Bike stats contradict safety claims of Cambridge officials

Porter Square is safe intersection, not the most dangerous one

AMID AN OUTCRY over how the implementation of Quick Build bike lanes will all but eliminate street parking in front of local businesses, the Cambridge City Council has smacked down residents’ concerns with false and outdated information. No matter which side of this debate you stand on, everybody should be able to deliberate based on the same set of objective facts and goals.

I’m a longtime Cambridge resident. I bike 50 miles a week when the weather’s good—so I’m by no means anti-bicycle or against projects intended to make our roads safer. What I am against, though, is misinformation.

A paragon of this sad trend of misinformation was on display at an April 25 meeting of the Cambridge City Council. I witnessed Councilor Marc McGovern ask Transportation Director Joseph Barr the following question: “Is it fair to say that, for cyclists, Porter Square is one of the most dangerous intersections in the city?” In his response, Barr not only agreed with this assessment, but he offhandedly said that “there’s been different ways of looking at the data” and talked at length about how he was making his judgments, in part, based on Porter Square projects he worked on decades ago.

The phrase, “Porter Square is one of the most dangerous intersections in the city,” was repeated many times in public comment and during City Council deliberation. But this claim is not accurate—not even close.

Having cycled through Porter Square countless times, I was perplexed when Barr dismissed concerns about how bike lanes are choking off local businesses and claimed that Porter Square was the most dangerous section of Cambridge for cyclists. Based on my own anecdotal observations, this didn’t seem right—so I looked into the hard data behind it.

I found the Cambridge Police Department Crash Log and discovered facts quite contradictory to  the claims made at that April meeting, Based on publicly available data, Porter Square is among the safest major intersections to ride a bike in the city. In Porter Square, this same dataset shows a grand total of zero cycling incidents and injuries from motor vehicles in the last two years. This is the fewest incidents of any major intersection or road segments in the city.

Digging deeper into the data, we learn something surprising: More cyclists have gotten injured in areas with new bike lanes than before they were installed. Mass. Ave. in mid-Cambridge and Mass. Ave. north of Harvard Square both saw increases in injury rates. That doesn’t necessarily mean that bike lanes make cyclists less safe. But it does undercut the council’s central claim that bike lanes alone will ensure bike safety.

Now, I’m a data science hobbyist, but I’m by no means an expert. All I did was take a peek under the hood and look at the facts that are publicly available. I encourage you to explore my analysis yourself. If I, as a concerned citizen with some time on my hands, could so easily debunk what the council is saying, then that speaks volumes about our local elected leaders. What else have they misled us about?

The Cambridge City Council, which has access to experts and traffic studies, is blatantly using misinformation to shut down constructive discourse in the community. The City Council’s job is to make policy based on facts, and I believe that’s what the people of Cambridge elected it to do.

Here in Cambridge, we don’t do “alternative facts.” We should be the shining example of constructive democratic policymaking, not a hotbed of obfuscation and willful ignorance on the part of our officials. We all want to balance safety for our bicyclists with allowing our community to prosper—but that goal cannot be served unless we are all on the same page about what the facts are around road safety.

John Hanratty is a 30-year Cambridge resident, entrepreneur, and amateur data science enthusiast.