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.