By Harry Kane
Planned reconstruction on Beacon Street has been under discussion since the late 1990′s, but the delays in funding kept pushing the project back on the city’s agenda. Now it looks like Beacon Street will be reconstructed with a cycle track included.
“The number of cars has gone down, which is contrary to conventional wisdom,” says Alex Epstein, chair of the Somerville Bicycle Committee. “At the same time, bicycle traffic is going up through the roof.” Automobile traffic decreased 13 percent from 1999-2012, and over the last decade, bicycle traffic has increased on Beacon Street substantially, according to a Somerville city official.
According to Epstein, who lives on Beacon Street and bikes everyday, there are more bikes traveling through the corridor than anywhere in Massachusetts. “One out of every three vehicles on Beacon Street is a bicycle,” he says. But riding in rush hour traffic is a little like “running with the bulls.” Because of the intrinsic danger of riding in traffic, children and the elderly aren’t able to participate in the cycling fun.
The bike lanes on Beacon Street, says Epstein, can be dangerous for cyclists when a driver opens a car door into the bike lane. “It becomes a negotiation between not getting in front of moving cars in the travel lane and not being in the zone where the parked cars are going to fling their doors open in front of you.” He says these are the most common sorts of accidents.
“As more drivers eat breakfast or talk on their cell-phone, and do their make-up while driving, you can’t be sure that they are going to spot a bike,” says Epstein. Children on bicycles are less visible and at more risk of injury. “A cycle track puts someone out of harms way from distracted drivers.”
Beacon Street’s new design is 25 percent complete. The concepts and the general layout of the street – sidewalk, cycle track or a protected bike lane, trees, intersections – are still being “tweaked,” says Epstein. He says the design has changed a lot based on community feedback. So far it’s been a 6-month long process.
“The cost of the design is approximately $500,000,” says Hayes Morrison, Director of Transportation and Infrastructure for the City of Somerville. The design will be finalized in September, with construction to begin in the spring of 2014.
The construction portion of the project will be paid for with 80 percent federal funds from the Federal Highway Administration and 20 percent state funds from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. The estimated cost of construction is approximately $7 million, said Morrison.
Ben Carlson is a cycling advocate and proponent of the cycle track. He lives on Beacon Street and bikes everyday to and from his job in Union Square. In his opinion, Beacon Street is the busiest bike thoroughfare in all of metro Boston. By putting a cycle track on Beacon Street, Carlson says, Somerville is “making a statement.” Motorists should be happy because the cycle track will cut down on commute times, and improve the air quality. A cycle track is infinitely better than bike lanes, he says.
There are active opponents to the proposed cycle track. Some criticism focuses on the loss of parking spots associated with the reconstruction of Beacon Street. It is important to remember, officials say, that even though the entire reconstruction plan will result in the loss of some 100 parking spots, the cycle track will only be responsible for 30 percent of those lost spots.
Ward 2 Alderman Maryann Heuston thinks the design is flawed. “It does not accommodate the parking needs of long-time residents and businesses,” she says. Heuston sees a lot of “merit” in the cycle track, but she says, “As the design stands now, I can’t support.”