At a City Council committee(s) meeting last night, Newton Chief of Police David MacDonald expressed satisfaction that he had convinced the team redesigning West Newton Square to remove the parking-protected eastbound bike lane along the south side of Washington Street between the I-90 overpass and Chestnut St. Now, the proposed design has the bike lane between parking and the travel lanes. Chief MacDonald explained that he views the redesign proposal “through the prism of public safety.” 

Chief, time to get a new prism. What you’re proposing is not safer.

A bike lane between parked cars and the curb protects cyclists from:

  • Conflicts with vehicles in the travel lane
  • Conflicts with vehicles pulling into and out of parking spaces
  • Having to go into the travel lane to avoid the inevitable double-parked vehicle
  • Being doored by a driver exiting a vehicle
  • Being doored by a driver and thrown into moving traffic

A parking-protected bike lane also reduces the apparent width of the travel lanes, which reduces speed of through traffic, which is the number one overall safety improvement that the city can make in West Newton Square (or anywhere else, for that matter).

Admittedly, the chief (and his Fire Department peers) have a legitimate concern about the ability of emergency vehicles to get through the square, particularly at peak volumes, which seem to last most of the day. But, this is not the last century, where emergency vehicles had to rely on using lights and sirens to have vehicles move onto the shoulder to allow passage. Modern technology uses the traffic lights to clear lanes before emergency vehicles get there. We don’t need space for vehicles to pull over. There is no real tradeoff between providing safety for bicyclists and acceptably rapid emergency response.

Beyond that, Chief MacDonald provided the worst policy justifications at a public meeting since one of his predecessors said we needed the winter parking ban, because bad guys like to hide behind cars parked along the street (apparently not a concern in the warmer months). Chief MacDonald’s concerns about throughput, congestion, and driver frustration reflect a car-centric vision that is completely at odds with what are (or should be) the objectives of the redesign.

The redesign of West Newton Square should:

  • Make the square safer for all people, especially those on foot and on bike
  • Make the square a lively, human-scaled destination
  • Encourage mode shift from driving to foot and bicycle

Except as a secondary benefit, it should not be an objective to move more traffic through the square. It is an immutable rule: creating capacity does not ease congestion. If the redesign makes it easier to get through West Newton Square, that will attract more people to drive. 

Getting back to Chief MacDonald, he’s just not aligned with the city’s commitment to Complete Streets. Somebody needs to brief him on the vision and the values.