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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

Somerville releases final plan for new citywide bike network

A bike lane near Powder House Circle in Somerville is pictured on May 10.

Somerville released its first-ever Bicycle Network Plan on April 11 to build an 88-mile system of connected bike lanes throughout the city. The network, which will be completed within the next few decades, would make Somerville the only municipality in Massachusetts besides Cambridge to establish a citywide bicycle network.

“There’s quite a lot to be excited about here,” Tom Lamar, chair of the Somerville Bicycle Advisory Committee, said.“There’s a lot of detail that went into this plan after some pretty thorough outreach. … I’m really excited that this network plan lays out a pretty thorough network of streets and has … put a lot of thought into what routes make the most sense everywhere.”

As early as 2014, Somerville ranked No. 1 in the Northeast and No. 5 in the nation for bike commuting, according to the League of American Cyclists. Despite the popularity of biking, however, Somerville’s current 30.1 miles of bike lanes is a fragmented network deemed by many locals to be unsafe. When asked in a city survey how comfortable they felt biking on a scale of 1–10, the average response from Somerville residents was 5.5.

“I’d say maybe half of [the current bike network is] very pleasant,” Lamar said. “But there are also a lot of very stressful sections along busier roads or roads without any dedicated bike infrastructure and dangerous intersections. … Biking is pretty great, it’s pretty useful, … but it’s clear that it could be so much better than it currently is.”

According to George Schneeloch, co-founder of Somerville Bike Safety, an improved bike network could play a significant role in reducing these safety concerns.

“People who may not be super comfortable riding on many of the roads in Somerville today may choose to do so if there’s infrastructure in place which either slows down traffic … or provides protected bike lanes in order to separate … bikes and motor vehicles,” Schneelochadded.

Previously, Lamar said, Somerville’s efforts to build new bicycling infrastructure were largely opportunistic, with city planners adding new bike lanes if a street was due for regular repaving, for example. According to Lamar, the inefficiency of this approach prevented a complete network from coming together.

“[Street by street] is not the most productive way to fight this out,” he said. “You need to be looking at this more holistically and be [thinking], ‘We need a safe route to get from this neighborhood to this school or to this square. What streets are the possible options for that? What are the most direct routes or the flattest routes?’”

The city’s new Bicycle Network Plan was developed with these questions in mind. A combination of one-way protected bike lanes, off-street paths and walk-and-bike-friendly streets called neighborways, the network includes some form of bikeway on 54% of Somerville streets. It aims to make biking a safer, less stressful endeavor for residents by connecting places of interest across the city and reducing levels of traffic stress.

“The goals are primarily to increase biking as a main mode [of transportation]; to provide infrastructure that is safe and comfortable for people biking of all ages, abilities, genders and backgrounds; and to ensure that every resident in Somerville has access to bicycling,” Viola Augustin, a senior planner in Somerville’s Mobility Division, said.

 The current Bicycle Network Plan is the result of an extensive public process that included community meetings, online surveys and group bike rides. After releasing a draft of the plan in November 2022, the city received feedback about its construction timeline, which was longer than many residents and advocates hoped for. In response, the new plan includes roughly 40 miles of a “priority network” to be completed by 2030.

“[The priority network] is reasonable, but there are a couple of omissions on there,” Lamar said, pointing to Beacon Street as an example of a vital area that was excluded from the priority plan. The street is the city’s most heavily trafficked corridor for biking, used by an estimated 500 cyclists during peak hours.

Schneeloch echoed this sentiment. 

“Unfortunately, [regarding] the southern part of Beacon Street between Washington Street and Inman Square, … they’re not going to do any work on that in the next seven years according to their plan,” he said. “I hope that they reconsider that.”

Some Somerville residents have also raised concerns about the new bike network’s impact on parking spaces. Lamar said that creating bike lanes often requires reclaiming new parking spaces and repurposing existing ones, a challenge that the city is prepared to take on.

“We’re committed to — if at all possible — keeping parking on one side, but even that will be challenging for some people,” Augustin said. “We are very aware of people that are older and also … accessible parking needs to be maintained. … Streets are complicated public spaces, and a lot of programming has to be accommodated. So, we will have to make compromises, and those compromises are always challenging.”

Construction on the network is slated to begin within the next year, according to Augustin. To accelerate the process, the city plans to use a method called Quick-Build, which uses low-cost, short-term materials that can be designed and installed relatively quickly.

“The community is very, very excited about this,” Lamar said. “It’s a solid plan overall. It’s definitely improved from graphs we looked at before. The community is really happy with it as is. … The main question now is: How do we get this done?”