How the Bicycle Committee Is Making Our Streets Safer

Ken CarlsonKen Carlson. Photo by Derek Kouyoumjian.

A recurring theme in our conversation with Ken Carlson, the chair of the Somerville Bicycle Committee, is the championing of “good frustration.”

“People who aren’t used to biking in a place that has decent bike facilities will come and say to me, ‘Wow, I really love biking in Somerville,’” Carlson says. “My response is yeah, it’s good, but I know what it should look like. It should be great, it could be great, and it’s going to take a few years to be great. I’m impatient for that, but maybe that’s part of the motivation we all need.”

From the outside, any frustration might seem superfluous after the kind of year bicyclist advocates in Somerville have had.

Aside from the sizable bicyclist community already in place around the city—for reference, Beacon Street averages about 500 bikes per hour during peak commuting times, according to Carlson—Somerville closed 2017 by being named a Gold Level Bicycle Friendly Community by The League of American Bicyclists. Weeks before, city officials announced a commitment to Vision Zero, a multi-national network of municipalities looking “to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries nationwide.”

A great deal of credit for these milestones belongs to the committee, but Carlson himself is propelled by a well of “good frustration” that crops up whenever discussing progressive aspirations for Somerville.

“It’s always been out of a passion for creating safer streets and making things safer for people who are on bicycles,” Carlson says on his lifelong love of bicyclist advocacy.

After a stint in New Jersey where he started the state’s first 501(c)(3) bike advocacy organization, Carlson landed in Somerville with his wife eight years ago. Within months, he had joined the Bicycle Committee, eventually working his way up to committee chair in 2015.

He’s quick to point out that the committee is nothing like your standard bike advocacy group.

“We’re actually unpaid city employees,” Carlson says. “We advise the city on bicycle-related issues … [and] we work within the system, but luckily, the system in this case has a very progressive mayor.”

Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, or as Carlson warmly refers to him, “Mayor Joe,” essentially acts as the committee’s biggest advocate, helping move the necessary approvals and funding forward on projects to make key routes, like along Elm Street and Webster Avenue, more friendly to bicyclists. Still, the moving parts of each plan would boggle even the most steadfast, patient bike advocates.

For example, to allow for bike lanes and repairs on the pothole-heavy Webster Avenue, the street width ultimately has to come into question. To allow enough room for car lines, bike lanes, parking, and sidewalks to coexist, the committee needs to submit intense, data-heavy research, including parking counts and estimated usage of the road by bicyclists. Even then, public meetings need to be scheduled in order to ensure approval among residents before carrying out the plan.

After checking off the necessary steps last year and currying favor with locals, the committee helped get Webster Avenue’s on-street parking removed last fall to make way for temporary bike lanes, but, according to Carlson, the city deemed the street needed major reconstruction on both sidewalks and roads in order for the project to move forward. At that point, the necessary funding for such construction was outside of the city’s budget. The committee came up with an idea of milling and repaving just the bike lanes temporarily “sometime this year,” but Carlson admits that “the timeline is so much slower than I’m sure even city officials want.”

“Many of the goals and projects we’re trying to get done are limited by dollars and staff time,” Carlson acknowledges. “Sometimes that’s frustrating, because we know what we want to get done and the city says, ‘yeah, we agree with you’ … but there’s the dream, and there’s reality.”

To handle so many projects and tasks at once, Carlson split the committee into five groups based around the five E’s of bicycle advocacy: education, encouragement, enforcement, engineering, and evaluation.

“We’re trying to promote biking for everyone,” Carlson says. “From the ages of 8 to 80, we always say. But where would you feel comfortable letting your child either bike with you or on their own? That should be the standard that we’re all trying to shoot for.”

While the “engineering” and “evaluation” efforts exist on a much lengthier schedule (“If I showed you the plans of what we’d like to do in the city, you’d be like, ‘holy smoke, that’s amazing,’ but then if I show you the timeline of some of the projects, you’d go, ‘holy smoke … that’s a lot further out than I have patience for”), the Bicycle Committee makes up for the wait with immediate attention to the remaining E’s.

For the of-age bicyclists in Somerville, the group hosts a BikeTalk social once a month at Aeronaut Brewery with a range of speakers. For a more family-friendly outing, bicyclist breakfasts at the Whole Foods on Beacon Street offer a chance to meet other cyclists, discuss safety concerns in the city, and form a small, bike-centric community one Friday every month.

“When I first joined the committee eight years ago, we had maybe eight members and 10 people showing up,” Carlson recalls. He estimates that there are around 16 regular members now, and up to 30 different attendees every month.

Even with a growing membership and long-term plans like the Beacon Street cycle track nearing completion, Carlson acknowledges that the committee’s reach can only go so far when many of the cars on Somerville streets are commuters living outside of the city.

“I would argue that I don’t want our streets for the people just driving through our city,” Carlson says. “The streets really should belong to the people who are the residents.”

Still, the Bicycle Committee has some resources to reach commuting drivers. Deputy Police Chief Stephen Carrabino, “who rides his bike everyday and is just an amazing bicycle advocate himself,” according to Carlson, recently put a note on electronic message boards about the Dutch Reach project, an effort that encourages car users to open their doors using their hand opposite the door. The simple maneuver forces the user to turn and see the bike lane behind them before opening, but Carrabino, Carlson, and many other advocates hope it will reduce “dooring”—accidentally hitting a bicyclist riding in the bike lane with a car door.

“I think you can see the tide is turning in places like Somerville and Cambridge where there’s a lot more people getting involved in grassroots transportation issues,” Carlson says. “If you come to our committee meetings, you see people of all ages and people of all genders,” he adds. “You’re starting to see a much more heterogeneous world out there who are getting around on bicycle, which is great to see. People are advocating because people care about where they live and how they get around.”

This is an online-exclusive story paired with the print Do Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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