Why Arlington’s Rejection of Bike Lanes is Foolish

A backward-looking campaign against more livable streets succeeds—barely.

On Saturday, voters in Arlington proved themselves simultaneously foolish and shortsighted when they attempted to shut down a proposal for bike lanes on a one-mile strip of Massachusetts Avenue. They’re foolish because the vote, essentially, rejects $6.8 million in funding from the state and federal governments. And they’re short-sighted because the installation of bike lanes on some—not all—streets is the future for cities and towns.

A recap: Massachusetts Avenue in East Arlington is a disaster. It’s a chaotic stretch of road with no painted lanes and few cross-walks that’s been the scene of far too many accidents. A few years ago, the town started planning an update for the street, and secured $6.8 million in funding from the state and federal governments. As state senator Ken Donnelly noted, however, MassDOT required that bicycles be accommodated in some fashion, either through bike lanes (which would eliminate one of four lanes of car traffic) or through wider outside car lanes (which would reduce the size of the sidewalks or remove parking).

So, the town started to look at how to make that happen. After three different traffic studies, they determined that eliminating one outbound lane on Massachusetts Avenue would have little effect on traffic, and it would present the opportunity to provide left turns, as well as bike lanes and sidewalk and pedestrian improvements that would do an enormous amount of good from both a safety and livability standpoint. They’ve been moving the Mass Ave. Corridor Project plans forward, and in October, posted the 75 percent design plans.

This, unfortunately, angered a group of residents that call themselves the East Arlington Concerned Citizens Committee. (Any group using “concerned citizens” in their name ought to spark immediate concern among the actual citizenry, as it nearly always signals a knee-jerk rejection of any and all change.) The EACCC—pronounced “EEEEEEKKKKKKKK!”—put together an evidence-lacking fear campaign (more congestion! snow removal will be hell!) against the Mass Ave. Corridor Project that looks remarkably like the one opposing the Casey Arborway plan. The mission: Obfuscate, protest, and deny everything in order to slow down the project.

The EACCC campaign culminated in their narrow victory on Saturday, with 4,334 supporting four traffic lanes and 4,097 against. Since the measure was non-binding, however, it doesn’t totally kill the Mass Ave. Corridor Project—the vote just threatens it. The Arlington selectmen now have two options: 1. Override a narrow majority of their citizens; or 2. Turn down all the state/federal money, start the design over, and fund it themselves.

Both options are bad ones, but even in the loss, there are a few good signs:

1. The loss for bicycle and pedestrian advocates was an extremely narrow one—just 237 votes. Clearly, there is a lot of support for forward-looking traffic plans in the community.

2. EACCC’s chief advocate, Maria Romano, lost convincingly in her campaign for a selectman’s seat.

3. If they steel themselves, Arlington and MassDOT can still move forward with the new plan for safer and move livable streets.

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  • C Flaherty

    Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn’t Arlington have an extensive bike path that runs through the entire town? Are there so many bicycles in Arlington that the path isn’t sufficient? As someone who commutes to Cambridge (not from Arlington), I deal with my share of cyclists. Just like motorists, some are great and some are terrible. However, motorists study and pay for a license, pay for registration and insurance, as well as toll charges. What do the cyclists contribute monitarily?

    • http://twitter.com/patrickcdoyle Patrick Doyle

      C: Thanks for the comment. A bike path doesn’t eliminate the need for bike lanes on streets with local businesses, just like a highway through your town doesn’t eliminate the need for local streets. As for what cyclists contribute monetarily: The vast majority of them own cars in addition to bicycles, so they’re paying all those fees as well. Bicycles also cause negligible damage to the actual road, and none to the environment.

    • dulles1969

      @C Flaherty – The bike path is one artery. It is not extensive in the way that a network of roads is extensive. It’s like asking why Arlington needs Summer Street & Mass. Ave. & Gray Street all running E-W in parallel to each other… isn’t Route 2 enough?
      – Most road construction & maintenance budget comes from state and federal funding (raised from stuff like income taxes), not car-specific charges like registration or excise/gas taxes. Non-driving workers’ tax dollars subsidize roads for drivers; their tax dollars also go to subsidies benefiting energy companies, which keep the cost of fuel (ironically) artificially low.
      All that said, I don’t care for this article’s combative tone.

    • http://stopandmove.blogspot.com/ Jass

      Correctme if I am wrong, but doesn’t Arlington have an extensive road network that runs through the entire town? Are there so many drivers in
      Arlington that one additional lane is so critical?

      Protip: Roads are generally funded by property taxes, which everyone pays. All those license and registration fees? They pay for license and registration bureaucracy and nothing more. Insurance? Uh, that obviously goes to the insurance company. Tolls? There are no tolls on Mass Ave.

      By paying the same tax rate, nut not driving, cyclists are actually subsidizing motorists (since theyre not causing the wear and tear that 4,000lbs does)

    • tvjunk

      Thank you all for shedding some light on the subject. I am not a cyclist, so I hadn’t thought of some of the things you pointed out to me. However, is there any accountability on a cyclists’ part? There are no registrations or licences (or are there?) and I’ve never seen one who breaks the rules of the road get a ticket. It appears that you can just jump on a bike and do what ever you want. I appreciate that bicycles are great for the environment and good for excercise. Are there any hard fast rules for cyclists?

      • G Fraser

        Cyclists are required to follow the same rules followed by cars, and yes they can be ticketed. I have seen cyclists “pulled over” by the police before for riding in wide packs (blocking traffic). Also I’m not sure how much its enforced, but they are prohibited from riding on sidewalks, and there are signs up around Mass Ave reminding them of this. Even pedestrians can be ticketed for jay walking.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.j.orourke.1 Stephen J. O’Rourke

    Good for Arlington. Bike lanes are useless. Buy an auto!

  • Rich

    “Bike lanes are useless” ?? At the very least, ignorant statements like these help us understand what kind of people we are dealing with. You needn’t look far to see EACCC ‘s lack of insight: “Increased Air Pollution” being one of their arguments against the bike lanes. Need we say more? Sad to see so many swayed against it, especially with all the funding.

  • G Fraser

    Considering how poorly the non-binding item was worded, it would be ridiculous NOT to override it. Do you want four lanes on Mass Ave, as it’s always been? Well, um, yea sure, why not. Seriously, who was the genius who wordsmithed that one?

  • http://www.facebook.com/andrew.muldowney Andrew Muldowney

    That bike path near by is sort of a joke for anyone seriously commuting. It doesn’t have a dedicated right of way so there are stop signs every few hundred hards in some places and then in other places you can’t ‘get out’ of the path for long stretches. Not to mention it is often full of pedestrians with baby strollers and roller bladers. If you’re actually utilizing your bicycle as a mode of transportation to get from point A to point B travelling on the road is a lot more reasonable. I have ridden my bike on this stretch of Mass Ave and it can be pretty hairy with its ‘free for all’ lack of lane markings. Good luck fighting the future EEEEEEEAK!

  • Jeff Dearman

    Mass Ave is a dangerous roadway. There needs to be designated bike lanes. Bike lanes cause no problems. There also needs to be more pedestrian wheelchair overhead wheelchair ramps built crossing Mass Ave. It is very hard for anyone who walks slow such as elderly folks using canes, or people with wheelchairs to cross Mass Ave, due to the short length of the lights…and the constant traffic turning in from other roadways….An example of this is at the Capitol theater corner? Why can’t they at least build four or five pedestrian overpass ramps across Mass Ave through Arlington. One in Arlington Center…maybe by the church? To allow easier crossing for elderly folks and ADA folks to the church? Maybe one by the Capitol theater –to allow for easy crossing for pedestrians/bikers, ADA folks and school children/elderly…across the theater, and maybe one down by alewife brook by the intersection there to allow for better and safer crossing of Mass Ave at a busy intersection. It would make sense.