amenity that will principally benefit them.

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