Case Study: Slow Times at Fast Phil’s after North Cambridge Cycle and Bus Routes open

Cynthia Hughes and Philip Soccorso are co-owners of Fast Phil’s hair salon in North Cambridge. They took off their masks while this photo was taken. (Photo: Andy Zucker)

Cynthia (Cindy) Hughes and Philip Soccorso, decades-old friends and experienced barbers, founded Fast Phil’s in North Cambridge in 2004. Business was great before the pandemic. They offered dozens of hairstyles every day, and sometimes customers had to take a ticket to wait their turn. Now, because of the cycle lanes and bus lanes set up on Massachusetts Avenue in November, Hughes said she spends the day answering phones and trying to explain to people where to park, “which is nowhere”.

During the pandemic, these co-owners, like many others, feared for the future of their business and accommodated customers as best they could. Hughes even occasionally brought his gear to a local park to serve longtime customers. “We were so careful with the virus,” she said, “because we needed the business and we didn’t want people to be afraid of us. She spoke on December 15, just before the Covid omicron variant became ubiquitous.

Once the vaccines became available, business picked up. “And then, boom, just like that” – Hughes snapped his fingers – “the city took it from us overnight with the parking lot.”

At least 70 spaces have been deleted. Forty of them have been measured, said Andreas Wolfe, the city manager for the project. Seventeen spaces in total on side streets were reallocated, including 15 with meters, while a pair of spaces on Gold Star Road became a loading area.

“I just turned around”

A customer entering the store asked about the parking lot a yard around the corner, one of the few nearby. Hughes informed him that even these two spaces weren’t available because it was street cleaning day and suggested that he park directly in front of Fast Phil’s lane on Massachusetts Avenue.

“It’s worse than the pandemic,” she said. “This is going to put us out of business for sure. There are dedicated bicycle and bus lanes on either side of Massachusetts Avenue between Dudley Street and Alewife Brook Parkway. Along this stretch there are a few spaces for disabled people and several loading areas on the south side of the street. Neither offers a parking solution for most customers of Fast Phil’s or other businesses.

Fast Phil’s surveyed its customers and found that 75 percent of them make it to the store, with some from as far away as Cape Cod and New Hampshire, Hughes said.

Having only one lane of traffic in each direction also caused traffic problems. As a long-time customer left Fast Phil’s, he said he had tried to come the day before, but when it was only two blocks away, “there was so much traffic that I just turned around and came home. “

Frustration with the city government

Hughes said she contacted city officials, but found the experience frustrating. Years ago, she requested that a bicycle rack be installed nearby so that Fast Phil customers on the road could come and go more easily; her request was denied, she said. Fast Phil was also not notified of parking changes in November, she said.

Wolfe suggested to Hughes that Fast Phil customers could park at Alewife station. Parking there is more expensive than the spaces measured, and it would take almost 20 minutes to walk to the store. Another suggestion was for their customers to park in Arlington and walk the rest of the way, Hughes said.

Hughes commented at a city council meeting on December 6 “the economic impact on our business which took us 18 years to build and to tell you that we need help now to mitigate our business losses”.

She asked the city manager “to conduct a study to collect relevant economic data relating to the commercial impacts of cycle lane installations, which will help to inform future bicycle lane installations in trade corridors.” The study should have been done before the project started, she said in an interview with Fast Phil’s, but she has not received a commitment from the city that it will be conducted. Asked about the city council’s actions, Hughes said, “They’re just listening.” Although a few are sympathetic, “no one said they would do anything.”

Other businesses affected

The manager of City Paint, which has been in operation for 40 years, also said business had been significantly affected by the lack of parking. Commercial vehicles were arriving early to pick up paint for the job that day. Now the store is not crowded in the early hours of the morning and business operators are also afraid to come later as Cambridge police may issue them or chase them away, Thimi Luarasi said. City Paint’s own drivers and vehicles were also affected.

Luarasi suggested Cambridge consider other traffic designs, such as what he sees a few blocks away in Arlington: a combined lane approaching Alewife that is dedicated to buses only during the morning rush hour. Originally, Cambridge had only one lane reserved for buses.

Before parking became such a problem, Fast Phil’s signed a new long-term lease. “Our owner is awesome,” said Hughes, and Fast Phil’s doesn’t want to move. “I’m too old to start over and we don’t want to pay triple the rent elsewhere.” She and Soccorso, however, believe that the current situation is untenable. “We’re going to get killed with this,” she said.


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