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Dear Planners of the Vassar Street Project
I am John S. Allen, VII '75. I have been a nationally recognized author on bicycling issues since the late 1970's. I was a member of the MIT Bicycle Committee which met and published its report in the early 1990s. I was involved in the earliest discussions which lead to the formation of the Cambridge Bicycle Committee and was a charter member of that committee. I am past president of the Boston Area Bicycle Coalition (now the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition). Since 1982, I have served from time to time as an expert consultant and expert witness in lawsuits related to bicycle accidents. Please see my Web page Consultant and Expert Witness in Bicycle Accident Lawsuits - Curriculum vitae of John S. Allen.
I can not urge the Institute strongly enough to revise the design of the planned bikeway on Vassar Street.
The rationale behind this project appears to be to convert as much of the width of Vassar Street as possible into pedestrian space and parkland, by narrowing the roadway. The roadway thereby becomes too narrow for lane sharing by bicyclists and motorists, and so bicyclists are to be accommodated on the sidewalks. The sidewalk bikeway is to pass behind rows of parked cars and rows of tree trunks which will grow year by year. It will cross heavily-used driveways including those at the Building 39 portal, the West Parking Garage, and several parking lots. It will also pass behind a truck loading zone at the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse.
The national standard reference work on bicycle facilities is the AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Engineers) Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities. The AASHTO Guide's recommendations are strongly supported by the engineering and safety literature. The plans for the Vassar Street project are strongly at variance with the Guide and with the findings of accident studies. The Guide specifically and unequivocally, repeatedly counsels against the construction of sidewalk-type bikeways, and against bicycle lanes which go behind rows of parked cars and other sight obstructions.
The AASHTO Guide warns, in particular, about the hazards of intersections between sidewalk-type bikeways and streets or driveways. The Guide instead recommends wide outside lanes or bicycle lanes at street level as part of the roadway, so bicyclists may travel where they are visible and predictable, while sufficient roadway width is provided for motorists to overtake them. Where needed, traffic-calming on the roadway may reduce traffic volume and speed.
An important advantage of on-roadway facilities, aside from greater safety, is that they are relatively inexpensive to construct, and much easier to maintain. In our Massachusetts climate, snow clearance is an important issue. There is no way that a sidewalk-type bikeway can be kept clear of snow and ice to nearly the same extent that the street can. The Vassar Street corridor will become nearly useless for bicycle travel during the winter if the project is constructed as proposed.
The bikeway, built as proposed, would lead to an elevated accident rate for bicyclists and pedestrians, and create a serious liability exposure to the Institute. As an example of poor engineering practice in the conduct of the Institute's own business, it would damage the Institute's reputation. I am sickened at this prospect. It would be particularly ironic and sad, as MIT Press publishes the pioneering and in many ways definitive book about bicycle program design, John Forester's Bicycle Transportation.
I note that the City of Cambridge has insisted on the street-level approach in the design of the intersections with Main Street and Massachusetts Avenue, as in every other bicycle facility the City has constructed in a street corridor. The City has posted signs to warn that sidewalk bicycling is prohibited in Harvard Square and Central Square, due to the hazardous mix of bicycle and pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks. The City complements its on-street bicycle facilities with traffic-calming measures to reduce and/or slow motor traffic. It is my understanding that the impetus for a sidewalk-type facility came from MIT and not from the City.
I understand the desire of MIT to change the character of Vassar Street, to improve its appearance and make it feel more like a part of the campus. The traffic reduction, traffic slowing and landscaping that would achieve this goal are attainable within the framework of AASHTO guidelines, and at very significant reduction to the cost of the project as presently proposed.
The money saved could be effectively spent: on orientation materials to educate incoming students about safe bicycling techniques; on enforcement; and on facilities projects which meet recognized design guidelines.
I wish to meet with you to discuss these issues.
Attached to this letter, I have provided a suggested alternate proposal, and a more detailed description of technical problems and solutions.
John S. Allen, VI '75
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