Used by students, staff, and faculty to shuttle around campus, cycling has become an integral part of MIT’s transportation network. While bike racks, service stations, and lanes are very common, there remain key issues which must be brought to the attention of the Office of Campus Planning and the greater cycling community to improve the safety and efficiency of bicycling.
Consider the west portion of Vassar Street stretching from Westgate to the intersection at Mass. Ave. In theory, the current setup of combining the bike lane and pedestrian pavement should work without problems. The Briggs side and Simmons side bike lanes would be used correctly as directed one-way lanes to travel toward and away from campus, with pedestrians walking only on their portion of the pavement and keeping a watchful eye for bikes zooming by.
In reality, cyclists often use the directed, narrow bike lanes for two-way travel, creating a dangerous head-on situation with no protocol on which way each biker should move to avoid a collision. And rather than stay off the bike lane, pedestrians (often wearing headphones) walk in rows of six, occupy the entire pavement, and rarely respond to shouts or bells to move out of the way.
This issue is further complicated by new changes to Vassar Street over the past year. These changes include the relocation of the Tech Shuttle stop at Simmons, where a horde of students hopping on and off the pavement slows the bicycle traffic to a complete stop during the morning rush, and the Koch Childcare Center, where little children often wander away from their parents and stumble right onto the bike path, creating a potentially disastrous situation.
On the other side of campus, it seems incredible that Memorial Drive offers no safe way for bikes to travel from the Mass. Ave. intersection all the way to Sloan. The road itself contains no striped lanes or shared lane markings, meaning that cyclists are not allowed to ride near the cars. And at seven feet wide, the pavement is much too narrow to handle both pedestrians and two-way bike traffic. I once received a verbal battering by an old man for almost clobbering him as he emerged from Killian Court; to avoid the collision I swerved my bike and ended up swimming in the bushes.
So what can be done?
In June 2014, the City of Cambridge Toole Design Group released a paper called Cycle Tracks: A Technical Review of Safety, Design, and Research, which contains a thoughtful survey of bike lanes, and a new model for bike lanes to exist in harmony with cars and people. Ideas raised in the paper, which I encourage the Office of Campus Planning to consider, if they haven’t already, can be incorporated to alleviate the challenges outlined above.
Regarding Vassar Street, one plausible solution is to keep the bike lane on the pavement, but move the trees to create a physical barrier between the bike and pedestrians lanes. An alternate solution would be to narrow the bike lane to discourage cyclists from riding the wrong direction, and place small cones that prevent people from wandering in the way of bikes. Lastly, the road can be widened to incorporate a traditional striped bike lane, which would have the advantage of being parking-protected on the Simmons side and allowing bikes to overtake the shuttle at the bus stop on the Briggs side.
As for Memorial Drive, between the pavement and road lies around eight feet of dirt, serving no purpose whatsoever. This area can be used to introduce the Cycle Track model, which is essentially a road for bikes separated by a striped yellow line . A small barrier could be introduced between the walking and biking sections, with exits and entries at key locations like Killian Court and Hayden Library. As an immediate measure, the pavement should be designated as a no-bike zone given the high risk and frequency of accidents.
As an inexpensive, healthy, and environmentally friendly mode of transport, the cycling network should continue to be supported by campus planners for years to come. In addition to the previous examples, there are problematic spots all over campus, such as dorm row, where bikes often squeeze between the Tech Shuttle and delivery vans parked halfway on the sidewalk. A careful redesign of bike lanes at MIT would ensure a safer and more efficient experience for all commuters in our community.