Mornings in Somerville hum to sounds of commuters—squeaking car brakes, coworkers christening the morning with coffee, and an echoing ding from the bells of cyclists awaiting a green light.
It’s a refreshing sight, dozens of adults biking to work, like the neighborhood decided to take a spin around the block. But despite the many cautious, helmet-wearing, light-reflecting, and traffic-abiding cyclists, accidents happen.
Last year about 636 bicycle and pedestrian crashes were reported. Some were more gruesome than others, and a few were fatal.
That was the case for a friend of Ken Carlson, who’s the chair of Somerville Bicycle Advisory Committee. Last year, just outside the border of Somerville, Carlson’s friend and co-worker Joe Lavins was hit in the Porter Square intersection.
“He was killed by a collision with a tractor trailer in Porter Square on a beautiful day. It’s a pretty dangerous intersection—many cyclists go through Porter Square, and we’ve been advocating for a safer intersection for some time,” Carlson says. “That also sent shockwaves through the community. He was a friend of mine and someone I worked with at my company, and it just devastated our fellow co-workers. For people to die is incredibly emotional and real.”
Somerville ranks sixth in the country in people who travel by bicycle. Thousands bike through Somerville each day, according to the League of American Bicyclists.
Mayor Joseph Curtatone announced this fall that Somerville will launch Vision Zero—an initiative already adopted by 27 other communities in the United States. Vision Zero aims to improve infrastructure in order to eliminate traffic-related fatalities.
The initiative was first implemented in Sweden in the 1990s. Its success across Europe has encouraged American cities to follow suit.
“Somerville strives to become the most walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly city in America, and if we’re going to get there, we must be bold, and we must bolster our dedication to safer streets,” Curtatone said in a statement.
The Somerville Bicycle Committee’s action plan is based around five elements of transportation planning, which it refers to as the five E’s: engineering, evaluation, education, encouragement, and enforcement.
“How do you have people get along, sharing a road, in a way that’s safe for everybody? It’s a pretty serious commitment to reducing serious injury or death on the city streets. It’s saying that it is unacceptable for anyone to die, be killed or seriously injured on our city streets. It’s a commitment to reducing injury and fatalities to zero,” Carlson says.
One of the first steps the city has taken as a part of Vision Zero is identifying the most accident-prone areas in the city and figuring out how to reengineer these areas so bicycles have designated spaces like cars do.
Somerville’s advantage is its data. Brad Rawson, head of transportation and infrastructure in Somerville, says the city tracks everything. Forty people go out annually to interview residents and collect data for the bicycle and pedestrian counting program. The city hopes to keep using the data and further some of the progress the city has already made, like where to put more protected bike lanes or where to control speed limits.
“Many communities that are working on these low-carbon, human-scale transportation planning efforts I think struggle because their historical roots are all about the automobile,” Rawson says. “Communities that were built after World War II, the engineering and prioritization kind of denies people who walk or bike. But in Somerville that’s not the case at all. We are a much older community—most of our roads were built out by the 1900s and 1910.”
The city has reduced the speed limit to 25 miles per hour, which Carlson feels is a huge step in calming traffic. Ensuring that all modes of transportation are moving predictably is essential to creating a safe city environment, he says.
Somerville built its first protected bike lanes in Washington Square and is continuing to remodel streets to include these lanes.
“So far, most of the bike lanes in Somerville, Cambridge, and Boston are painted bike lanes,” Carlson says. “Now, the real bike mantra in the community is protected bike lanes. And you’re starting to see more and more protected bike lanes in the city. When the construction on Beacon street is finished, we will have cycle tracks, which are protected bike lanes at the level of the sidewalk, from Porter Square down to Washington Street.”
On the enforcement side, one issue the city has struggled with is preventing Uber and Lyft cars from parking or idling in bike lanes. The Somerville Bicycle Committee plans to send a letter to Uber and Lyft and has gained support from other cyclist organizations. The city could create designated ride-share parking to solve this problem.
In terms of changes to vehicles, a local ordinance mandates that city trucks need side guards, which are skirts that go around trucks to prevent cyclists from being sucked beneath the wheels after being hit. Crossover mirrors are also going up on city and school buses to help improve visibility.
Come 2018, Somerville will release a Vision Zero action plan that will build on the steps the city has already taken toward pedestrian and cyclist safety. It will include technical planning and projected milestones stretching over the next five years. Until then, Curtatone says the city will launch a learning safety module to reinforce road safety practices. Rawson says the city also wants to step up its education and outreach efforts and hopes to increase community participation.
“My wife and I relocated here in 2007 in part because we wanted a more walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented lifestyle compared to where we previously lived in Vermont,” Rawson says. “One of the things we hear from our residents is that choice matters and that people love that human feel—that rhythm.”
This story appears in the November/December print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
Like what you’re reading? Consider supporting Scout on Patreon!