Images by Chris Faraone
It’s been almost two years since we covered the City of Somerville’s bungled early attempt to build a cycle track on Beacon Street between Inman and Porter Squares. Among the revelations we reported at the time:
- In a December 2012 review of the Beacon Street plan, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation blasted Somerville’s proposal. Among other shortcomings, the state cited a gauntlet of safety violations, and noted that planners neglected to address basic questions like “Where would the bus stops be situated?”
- City planners were initially tardy in submitting requested changes to the appropriate state agencies, thereby contributing to stalling any progress on development.
- Motorists and bike advocates were at each other’s throats during a pitched debate about the choice between adequate parking and a suitable cycle track. Meanwhile, what most people on both sides didn’t realize was that the city had approved use of a former gas station lot on Beacon Street for the building of a 35-room hotel that would utilize a number of street spots.
- An architectural design firm, whose proprietors are major contributors to Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, drew the renderings for said hotel. But while the same firm was subsequently hired to draft the Beacon Street plans, their initial reports suspiciously omitted the impact of hotel parking.
I could go on for pages; like that of Assembly Square, the long-running ballad of Beacon Street is shrouded in enough apparent pay-to-play politics to turn one’s stomach, though only a handful of affected residents seem aware of the subterfuge. Nevertheless, in brainstorming ideas for our annual bike issue, we asked friends and readers for opinions on the worst roads in Greater Boston, and more than half of you returned us to the scene of our Somerville reporting. All these months later, Beacon Street remains, as we wrote in 2013, “a messy patchwork of asphalt Band-Aids and incongruous lane markers.”
The city’s robust media relations team took dramatic issue with our series on the Beacon Street debacle, which mentioned harsh truths that counter the common image of Somerville as an early retirement hamlet for hipsters. The city’s spokespeople are full of shit though; back in 2013, their director of transportation and infrastructure claimed the Beacon Street “process is on schedule and moving forward as planned,” and that “it will be a transformative project … helping Somerville fulfill our goal of being the most walkable, bikeable, transit-accessible community in the United States.”
That’s quite a statement. Especially if one considers reality, and the responses I got this past weekend as I walked the war zone asking people to share their experiences. While planners have promised American excellence, at the moment local residents prefer to reference locales like Kuwait and Leningrad in order to describe the infrastructure. As such, and since the city has accused us of embellishing and theorizing conspiracies in the past, for this update I went straight to those who continue to endure the stretch of rural Afghanistan connecting Somerville Ave with Washington Street in Cambridge.
“I popped a tire on this street—a car tire!” one young woman told me. She was taking in the weekend afternoon with her roommates on their front lawn abutting Beacon Street. One of her male friends, also a recent college grad, added: “I bike everywhere, and I’ve popped tires as well.” Their other buddy said he quit using the street altogether: “I don’t bike on Beacon anymore. I pop out right there on the corner. I used to bike down it, but this past year they dug it up again, so I just stopped trying.”
Nearby I found a restaurant worker walking his bike, and he told a similar story. Like many people I approached, he’d come to accept what’s more or less been the city’s line, which is that the entire street needs to eventually get torn up for a cycle track, and the residents might as well shoulder the pain so the local government won’t waste money on interim blacktop. It’s an unfortunate perspective, but one that jibes municipally if one considers how much cash Somerville has already hemorrhaged by paying the aforementioned politically wired design firm to sketch, adjust, and re-sketch plans.
A rendering of the planned cycle track scenario for Beacon Street (via City of Somerville)
Not everyone has fallen for the city line. Speaking at a community meeting in 2013, State Senator Pat Jehlen questioned the seemingly unnecessary complexity of the situation. “I strongly doubt that a five-block track will attract more cyclists,” she said. “I think what will attract more cyclists is paving the street!” Her comments (and the Dig’s reporting) were characterized by some as being anti-cycle track; whether that’s the case or not, what’s more underlyingly important is the simple fact that Beacon Street is a hazardous minefield.
Back in the rubble, I ambushed a couple of unsuspecting iced coffee drinkers in front of Petsi Pies. The topic of my story piqued their interests immediately. “I don’t bike on this street,” said one woman. “I go over to Somerville Ave.” She wasn’t the first to express a preference for the parallel concourse. A guy sitting with her added, “I ride a motorcycle, and this street is the worst. I have to stand up off my seat.” Everyone I asked has some kind of particular loathe affair with Beacon Street. “The pipes!” cried one guy I interviewed. “Last year there were pipes all on the side of the road; so if you wanted to get to the other side, you had to drive all the way down, then back the other way. It was awful.”
On the Porter Square end of the rocky road, I walked into Bicycle Belle, a store that was founded almost two years ago to specialize in bikes that are “suitable for short urban trips.” As troopers who have stuck it out despite the poor street conditions, the women at Bicycle Belle had no specific criticisms for the city or process, but were happy to share purchasing tips for those forced to traverse urban mogul fields.
“If you’re thinking short-term, something that’s just going to get you through the terrible pavement, you can go with a mountain bike that has some shocks on the frame,” said Cecilia, the store’s chief operating associate. “We also recommend getting bikes that are made of steel rather than aluminum.” She would know. “I’ve heard occasional stories of people popping their tires on this road, but I think people are just generally frustrated. We hope that once it’s fully repaved it will be really great, but it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.”
That appears to be the case. As one of the recent college grads I interviewed noted: “Now there’s also the summertime smell of Beacon, which we’re pretty sure is the smell of shit. We’re not really sure where it comes from, but it seems to have something to do with that huge crack in the ground over there.”
BONUS: We’ve been collecting your stories about flat tires and fender benders on Beacon Street since last week. And we’re going to post them soon. In the meantime, to have yours included, please leave the story on our Facebook page, Tweet it at us, or email us at [email protected]
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.