The Pike Straightening in context

Last year, the state announced that it was going to straighten the Mass Pike in Allston. Everyone agrees this is a good idea: it’s an aging structure, it includes far more grade separation than necessary, wider roadways than will be required for all-electric tolling, and a speed-limiting curve. The initial design last year left a lot to be desired: it doesn’t change much of the area, and included big, sweeping, suburban-style ramps to move vehicles at high speeds from the Turnpike to Cambridge Street, and then funnels those vehicles in to the same godforsaken intersection with River Street and Western Avenue that already exists. Apparently it will be updated, but as stated now, it is a wasted opportunity.

This area represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to engage major institutions and infrastructure to connect Boston in ways it has never been connected before. This page previously discussed the various related projects in the area. Harvard realized that a decade ago when they bought all the land underlying the area (MassDOT retains full easements). But there are several facets where a long-range outlook for the area would allow massive redevelopment, a new, transit-oriented housing and employment hub, and dramatic improvements to traffic flow to boot. While little of this may come to pass early on, it is important that construction that does take place does not preclude such improvements in the future.

Image from this post. Read the whole thing.

I’m not the only one who thinks this. David Maerz has a great graphic about how Storrow Drive could merge in and out of the Turnpike, and off of the river, and it’s a huge step in the direction I’m thinking. I assume we came up with these on our own; it’s the right thinking. Hopefully we can convince the state to go in this direction as well.

The long and short of it is that while the project scope may be limited now, nothing should be constructed to preclude future development. The worst thing that could happen would be a highway engineer’s dream ramps, speeding traffic along swooping elevated highways. That may work fine 25 miles outside the city, but it would represent a lost opportunity in Allston.


While traffic on the main trunk of the Turnpike (100,000 vehicles per day) flows reasonably well, the same can not be said for the ramps leading on and off (30,000 per day). (Traffic counts here) All traffic is funneled through two toll booths (or in the parlance of the Turnpike, “Plazas”) and subsequent sets of ramps. Most of it then goes through a bottleneck. Except for traffic to and from Allston, all traffic to/from Soldiers Field Road, Memorial Drive, Western and River Streets—and by extension Harvard, Central and Kendall Squares and beyond—runs through the intersection at Cambridge Street and the river. Thanks to a series of traffic lights and one-way streets, this ramp backs up to and sometimes through the toll plazas, and because of minimal throughput and merging, often creates delays of 15 minutes or longer. For traffic coming from Cambridge and Storrow Drive, there are similar delays as traffic has to run across the intersection outbound. This ties up in both directions for most busy times of the day.

In addition, these ramps create a horrid environment for cyclists and pedestrians. A relic of 1960s-era planning, Cambridge Street was built like a highway, and pedestrians and cyclists have to cross high speed ramps and then navigate an intersection with long light cycles and few, if any lane markings. Straightening the turnpike without addressing these shortcomings would be a major failure.

Example of a more efficient vehicle route.

Looking further out, however, there is ample opportunity to create additional entrances and exits from the Turnpike, and pull the congestion out of this area. For instance, a set of ramps further west in Brighton would allow traffic from Harvard Square and Fresh Pond Parkway to use the Eliot Bridge and avoid the Turnpike all together. This would remove traffic from this intersection, and reduce travel distances overall. It would also allow better highway access to the New Balance development in Allston, and several neighborhoods which border the Turnpike but do not have nearby highway access. Changes like this are not necessarily directly wihtin the project scope, but they are so intertwined that they should be analyzed along with the straightening itself.

A extension of the street grid (see next section) through the area would also help with congestion, and allow better access to the BU property bordering the rail yard.

Bicycle facilities in yellow:
  • Solid: existing
  • Dashed: under construction
  • Dotted: planned/proposed

Potential highways in orange
Potential green space in Green
Potential street grid in white

Street Connectivity

Allston is currently a black hole for getting from one side of the world to the other. From Boston University to Harvard Square on a bicycle, your options are to use the BU Bridge or Harvard Avenue and the Cambridge Street overpass or a derelict pedestrian bridge. Options by foot or by vehicle are not much better. While concepts include a street grid generally along and north of Cambridge Street, there is the opportunity to connect the streets south to Boston University and Commonwealth Avenue. These would increase bicycle and pedestrian mobility as well as easing the current gridlock at the nearest crossings of the turnpike east and west of the Allston Yard, at the BU Bridge and Harvard Ave/Cambridge Streets. Entrances and exits from the Turnpike would allow for far better connections across this current hole in the system. It would also provide links between much of Boston’s bicycle network, which is one of the premises of the People’s Pike.


One huge issue in Boston is a lack of affordable housing. Housing in Allston, Brighton, Cambridge and the surrounding areas is accessible to jobs by transit and to the nearby universities. The Allston plot happens to be right in the center of three schools: within a mile of BU, Harvard and MIT. While Harvard owns the land, it could provide housing for all three schools, as well as for the population in general. High-priced riverfront housing (especially if the roadways were pulled away from the river) could help to subsidize construction with less lofty views, but still a great location nearby thousands of jobs and educational facilities. Would this be a complete panacea to the housing issues in Boston? Probably not. But the land would be available to add thousands of housing units, many of them owned by colleges for student housing, which would free up some demand in nearby neighborhoods and stabilize prices. It would also provide an area which area which could be very well connected to transit for commercial development as well. By depressing as much infrastructure as possible and decking over it, a large, open area could be available for development.


Potential route for Soldiers Field Road
away from the river and new parkland

Right now, the Charles River is lined with roadways for five solid miles from Boston the Eliot Bridge and beyond. On the Boston side, Soldiers Field Road and Storrow Drive leave little room for bicycle and pedestrian facilities between the river and the roadway. In addition, Harvard’s Business School campus is cut off from the river by the roadway, and the advantages of a beautiful riverfront campus are denuded by a four-to-six lane highway. Harvard is obviously a major stakeholder here, but if they were amenable, the highway could be routed west of their campus and the Stadium. This would, if anything, shorten the length of the roadway, and for Harvard, instead of decking over part of Soldiers Field Road, they would have a direct link to the river.

The change would be dramatic. The current underpasses at Western, River and Harvard could be repurposed for bicyclists (a goal of the Charles River Conservancy and many bicycling and pedestrian activists) saving millions of dollars and achieving a goal for the DCR plans along the river. It would also create one of the best riverfront parks in the country. It would increase the value of real estate near the river. In the 1930s to 1960s, we paved along most of our riverfront. This would be a great opportunity to take it back.


Existing (solid) and potential (dashed) transit.
New stations shown.

Finally, this area is currently reasonably well-connected to the transit system, but it could be dramatically better connected. The state’s 10 year transit plan shows DMUs operating from a “West Station” in the Allston yard area to both North and South stations. This is a fine start. But the opportunities here are endless. Currently, there is a drastic demand for travel between Cambridge and the Fenway/Allston/Brookline/Longwood areas. The 1 and 66 are the top two bus routes the MBTA operates, and the M2 runs from Harvard to Longwood ever 5 to 10 minutes at rush hour, and frequently all day. If there were a better connection, it would be great for jobs access and congestion reduction. And buses currently skirt the Allston area, but better connections would certainly improve the situation.

So a first step would be the DMUs between Allston and the downtown terminals. Further along, the line through Kendall could be improved to allow more frequent service and transit-level service could be provided between 128 and North and South stations, serving the high-density Newton-Brighton corridor and adding more transit choices for commuters along the Turnpike, easing congestion further (and pulling off enough demand to, say, eliminate Storrow Drive west of the Bowker overpass).

In the long run, however, the Allston area provides a dramatic link between Harvard Square and Kenmore and points south. When the Red Line was relocated in the 1980s, the former yard leads to the Cabot Yards (now the Kennedy School) were maintained—the tunnels exist to this day, curving from the Red Line tracks parallel to the bus tunnel. The right-of-way is maintained through the campus (a conspicuous gap between buildings) to the river. While tunneling would be expensive, this is a transit corridor that could connect to Allston (via North Harvard Street) and then across Allston. An initial corridor could connect to the B Line on Commonwealth Avenue via the BU campus, with a connection at the “West Station.” Further along the line, it could be extended (via tunnel—expensively) through the Longwood Medical Area and Melnea Cass Boulevard to the Andrew or Columbia stations, creating the opportunity for a true Urban Ring. Since it connects with the Red Line on both ends, it could use the Red Line rolling stock (which has higher capacity than other MBTA equipment).

Obviously this is a decades-long plan, but the transitway could be at least roughed in in the Allston area (and maybe connected to the Green Line which could have a short A-Allston branch extending in to the Harvard campus) with provisions added for extensions in both directions. Again, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with basically a blank slate, and it’s much cheaper to build a box now than dig a tunnel under already-built infrastructure.

A lot of these steps are long in the future. However, there is no reason we should construct something now which will preclude this potential in the future.

Design in isolation

There are several recent projects in the Boston/Cambridge area—some of which have been covered on this page—that have been in the conversation recently. One major flaw of all of these is that they do little to combine the features of multiple projects but rather are viewed in isolation, even though they often border each other and, in many cases, deal with the same roads, paths and transitways. These include:

These are all worthy projects, and it’s mildly infuriating that there is no overarching planning agency which can corral these in to one cohesive plan. Right now, it’s an alphabet soup which includes MassDOT, DCR, Cambridge, Boston, the MBTA, Harvard and MIT (they own part of the Grand Junction right of way). The issue is that these projects are often viewed as singular entities, and not in relation to the greater transportation ecosystem. For instance, I see the Allston campus, Cambridge Street Overpass and Turnpike Straightening as inextricably linked, with no small connection to the DCR paths and, down the line, the Bowker overpass. A vehicle driving over the Bowker Overpass may well have come from Harvard Square, via a DCR roadway and through the Turnpike interchange. And, heck, with better transit or bicycling connections, that vehicle might not be there at all. 
Instead of single-item traffic studies, we need to take a holistic view of the transportation infrastructure in the region, and decide what we want to see in 20 or 30 years: slightly realigned roadways which still prioritize funneling as much traffic as possible to the detriment of other uses, or a more complete transportation system. Most of the infrastructure in question is 50 or more years old, and will need to be rebuilt (or reconsidered) in coming years. Instead of rebuilding the broken infrastructure we have, we need to take a broader view of what we could create. Since we’re going to have to spend the money anyway, we might as well spend it wisely now, rather than have to fix yesterday’s problems tomorrow.

This page will attempt to do so in the near future.

Allston-Brighton toll straightening shouldn’t ignore Soldiers Field Road

Massachusetts has taken on a surprisingly progressive role in transportation policy in recent years, with the transportation secretary publicly stating that “we will build no more superhighways” and setting explicit goals for a shift away from single-occupancy driving. As part of this fix-what-we-have policy, the state is planning to convert the whole of the antiquated tolling system to open-road tolling, eliminating toll boots and charging vehicles based on transponders and license plates. This is a good step forward as it will not only reduce congestion at toll booths but also reduce the amount of land required by the serpentine ramps and plazas needing at Turnpike entrances and exits. While rural interchanges won’t be changed, it give the opportunity to rework a lot of urban land previously occupied by redundant roadways.

Nowhere is this more of an issue than at the Allston tolls in Boston. Here, the main trunk of the Turnpike loops around a now-disused rail yard, and a convoluted set of ramps feed on and off of it with four separate toll plazas. The state has announced a $260 million plan to straighten this interchange, which contains dozens of bridge spans in need of replacement. An early conceptual design has been announced that reduces the amount of land required and simplifies the roadways. While this is a good start, it ignores the space just beyond the interchange, namely, the confusing and dangerous interchange with Soldiers Field Road which is congested, a major impediment to bicyclists and pedestrians and which darkens a stretch of the Charles River with highway ramps and traffic jams.
Typical traffic.

The Turnpike-Cambridge/River Street-Soldiers Field-Western Avenue interchange is a royal mess. It is so confusing that the state long ago stopped maintaining lane markings, and today it is a free-for-all as vehicles jockey for position as ramps funnel in to each other at a series of lights. For bicyclists and pedestrians? It’s a nightmare. Coming east on Cambridge Street is nearly impossible through the traffic chaos, and even crossing Western Avenue and Cambridge/River Street on the Paul Dudley White Bike Path is difficult, without a specific bike/ped cycle, crosswalks, curb cuts or even, at the southern bridge, a walk light!

A bit of a radical idea here that I’m proposing would be to move Soldiers Field Road away from the River. From Boston to Watertown, nearly the entirety of the Charles River is lined by highways. Yes, there is a bike path squeezed in between the riverbank and the roadway, but it is clear that cars are given the priority—we’ve turned our back on the river. The bike path is narrow, and when it intersects roadways crossing amidst the turning vehicles, it is perilous. It is a poor excuse for bicycle infrastructure, yet it is quite heavily used. Added to this, Soldiers Field Road doesn’t even follow a straight line but hugs the riverbank, adding distance (and pollution) for motor vehicles.

Here, then, is a conceptual plan to both improve the Turnpike interchange and the connection between the Turnpike, Soldiers Field Road, Western Avenue and River Street. Just doing the first part will still result in backups, congestion and pollution, and do nothing to improve the lot of pedestrians or cyclists. This plan would improve conditions for all users, and while it would require a major buy-in from Harvard University (which owns the land Soldiers Field Road would be rerouted across), they would be given a major incentive: an Allston campus connected directly to the river (in fact, some of their long-range plans have included decking over part of Soldiers Field Road). Depressing and covering the road would be simple compared to many similar projects (i.e. the Big Dig) as it runs almost entirely through post-industrial brownfields and athletic fields, no major property takings or utility work would be necessary, and much of the route would be closed to trucks, meaning the road clearance would only have to be big enough for emergency vehicles (and, perhaps, transit buses).

I’ve annotated the map, each letter corresponds to a comment below:

Click to make big!

A: The eastbound Turnpike main trunk would be depressed below the westbound trunk, allowing ramps to overlay.
B: A single westbound ramp would allow access to Soldiers Field Road in both directions, as well as River Street in Cambridge. Western Avenue would be accessed via Soldiers Field Road. Note that if Soldiers Field eastbound were merged with the Turnpike (see below), these ramps would be mostly below-grade; it could be built to allow that sort of conversion at a later time.
C: Soldiers Field east mainline. These roadways, and the ramps on and off of them, would not require truck clearances (but would require clear “no trucks” signage).
D: Cambridge Street could be narrowed to 4 lanes, and narrower yet between ramps. Sidewalks and cycletracks could be elevated to avoid ramp entrances and exits. Traffic from Western Avenue to Cambridge Street via Memorial Drive.
E: Offramp to Cambridge Street would end at a traffic signal.
F: Elevated cycletrack / sidewalk allows cyclists to avoid traffic signal and on/off ramps.
G: River bike path built 12+ feet wide, utilizes one of the disused Soldiers Field underpasses to avoid grade crossings. This would allow a 8-mile traffic-free trip from the Charles River dam west to the Western Avenue Bridge in Brighton by foot or bicycle. The other side of these underpasses would be filled.
H: Separated cycletrack facilites on the Western and River/Cambridge bridges would connected with the grade-separated riverside bike path. The riverside path could be set back from the riverbank, which would be maintained for active and passive recreation.
I: Rebuild the Weeks Bridge with ADA accessibility, and connect to bike paths for a river crossing.
J: The connection between Soldiers Field Road and the Eliot Bridge would be grade-separated; the current connection has a three-phase light in the center. Another option would be a single-point light between the Soldiers Field East-Eliot Bridge and Eliot Bridge-to Soldiers Field East which would reduce grade separation.
K: The current underpasses under the Eliot Bridge for bicyclists and pedestrians would be retained. Sidewalks / paths on the bridge would be used for grade-separated access to south-side pathways.
L: Most of the intersection east of the Eliot Bridge would be rebuilt as a wide swath of parkland.
M: A bicycle bridge would be built across the Eliot Bridge connection, cutting some distance off this route. Grade-separation would be integrated with the Eliot Bridge, and the current Eliot Bridge underpass would be retained (K).
N: Ramps to the current elevated structure would be built not to preclude future grade separation eastbound.
O: Mixing zones on Soldiers Field Road would be three lanes wide, and long enough to allow traffic to merge across two lanes to access various routes (although engineering would be required to determine the optimal length here so as not to bottleneck).
P: Ramps to Western Avenue would be built to specifications for truck traffic; north of this it would be cars-only. Traffic destined to Harvard Square would be routed west on Western and then east on Harvard, or via Memorial Drive.
Q: Ramps at North Harvard Street would be offset to keep construction away from Harvard Stadium. The track would be reoriented after construction.

While adding Soldiers Field Road reconfigurations to the rebuilding of the Turnpike interchange, the project should still not be viewed in isolation but rather as part of the larger transportation network. A few things to consider:

  1. Allowances should be made for future fixed-guideway transit between BU and Harvard.
  2. The entirety of the Turnpike, the railroad tracks and as many ramps as possible could be buried to allow the street grid to be connected across the rail yard from the BU area towards the river.
  3. Instead continuing east along the river, Soldiers Field Road could merge in to the Turnpike. This would require a wider highway (perhaps five lanes in each direction) and require the highway to be rebuilt below-grade to allow for room for the rail line. It would probably also necessitate some sort of exit in the Charlesgate area. This would be moving towards Big Dig territory as far as complexity, although by moving all rail service to North Station via Cambridge on the Grand Junction, enough space could be freed up to phase construction along the Turnpike. It would, however, create a three-mile-long section of riverfront with no roadway between the city and the river. (Paul Levy made this point years ago.)
  4. The Grand Junction, if (3) were built, would have to be fully rebuilt, below grade and with a transfer station at Kendall Square, although this would be a dramatic transit enhancement for the region and worth the investment.
  5. If Soldiers Field Road and Storrow Drive beyond it were replaced, it would recreate the parkland which James and Helen Storrow originally intended along the river. A two-lane parkway-type road could be retained from Charlesgate (which would have the Bowker Overpass flyovers removed) eastward (although this, too, could be in a tunnel) with a wider roadway resuming only past the current tunnel near the Hatch Shell towards Leverett Circle.
In other words, a project as large as proposed for the Allston Tolls should not be viewed in isolation, as its effects—good or bad—will cascade in several directions along the transportation network. With this kind of brownfield, simply rejiggering some onramps—and ignoring nearby bottlenecks and queues—is not enough.