Car Free Kendall

Kendall Square is growing, but the road network around it is not, and traffic has mostly flat-lined (probably because, without a good highway network, only so many vehicles can enter the area). But as the planet burns and the region chokes on congestion, we ought to talk about how we can improve the area with less pavement and fewer cars. At the main transit node of Kendall Square, which has tens of thousands of transit riders and other pedestrians a day, the streetscape is mostly given over to automobiles, to the detriment of the vast majority of users. What could be a great, welcoming public space is instead a wide road with plenty of street parking, for no other reason than it’s always been that way. Its time for that to change: Kendall Square should be car-free.

Which of these would you prefer to spend time in?

Unlike the Seaport, Kendall Square has been successful because of its access to transit, not in spite of it. There are no highways in to Kendall, so it has had to develop around transit access, while the Seaport has developed around the Turnpike extension, with the Silver Line mostly as an afterthought. As Kendall has grown it has become less of a desert than it was, especially as surface parking lots have been replaced by buildings or open space, and as more businesses have arrived, with a new grocery store opening recently.

Development has accelerated since 2016, especially along Main Street in the heart of the square, adjacent to the MBTA station. Until quite recently, this street epitomized the “suburban office park” feel of Kendall. Low-slung office buildings with ribbon windows wouldn’t be out of place in Bedford, Burlington or Billerica. The new MIT buildings add some spice to the square, casting off red brick for more modern designs. (In my opinion, they do this quite well, say what you will about the huge underground parking garage, the buildings, at least, are attractive. I only wish they were taller.) The four-story Coop building on top of the T, which was lifted straight from Waltham (it’s hard to cast too much blame, of course, because in the ’80s, everything was still moving out of the city, and it probably seemed deft to bring the suburbs to the city), has been torn down, and a taller, denser, and more-attractive building will take it’s place.

The road design 10 years ago was even worse. The median invited vehicle drivers to speed through the Square, and pedestrians were supposed to wait for a walk light at the T station to proceed across the intersection (although few waited, leading to conflicts with these speeding cars). This was replaced with a new design, but one which kept the street parking and travel lanes because even in Cambridge, we think about cars first (this came before protected bike lanes were prioritized, so the many bicyclists through the Square have to contend with pick ups, drop offs and cars darting in and out of the curb). The current design gives somewhat more priority to pedestrians, and the raised crossing significantly slows down vehicles, but even still, of the 90 feet between buildings on Main Street, the majority—50 feet—is handed over to those on four wheels.

So, Kendall has made progress, but not enough. We’ve taken the worst of the 1980s superimposition of the suburbs onto the city and begun to build out more of a viable urban space. For the past few years, and for the foreseeable future, Main Street has been home mostly to barricades, scaffolding and construction equipment. But once this disappears, Main Street in Kendall Square will still be far from what is desired: it’s a place to pass through, but not a place to linger. Mostly because when the new buildings go up, the road will return to its early-2010s design: through lanes for cars, unprotected bicycle lanes for drivers to open doors into and metered street parking.

Cars are in the distinct minority in Kendall Square. Traffic counts show only about 5000 eastbound vehicles, and far fewer westbound since westbound traffic comes only from Third Street, not the Longfellow Bridge itself. Compare that to the Kendall Station, which has more than 15,000 boardings per day, meaning more than 30,000 people going in and out of the station. Add to that non-transit pedestrian trips and bicyclists and cars may only account for one tenth of the traffic in Kendall Square, especially once MIT’s SOMA project extends the campus into the square. Yet even after the current spate of construction, the plan for the road remains unchanged.

It’s time we change that.

There is no need for through traffic in Kendall Square. So we should get rid of through traffic in Kendall Square. Imagine if Kendall Square was a 500′-by-100′ pedestrian plaza. With benches, and trees. Maybe a water feature. Bike lanes? Yes. Bus lanes? Maybe. Car lanes? No.

Pedestrian malls have a somewhat fraught history, but recent examples in already-high pedestrian areas have been successful. As a means to revitalize an area, they have a mixed record, but in a vital area marred by traffic, (see much of Broadway in New York City), they can be quite successful. Thus, the failures often occur when there isn’t enough foot traffic to fill the space, but this is certainly not the case in Kendall. The new construction both in the Square and nearby development sites will add to the already tens of thousands of pedestrians using the space each day. MIT’s project will turn the square from a backwater of the campus lined with parking lots (some of them gravel!) to an entryway. There will be no shortage of pedestrians.

“But we can’t just take away travel lanes in Kendall Square!”

Nonsense. We already have. Broadway has gone from two lanes to one. So have both sides of the Longfellow Bridge (only partially thanks to yours truly), and a portion of Binney Street between Third and Land Blvd. So any traffic can easily be absorbed elsewhere. Binney Street, Broadway and Ames Street can distribute these vehicles to other paths of travel. As we saw with the Longfellow shutdown, any initial traffic tie-ups will dissipate as drivers choose other routes and, with safer infrastructure, other modes. And given the climate crisis globally and congestion crisis locally, making driving in Cambridge a bit more cumbersome is good: it makes people consider their many other options, and in Kendall, we have many.

Bikes would still be able to proceed through Kendall, with a two-way bicycle facility offset from the rest of the square. This could be designed with some sort of chicane system and speed calming, encouraging through cyclists to pedal at a reasonable speed for the environment and not treat it as the Tour de Kendall. Of course, ample bicycle parking would be provided. Coming west, cyclists would share a roadway with MIT delivery vehicles from Third Street; this roadway would act as a shared street or a woonerf, where any vehicles would be encouraged by the street’s design to proceed at a human pace, and couldn’t go much faster, since their only destination would be the MIT loading dock.

There is the question of what to do with the buses. Kendall is not a major transfer point, and the busiest route through the square, the CT2, has already been routed off of Main Street to a new stop on Ames. Three other routes—the 64, 68 and 85—terminate at Kendall, and more may be added as routes are realigned with the opening of the Green Line extension. One option would be to keep a single-lane busway through the square where the buses run today, allowing buses to serve the train station head house and layover, but this would eat into the potential gains in open space and walkability. A second, and I think preferable, option would be to have all buses terminate at the bus stop on Ames Street.

The parking on Ames Street adjacent to the new bike lane could be turned over to bus layover (because, again, why do need street parking everywhere in Kendall?). This would require somewhat longer transfers, up to 800 feet of walking from the inbound head house, but given that the CT2 and EZRide buses have moved out of the square with no ill effects, this may be a reasonable option, especially since most of it is through an covered concourse, and the rest would be through a pedestrian plaza. A new drop-off stop would be placed near Main Street, where arriving buses would drop passengers. There would then be space between this stop and the existing stop for buses to layover before their next trip, where they would pull forward to serve the stop.

A wide-enough corridor would be left along the southern side of the plaza for intermittent vehicular use. This would include things like major deliveries to buildings which could not be accommodated elsewhere and access for food trucks and farmers market vendors. It would also give the MBTA a path for buses during Red Line shutdowns, so that buses could still replace the Red Line when absolutely necessary between Boston and Kendall. But 99% of the time, Kendall would be car-free.

I’ve taken a plan drawing from MIT’s SOMA project and overlaid new open space as described. I’d suggest adding rows of trees to create an urban forest along the street itself, with an opening at the current crosswalk, creating a sight corridor and plaza feel through the square itself. I included a bicycle corridor (and other existing bicycle lanes), which would run between the trees, but would still leave most of the space in the square for pedestrians. I also show an emergency vehicle “lane” which would generally be a walking area, and assume there would be plenty of benches and tables in amongst the trees. I also show the bus terminal at the upper left. Gray areas show vehicular roadways on Main Street and in the rest of the SOMA area (other roadways are shown on the original plan). This is all a sketch, of course.

There would still be some asphalt in the square. From the west, a roadway would lead from Main Street to Dock Street, accessing the Kendall Hotel and continuing to MIT Medical. From the east, the planned loading dock in the SOMA project would be accessed from Third Street or Broadway, but this would be a shared street with limited, slow traffic. The parking entrance on Wadsworth Street would exit onto Broadway via Main Street, but the only entrance would be from Wadsworth and Amherst Streets (which would allow exiting traffic as well). Would this make driving somewhat less convenient for some drivers? Sure: someone headed to MIT’s SOMA parking would have to take a right on Ames, a left on Amherst and a left on Wadsworth instead of driving straight through Kendall Square.

This is a small price to pay for the tens of thousands of pedestrians would no longer have to avoid cars in Kendall. Maybe some drivers would take the train instead of driving. In the language of Kendall, this is a feature, not a bug.

It’s Time to Radically Rethink Memorial Drive in Cambridge

Memorial Drive in Cambridge—a pleasure roadway and a park—is actually a death trap. The wide, straight roadway encourages cars to speed, and speed they do, running over a pedestrian several times per year and killing people far too often. The roadway hosts no commercial vehicles, and the eastbound lanes serve only a couple of boating facilities between the BU and Longfellow bridges, yet the roadway—which was designed for low-speed horses and carriages—is built as if it were a highway, and any efforts to improve pedestrian safety have been stonewalled in the name of keeping traffic moving.

Except for a couple of traffic lights and poor-visibility sidewalks, traffic can proceed unimpeded from the BU Bridge to East Cambridge, on a straight, flat, mostly divided highway, where the 35 mph speed limit is honored in the breach. It’s no fun to walk across and only slightly more fun to walk or bike along. Officially, it’s a park, but it doesn’t seem like one.

Memorial Drive is part of the Charles River Basin park and there is a 2002 master plan for the basin. Portions of this plan have been implemented, including the new paths along the Cambridge side of the river, but the roadways have not been touched. (Believe it or not, until the 1990s, parking was allowed on both barrels of Memorial Drive, so there was even more pavement on Mem Drive east and a line of cars along the river.) The plan proposes narrowing the road slightly and moving the eastbound barrel inland from the river, slightly increasing the width of the park along the river. It says that other options were considered, but not advanced further in to the plan. One of these would have eliminated the eastbound roadway entirely, channeling all traffic on to the combined westbound barrel. Apparently removing the roadway would be incongruous with the historic nature of the roadway:

While there is some flexibility in applying
preservation criteria, the historic value of this cultural landscape would
be entirely lost under this alternative.

I call shenanigans. I don’t remember Frederick Law Olmsted planning for two lanes of 40 miles per hour automobile traffic in each direction, and parking. I think the DCR is afraid of reducing the number of lanes on the roadway. Rather than focusing on what the road looks like today, what if the DCR prioritized what would best serve as parkland for the public?

Instead of trying to rebuild the highway-like park (or is it a park-like highway) let’s consider moving traffic to the westbound lanes. Use this roadway for two lanes of traffic, turning lanes at intersections, pedestrian refuges between the lanes to minimize crossing distances and some parking where needed (and charge for it if you can’t figure out how to pay for the roadway changes). At the same and the eastbound lanes can be converted to parkland, increasing green space and allowing us to reclaim the dead space in between the current roadway. It might not match his parkway, but it would create a Cambridge esplanade. I think old Frederick Law would be proud.

There is an 80-foot-wide median between the two barrels of Memorial Drive today, but this is lost parkland, since it is nearly impossible to access and cut off from both MIT and the river, and who really wants to sit in a park in the middle of a highway anyway? If the roadway were consolidated, it the amount of useful parkland would go from 40 feet wide to 145 feet wide. On the MIT side, the portion of the parkland between the road and the sidewalk isn’t even grass, but instead wood chips and mud, since it receives heavy pedestrian use, so the road could actually be pushed north there. This would provide enough room for one lane of traffic in each direction, left turn bays on and off of Memorial Drive where needed, and parking spaces elsewhere. By using part of this space, no trees would be impacted (which would be the case of the roadway were moved south).

But only one lane for cars in each direction? Yes! Memorial Drive in Cambridge carries about 36,000 vehicles per day. While this is high for a single lane in each direction, it is not without precedent, especially for a roadway with few intersections or interruptions. In fact, the DCR has a very similar stretch of roadway with a single lane in each direction which carries the same number of vehicles a few miles west: Nonantum Road, along the river in Brighton and Newton. Most notably, this roadway used to have four lanes but, according to the same master plan, was reduced to two in 2010, yet with turning lanes, traffic throughput has not decreased. The new design allowed room for an expanded bicycle/pedestrian path alongside as well.

These two roadway designs carry the same number of vehicles.

The 2002 master plan is dated, but it provides a blueprint for improving Memorial Drive. The DCR and MIT have started to implement some improvements, but these are small steps. It’s time that Cambridge had an esplanade along the river, not a strip of parkland and a wide highway.

A “vehicular cyclist” goes swimming

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that John Forester (who is this? read on) teaches swimming lessons.

First, he assembles potential swimmers in a classroom. He lectures them on the particulars of swimming for several hours, noting that not everyone is cut out to be a swimmer, and that if they’re not comfortable in deep water at first they shouldn’t even try. Then they go to the pool. Do they start blowing bubbles, then move to kick boards, and slowly become comfortable with swimming? Nope, straight in to the deep end (the pool has no shallow end). If you don’t make it, you get fished out, and told to do something else when it’s warm outside. A few people probably don’t make it out, but then they were never cut out to be swimmers in the first place. They should have thought about that before jumping in a deep pool.

A few people, however, survive. These are probably people who are young, fit, and maybe stubborn. Some of them might go on to swim a lot. They may go to a lap pool, take the lane, and swim back and forth, becoming more and more comfortable with deep, open water. But most of the newer swimmers are discouraged. Without infrastructure for beginners, they’re left clinging to the edge of the pool, scared to move away without some kind of safety net from infrastructure which allows them to ease in to swimming. So they get out, and never come back. Forester is undeterred: he tells them they won’t be able to swim if they’re not planning to be “effective swimmers”, and that they can’t become effective swimmers if they start in the shallow end of the pool.

So what happens if everyone is taught how to swim by John Forester? First of all, not many people swim. It may be a nice warm summer day, but most people will be too afraid to enjoy the water, because they’ve been taught that it is dangerous unless you’re able to swim a 100 meter freestyle in under two minutes. What this means is that without many swimmers, there’s little demand for swimming facilities. Sure, some serious swimmers will go and find lakes and rivers to fulfill their needs, but most people will find other pastimes. That’s fine with Forester. In his mind, if everyone learns to swim, they’ll probably just crowd the serious swimmers out of the pool altogether.

We don’t teach swimming this way. But for many years, it’s how we attempted to teach people to ride bikes. Who is John Forester? He’s what we’d call a “vehicular cyclist.” He came up with the phrase. And he argued that he was right, and for many years, people listened. But he is little more than a privileged white male imposing his ideas on a public which doesn’t want them. It’s a good thing he never instructed swimming.

The Outside/In podcast had a great episode (to be fair, most of their episodes are, hi Sam) about the history of vehicular cycling. What the mantra vehicular cycling says is that there shouldn’t be cycling infrastructure; rather, cyclists should behave like cars, taking the lane when necessary, and that better, safer infrastructure would just have people riding bikes cast off to side paths and banned from the road. He became a force for decades, and during that time, very few people actually rode bikes, and most of the people who were were fit men comfortable at 25 mph making a left in traffic.

Forester is nearing 90 now and is unrepentant, taking his opinions to the grave. Good riddance. In the past 15 years, his followers have been seen for the charlatans they are, and we’ve slowly, and often begrudgingly, begun to build infrastructure for people riding bikes which is safer and more welcoming. Like magic, more people are riding bikes. No one has banned bikes from the road because we’ve build bike lanes, and people comfortable in the road are free to use it. Some do. Most don’t. But there are a lot more people in the latter camp.

This past week, I was at a meeting discussing what the City of Cambridge is planning for South Mass Ave (believe it or not, I have some thoughts on this). Someone suggested at a breakout session (the city did a great job of setting up the meeting to have people talk to each other) turn boxes so people who weren’t comfortable making a left could do so. A local vehicular cyclist—who will remain nameless to protect the guilty (but needless to say, he’s an older, white male, fancies himself a bicycling expert, and I’ve told him he is culpable in the deaths of many cyclists because he has argued against bike lanes for years)—said “you wouldn’t need that if they made a vehicular left.”

I snapped. [I’m paraphrasing]

You know what? Not everyone is comfortable doing that. Not everyone wants to shift across two lanes of traffic to get in to the left lane to make a turn, then sit in a line of cars waiting for a turn light, and if they don’t move fast enough the car behind them will honk at them, or worse. No one is keeping you from undertaking that movement, but other people should have a safer option. Imagine if you were a woman, or a person of color. Imagine if you weren’t as strong as you are. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Your ideas have been proven wrong for years, and a lot of people have been injured or died because they’ve tried biking on the roads as you’d have them designed and all you do is blame them for not being out in the lane of traffic moving fast enough. Don’t give me this baloney where you tell me that ‘if they only knew how to bike correctly, they would have been fine.’ That’s nonsense. You’re asking people on bikes to jump in to fast-moving traffic with cars and trucks and buses. That’s fine for you. But it’s not for everyone. So what we get is more fast moving traffic, and fewer people on bikes. Apparently that’s what you want.”

I’m not about to let these people get a single word in edgewise. Their time has long since passed. Vehicular cycling is dying, clung to by a few old men. It’s failed, with often tragic results. It’s time for it to be relegated to the dustbin of history entirely. I’m all for an open discourse, but I am done—done—giving time of day to vehicular cyclists.

Cambridge NIMBYs revisionist history

Every so often, you wonder what goes through the minds of people who don’t want to build more housing where there’s high demand. (Which works. The market works.) In Cambridge, there is a contingent of people who live near Fresh Pond and don’t want to build more housing because there’s been too much development there already (or something). They’ll trot out all the tired canards: climate change (the solution to which is obviously to make people live further away from jobs and transit), traffic (the solution to which is obviously to make people live further away from jobs and transit), impact to natural resources (even if the housing is being built on brownfield sites which haven’t been wetlands for decades or centuries) and the like. Does it make sense? No, of course not!

(Unless, of course, you bought your house 30 years ago for a song and have seen it appreciate it to the point that you’re blinded to the housing cost and availability crisis around you. And you remember the days when Cambridge had 20% fewer residents and traffic wasn’t so bad and the Red Line wasn’t full. You can’t have both: your home value has appreciated because of the increase in traffic, not in spite of it.)

Has Cambridge done its part? Hardly. The city has an arduous process to permit new development, and while more housing has been in the pipeline in recent years, it’s not nearly enough. It is true that Cambridge does more than many of our more suburban neighbors. But that shouldn’t be an excuse to sit back and wait for someone else to build the housing our region needs.

Yet here we are, with several hundred residents in the Fresh Pond area signing a petition for a “pause” for housing development. It’s an absurd stance, to paraphrase: a complete and total shutdown of housing development until we can figure out what’s going on. Their arguments are just as specious as as the the premise, and today this page will analyze their latest opinion piece and poke the holes necessary to ensure that well-informed discourse takes place, not discourse where one of the parties uses scare tactics to poison the dialogue.

Original in indented italics. My comments in plain text:

There’s a new housing construction clash in Cambridge, this time over a letter signed by more than 600 people hoping to push the pause button on decades of virtually unrestrained development. 

That’s their opening. “Virtually unrestrained development.” In a city where you have to spend 45 minutes in front of a zoning board (and certainly hours of preparation) to add a second dwelling unit to a house which was built as a two-family household when it was originally built. For something which won’t really affect anyone. These are the same people who rail against protected bike lanes because it affects their parking space: when you don’t get what you want through the public process, demand the public process is shut down. Doesn’t work that way, nor should it. But please, go on.

Ah, yes, from the days when Alewife had genuine community.

It led to the submission of a zoning petition to be taken up by the City Council next week, demanding that the council weigh in on an essential question: What kind of communities shall be shaped by new housing, affordable and not? In a cash- and resource-rich city, why should we continue to allow the process be driven by developers focused on short-term profit rather than by urban planners and city officials focused on building genuine communities?

I’m confused. Is there something less genuine about people who move in to new apartment buildings? Most of the development in the Alewife area is taking the place of things like old industrial buildings or dilapidated night clubs. And the city may be cash-rich, but it doesn’t have the resources to build new housing. Instead, the way it works is that the private sector builds new housing, and then the owners pay taxes on it. What a novel concept!

To help understand why we need more attention on city- and citizen-directed planning rather than mostly out-of-town developers of luxury rentals,

This is what we have! Who do you think sits on the planning board, and the other boards which support it? Who votes? This is a false comparison, conflating “city- and citizen-directed planning” with “out-of-town developers.” But those operate together! City-directed planning is the process through which out-of-town developers of luxury rentals (and really, of anything) create housing. It’s not as if out-of-town developers run the process.

one need only approach the town from the west and consider the so-called communities that have taken shape with the current “anything goes” approach.

Define “anything goes.” While you may not love every piece of the development in the Alewife corridor, every project goes through a thorough zoning process. And it turns out that if you build enough luxury rentals, the overall cost of housing will come down.

By car from Belmont and Arlington on Route 2,

Apparently, the best way to understand Cambridge is from a highway.

one’s gaze is first drawn to the right, where virtually uncontrolled development sprawls across the Alewife wetland, suggesting “No Vision” vs. “Envision” Cambridge. 

Areas in yellow are impervious surfaces today. Red are
buildings. A few new parking lots near the right-most
buildings aren’t shown. But those parking lots are now parks!

What about this development is “virtually uncontrolled”? If you look at the area south of Route 2, the majority is protected wetlands. It’s not virtually uncontrolled. It’s actually quite controlled! Here’s where the revisionist history comes in: there’s actually significantly less development there now than there was 50 years ago. In 1969, much of what is now the Alewife Brook Reservation was a series of parking lots, which have since been removed, remediated and turned in to a park. So, removing a parking lot and turning it in to a park is “no vision”? If that’s the case, what should we envision instead? We have six acres of new parkland in the Alewife thanks to the lack of vision of the planners there. If that’s what we’re fighting against, I’d hate to think what we’re fighting for.

Rounding the corner, one passes dilapidated, “brutalist” Alewife T architecture – untouched by enhancements or landscaping since its creation 30 years ago. 

The Alewife station is brutalist (although relatively functional, and could work better with, say, bus lanes in and out), and it is dilapidated, but it is certainly not the fault of the City of Cambridge, or that we’ve built too much housing.

One wonders about the asbestos-contaminated brownfield lurking behind the chain-link fence around Jerry’s Pond, across from the Rindge Towers and Jefferson Park, the largest concentration of affordable housing in the city. More than a half-century has passed since the contaminants were left there by W.R. Grace. 

In addition to having nothing to do with this housing “pause”, this is kind of a chicken and egg problem. The public housing was built there probably because the nearby land uses made the land undesirable for other housing (and when the housing was built in the 1960s, there wasn’t the kind of market pressure which would today turn a clay pit in to housing without governmental intervention).

Though a process with community input concluded the safest approach at the time was containment, one cannot help wondering if such corporate neglect would have been permitted in a more affluent neighborhood.

But now I’m even more confused. There was a community process, which is supposed to be good, but here you don’t like the outcome, so it’s a corporation’s fault. If a corporation develops housing, it’s bad. But if a corporation neglects an area, it’s also bad. “We can’t win, don’t build any housing!” Finally, such neglect probably wouldn’t have occurred in an affluent neighborhood, but the case is that an affluent neighborhood probably wouldn’t have had such land uses next to it in the first place. (In other words: there’s no quarry in the midst of Observatory Hill.) This is not an excuse for not cleaning up Jerry’s Pond (for which there are new plans to remediate and clean), but also not a reason to stop building housing in the region. This whole paragraph is pablum. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can clean Jerry’s Pond and build more housing: in fact, the new city revenue from the new housing may allow us more funding for laudable projects like the Jerry’s Pond clean up.

Stopped at the Alewife light with a head swivel to the right, one’s gaze is drawn into “The Triangle,” a dead-end neighborhood without a name that presents like a Chinese flash city and corporate annuity for institutional investors. 

I mean, some of us call it Cambridgepark Drive. Is not having a name really that much of a sin? Also, this neighborhood has been developed over 30 years (it had a planning process at least as far back as 1979!), adjacent to the Alewife T station. It’s not perfect transit oriented development (there’s way too much parking) and, yes, it has corporate owners (not sure what the China hang-up is). Also, those corporate investors pay two-thirds of the city’s property taxes. So that’s something.

It offers egress, 

Not sure what “egress” means here, since it’s a dead end, right?

impenetrable traffic jams during rush hours and virtually no amenities to suggest community.

Okay, yeah, it offers impenetrable traffic jams. So, let’s do something about that. Lots of that traffic is coming from the west trying to get in to Alewife. Why? People can’t afford to live in Cambridge! There are buses, and they’re full, but they’re no faster than the traffic they sit in. Bus lanes—which would be feasible if we put on our thinking caps—could attract a lot of these drivers if they provided a faster trip than driving. And amenities, you know how you get amenities? Build more housing! Amenities don’t spring up unless there are people to use them. More people = more amenities. (Setting aside the connection to two bike paths, many walking paths and a 10 minute walk to the Whole Foods and Trader Joes across the tracks may actually count as amenities.)

Finally, up and over the railroad bridge to the south it is hard not to wonder about the dead trees, never-cleaned sidewalk grime, permanently graffiti-ridden “Alewife Parkway” plaque

Yes, the Alewife Brook Parkway bridge is a mess. It was built long-enough ago it wasn’t built with sidewalks nearly wide enough. It is also a state-owned property, so beyond the purview of the city. But let’s stop building housing anyway. Of course, we could build a new bridge. How do we do that? Well, it would certainly help if we had a developer build the bridge integrated with a new development.

and a mall owner and city lacking initiative to create safe and aesthetic pedestrian passage to shopping, Danehy Park and West Cambridge. Pedestrians are instead obliged to navigate a sea of traffic and parked cars. 

 And, yes, the city could probably do a better job of traffic management in the Alewife area, by incentivizing bicycling, walking and transit use. And the mall owner, which built the mall in the ’70s, could have built a better mall then. But it’s not a reason to not build more housing, in fact, it is a reason to build more. More local housing will mean more customers arriving by foot, giving the owner and incentive to build a more reasonable pedestrian environment to accommodate these customers, or risk losing them.

Desperately needed affordable housing should be built, but not through abandoning good planning. It should exist within the context of a city vision – one that ensures the evolution of livable communities with access to green spaces, public transit, schools, meeting areas, shopping – and safe, sensible pathways connecting our neighborhoods. 

Let’s see what the Alewife area has:

√ green space, much of which has recently been reclaimed
√ public transit
√ schools (nearby and accessible by pathways, and an easy Red Line trip to CRLS for older kids)
–  meeting areas should be integrated in to new development
√ shopping across the bridge
√ safe pathways, although more are needed

Aspects of these are evident, but for such vision to take better shape, a brief pause on development is needed so we can access the nearly complete recommendations of our city-paid planning consultants. Let’s leave behind an era of disconnected, developer-driven Triangles in favor of one led by our own world-class planners, city leaders and citizens.

This doesn’t make sense! What are the benefits of this “pause”? What will be done better, or differently, if we have this pause? How long do you propose this pause? Why not call it what it is: a moratorium? What in this entire article gives you an argument for a pause? And what’s so disconnected about Alewife, anyway? It sits on the Red Line. It has good walk/bike paths leading to green space, and to Davis Square, Belmont and Arlington (and Lexington and Bedford and beyond). It has sidewalks to the mall, which could be improved, but are an argument for building more housing, not against it! The disconnnectedness of Cambridgepark Drive has nothing to do with housing development, and can be mitigated without any sort of housing moratorium.

Much of what has been built has been built over the course of three decades (Alewife didn’t exactly open yesterday). Projects like these have plenty of vetting through various city boards and committees: if you don’t believe me, go to a bicycle committee meeting where the committee vets every large project to make sure it complies with the city’s bicycle ordinance, and this was a couple of pages in otherwise thick permitting documents. We have a great staff at the city and a lot of interested citizens. If you are interested in improving the built environment the best thing you can do is to get involved. But the city’s goal should be to permit as much housing as it can, not to stop development in its tracks. Doing so, and ensuring that the housing crisis is exacerbated, is about the worst thing you can do.

Extend Red-Blue to … Kendall?

At some point on the Internet, I’ve scoffed at the idea of extending the Blue Line across the Longfellow Bridge (somehow) and then run along Main Street to some superstation at Kendall (which there’s not room for) and then making a turn on the Grand Junction right-of-way (or something). I still do. You couldn’t reliably run the Blue Line and Red Line together on the Longfellow and they have separate loading gauges so would need different tracks at Kendall. To facilitate a Red-Blue Connector, it makes sense to stub-end the Blue Line at Charles Station and provide an easy answer to Kendall Square.

Or does it?

This would be a short and pointless blog post if the first paragraph was 100% true. Plus, I’ve written that blog post before. Twice.

One of the trickiest things about the Red-Blue Connector is shoehorning a good, useful terminal in to the space under Charles Circle. It’s not easy. You’d have to dig a wide tunnel, or long tail tracks, or dig out pocket tracks or tail tracks under a busy roadway and the supports for the Red Line. It would be somewhat difficult to build any sort of functional terminal: there’s just not the space. You could put something under Storrow Drive (technically Embankment Road) and Ebersol fields, which would result in a decent terminal, but you’d have to dig up and rebuild the fields, and you’d be digging adjacent to the river. It would provide for good operations; you could stack in several tracks for layover, storage and recovery, rather than using crossovers and/or the Bowdoin Loop.

So Ebersol would work for operations, but you’re still pushing more people in to the Red Line and the already-overburdened Kendall and Charles stations, and forcing every Kendall-bound Blue Line passenger to transfer (albeit an easier transfer than exists today). There’s another potential terminal. It’s bigger than Ebersol, would allow increased capacity across the Charles, the potential for further expansion and, oh, yeah, it’s already somewhere where a huge hole is going to be built in the near term.

I’m speaking of the Volpe site recently bought by MIT. Since they’re going to be digging a big hole, it would make sense to put something useful in it, not just more parking. It is an extra 3000 feet to tunnel from Charles Circle to Volpe, but it’s mostly in a shallow river and free from utility considerations (as far a I can tell). In theory, this should be relatively cheap tunneling: it could be done in a similar manner to the Ted Williams Tunnel: building tubes off-site, digging a trench, and sinking the tubes in to place, except downscaled by a significant factor: the width of two Blue Line trains is narrower than two highway lanes. The river is 12 to 15 feet deep just downstream of the Longfellow, so it would need to be excavated down about that much to accommodate current depths. The TWT required digging through muck and in to bedrock at times to accommodate a shipping lane clearance at low tide, but the Charles has no such river traffic. The disposal and mitigation of the sludge on the river bottom may be the trickiest part, although it would be beneficial to start cleaning up the muck on the bottom of the Charles River.

Then there’s the Broad Canal. This should be easy. It’s 15 feet deep, doesn’t need clearance for anything more than kayaks (although the waste heat from the power plant would have to be accounted for), and could be easily coffer-dammed, dug out, cleaned up, and filled in with several feet of water sheet above. To make up for any displaced water volume (hello, Waters of the United States), the canal above could be extended, Lechmere-style, to a water feature figuring in prominently in the new Volpe development.

What does this get you? A lot, actually. First of all, designing a subway loop terminal in Volpe’s basement would add minimal marginal cost to the development and would make it extremely transit-oriented, and add value to the project: there’d be no need to trek through the Marriott to Kendall Square to the Red Line for trips downtown. (Do you need a loop? Probably not, but if you can get MIT to dig the hole, you might as well put a good terminal down there, although if you wanted to run trains through to Binney and beyond in the future, you could build a simpler island platform with tail and storage tracks beyond.) This north/east side of Kendall is booming. In the past 10 years, several blocks have been rebuilt from gravel lots to job sites and residential developments: below is the same corner in 2011 and 2017, for instance. It would also bring transit a bit closer to the no-man’s-land in the mile between Kendall and Lechmere. With Volpe as the linchpin of several thousand more jobs and residents, expanding transit should be a priority in Kendall.


This plan would also give the Kendall area a direct connection to more of Downtown Boston, East Boston, the HYM Suffolk Downs site Boston is proposing for Amazon (but will be developed no matter where Amazon goes), and, most importantly, the airport (this could—maybe—provide the impetus to build a better connection to the airport from the Blue Line). It would provide more capacity across the Charles—although the north-of-Boston portion Red Line is most full from Central to Kendall—and more importantly would take some traffic out of the Kendall Station, which was never really designed for the number of people using it today.

Further down the road? The Volpe site hemmed in by Biogen to the west, but a right-of-way could be preserved over to Binney Street where a further extension could easily reach the Grand Junction. From there, much is possible. A line to Sullivan Square and Assembly via the Grand Junction. A line in the other direction linking Kendall to Allston, and then further west. Once GLX is complete, the Blue Line will be the only transit line which terminates in Downtown Boston, which is operationally inefficient. This would give it a terminal at both ends to improve operations.

I’m not sure how much this costs; I haven’t been able to find a good breakdown of the order-of-magnitude for the costs for the TWT. (I did speak to Fred Salvucci about it, and he said it was the cheapest and easiest part of the Big Dig to build, although that’s a pretty low bar.) I also can’t find information about the specific cost of the “Haymarket North Extension” tunnel costs, but that project seemed not to have broken the bank (as far as I can tell, the below-ground portion of that line did not use boring machines). Searching the Globe archives, the entire Haymarket North project cost $180 million at the time, equivalent to $750 million today. That number includes: the five miles of the line to Oak Grove, some tricky engineering building between buildings from Haymarket to the river, and the B&M holding up the state for $18 million ($95 million today) to build the line through Charlestown (This is more than half, considering 1970s inflation, of what the state would pay a couple years later to buy the entirety of the Boston and Maine lines in Massachusetts east of Fitchburg: $39.5 million, $170 million today). For this proposal, the state would only have to negotiate over a small portion of Broad Canal Way, and its owner—an REIT—would stand to benefit from better transit to the airport so might be willing to make the price right.

In any case, if Charles Station was built as a through station and not a terminal, it would reduce construction costs there (where they’re expensive) and improve operations. The station could even be built with side platforms to keep the width of the subway narrower. The Volpe terminal could be built basically for free if it was integrated in to the overall Volpe development. The question comes down to the cost of the underwater tunnel. If it’s reasonable—and it seems that it would be—this would make a lot of sense. What about transfers from further north on the Red Line? This would preserve the full functionality of the Red-Blue connector, except it would work even better. And if the North South Rail Link ever obviated the need for the Grand Junction to function as a freight corridor, the Blue Line could easily be extended west or north.

Mass Ave reimagined: Charles River to Central Square

In the fall of 2016, I took a course at MIT with Fred Salvucci (who also happens to be my research advisor here) called Urban Transportation Planning. Without knowing about my previous work on Central Square, the assignment arc for that semester was to critically analyze Mass Ave in Cambridge between Central Square and the Charles River and present findings to the City of Cambridge. When I emailed Fred and said “uh, just so you know, I sort of did this assignment already for my blog a few weeks ago” is response was something along the lines of “great, do more.”

So I did more. I expanded the scope of the project to the entirety of the corridor, created GIS maps of the corridor with current and future street layouts, analyzed traffic counts and population, and created cross-sections in Streetmix between Central Square and the river. I then put these in to a Word Doc, with text and images separately, turned it in, and thought “I should rewrite this for my blog.”

That was more than a year ago.

It turns out that taking a 10,000-word document and getting it in to a web-ready, blog-ready format is a bit harder than meets the eye. But after watching bus upon bus get stuck on Green Street, and the bike lanes in Central Square constantly choked with livery and delivery vehicles, it’s time to get it on the web: a vision of a people-first Mass Ave in Cambridge. This post may depart a bit from the usual (poor excuse for) prose on this site with a bit less sarcasm than usual, but hopefully will be as informative as posts have been in the past.

Oh, and it’s long. Real long. Happy (?) reading.

Massachusetts Avenue has not always been Cambridge’s thoroughfare; in fact, it has not always been called Massachusetts Avenue. Until the Harvard Bridge provided the newest connection between Boston and Cambridge in 1891 (the only newer bridge between the cities is the Eliot Bridge far upstream) traffic between the two cities passed mainly across the West Boston or Cambridge (now Longfellow) Bridge downstream or the Cottage Farm (now Boston University) Bridge upstream. Mass Ave wasn’t even called such; Main Street stretched from the Longfellow to Harvard Square, beyond that was North Avenue.

In the past 125 years, Massachusetts Avenue has become the iconic street of Cambridge and, it could be argued, one of the most recognizable streets in the world, if not for the street itself but what lies along it. In a barely four mile stretch are Harvard and MIT, two of the world’s leading universities, three world-renowned music institutions (Symphony Hall, the New England Conservatory and Berklee College of Music), and Boston Medical Center. In Cambridge the street hosts the national or global headquarters of several major pharmaceutical corporations, and Boston University and Northeastern University lie just off the corridor as well. The Harvard Bridge has even spawned its own unit of measurement; the bridge spans 364.4 Smoots ±1 ear from Boston to Cambridge, something which can’t be said of 5th Avenue, Michigan Avenue, Sunset Boulevard or the Champs Elysees.

History: Mass Ave and Pattern Breaks

During this century and a quarter, Mass Ave has had three distinct “pattern breaks” when the use of the corridor has shifted. When the Harvard Bridge was built in 1891, the first electric streetcars had only rolled down the streets of Boston three years prior and it would be another decade until the first automobiles appeared. For the first 20 years of its life, Mass Ave was dominated by foot traffic and streetcars. (In fact, the first streetcar to use the Tremont Street Subway originated in Allston and rolled through Central Square early on the morning of September 1, 1897.)

The first pattern break occurred in the early 1910s, when the street was torn up for the construction of the Cambridge-Dorchester subway (now the Red Line). This dramatically changed the travel patterns through Central Square: no longer did streetcars run through the square; most now terminated in Central for a transfer downtown. Central Square became a major subway-surface transfer point between surface cars and subway trains. (The Boston Elevated Railway generally built complex subway-surface transfer stations like the Streetcar tunnel at Harvard or facilities in Sullivan and Dudley Squares. Central was the only major transfer point built with no separate infrastructure for streetcars, likely because the square had already developed and there was no room to do so. Even Kendall, which served only a couple of streetcar routes, had a streetcar loop-turned-busway until it was rebuilt in the 1980s.)

The next pattern break occurred more slowly in the 1950s and 1960s. The last streetcars rolled through Central Square in the early 1950s and the center-of-street-boarding streetcars and safety zone platforms were replaced with side-of-street bus stops as Central slowly went from being a transit node to a vehicular intersection. While the northern portion of Mass Ave was rebuilt with a median (and without streetcar stops) in the 1950s, Mass Ave wasn’t appreciably widened in Central Square, although it likely would have changed dramatically had the Inner Belt highway been built as planned, this delay and eventual cancellation may have saved the street from 1960s-era urban renewal. Still, the removal of the streetcar facilities led to an auto-dominated square, with wide expanses of pavement at the Prospect-Mass and Mass-Main intersections and a reduction in the mass of many of the buildings (so the owners could save property taxes) resulting in many of the single story buildings and parking lots today.

In the past decade, vehicle traffic volumes on Mass Ave have decreased while at the same time transit use and cycling has increased: bike counts have more than doubled in the past decade and Red Line ridership in Central has doubled since 1988. Unfortunately, the allocation of road space has not kept up with these changes. It’s time to design a new pattern break for Mass Ave’s infrastructure to catch up with the behavioral pattern break of its users.

The Context of Massachusetts Avenue

Massachusetts Avenue is home to some of the richest human capital in the world, yet it is congested at best and dangerous at worst. The street hosts several MBTA bus routes and the MASCO shuttle, but the passengers on these buses are regularly subjected to congestion delays despite, at rush hour especially, outnumbering people in cars. Several cyclists have died on the street in recent years, and the bike lanes installed in the past two decades are inadequate and outdated; they provide little protection from car doors and passing or turning vehicles and are frequently used by drivers as convenient double parking spaces. Parts of the street, when not congested, are straight and wide, encouraging motorists to travel at high rates of speed, which is not conducive to a safe environment for other users.

Cambridge has made improvements to the avenue between Central Square and Memorial Drive in recent years. It’s hard to believe that a decade ago Lafayette Square was a sea of pavement (now a park) and bicycle lanes were not yet installed. This roadway was narrowed in many places from four lanes to three. While it was an improvement, it was also a missed opportunity: the street still prioritizes cars over other users. No provisions were made for transit users, and the roadway is still focused mostly on providing throughput and parking for automobiles, with transit users and cyclists a decided afterthought.

Cambridge is growing—the population is up 15% from 1990 to levels not seen since the 1950s, and Kendall Square is continuing its transformation from a collection of parking lots in to one of the major high tech centers of the world—but traffic is not. On Mass Ave at Sidney Street, it has declined 30%, from 19,400 in 1999 to 13,600 in 2013. While demand may have required four lanes in the 1950s before the regional highway system was built, it does not today: the worst congestion in Cambridge is due mainly to downstream effects (throughput issues in Boston often back Mass Ave across the Harvard Bridge). Over this same time period, transit ridership is up, and the proportion of Cambridge residents and workers commuting by car is down: the majority now walk, bike and take transit to work.

Ridership on most transit serving Central Square is growing. Data from
MBTA Blue Books.

How to Analyze Mass Ave

So the question must be asked: if the majority of the users of Massachusetts Avenue (and Cambridge in general) do not travel in cars, why is most of the roadway given over to traffic and parking? The right-of-way should be reapportioned based on the current use of the roadway and future trends. The City has laudable mode shift goals and has made progress towards attaining them. However, it is important that the design of the city’s streets is commensurate with these goals: empty roadways will lead to induced demand as more people rely on single occupancy vehicles, while slow transit and dangerous cycling facilities will provide a disincentive towards non-auto modes. This creates a vicious cycle as more vehicles cause more danger for pedestrians and cyclists and more congestion for transit users. (Providing faster and more reliable transit provides a virtuous cycle: more passengers require more frequent service, which reduces wait times and increases demand further.) Vehicle throughput on Mass Ave is important, but it has been the singular top priority for far too long. This must change.

The long term goals for Mass Ave need to be about prioritizing the safety and throughput of all users, in four major groups: pedestrians, cyclists, transit users and motorists. It is hard to argue that safety of all users should come before throughput in any design (within reason) and the safety of users can be relatively easily ordered as follows by vulnerability:

  • Pedestrians
  • Cyclists
  • Transit users
  • Motorists

Note that this is not a linear scale: safety for pedestrians and bicyclists is much more important than for other users, since they are far more vulnerable users. Safety between different groups is very much correlated: a road which is safe for pedestrians and cyclists is almost always safer for motorists as well.

Once you solve for safety, the next step is to solve for throughput. Ordering users here is a bit more complex. It may be best to order modes by the current number of users on the roadway, as well as the potential. For instance, if transit was faster and more frequent, the roadway could accommodate many more transit users, and there are already more transit users on Mass Ave than people in cars at rush hour. (The 1 bus, which is an important crosstown route between the Red Line and Orange and Green Lines, is often slower than making a connection downtown due to congestion on Mass Ave. If it were reconfigured as a bus rapid transit line through Cambridge and Boston, it could reduce the strain on the overburdened Red Line.) The MASCO shuttle runs at or above capacity on Mass Ave as well, and providing it bus lanes would make its trip significantly faster than it does today. The City and MBTA could work with MASCO to provide easier access to the service for the general public (it is currently open to the public, but requires a separate fare paid with a Harvard ID, a high barrier to entry for casual users) in exchange for the use of transit lanes.

Likewise, a safer road for cyclists may attract many more cyclists (as Cambridge has provided safer cycling infrastructure in recent years, bicycle counts have more than doubled). Cambridge has a bicycle network plan to add separated bicycle facilities to most major roadways, including all of Mass Ave. This post will attempt to do just that.

On the other hand, the number of motorists on the roadway is constrained both by the roadway width and layout as well as upstream and downstream bottlenecks: it would be difficult to add many users to Mass Ave without widening other roads far afield from the corridor. Pedestrians are numerous along the avenue, but are far more able to withstand bottlenecks within reason, although by no means should be plan to narrow sidewalks in the middle of Central Square and other high-pedestrian areas.

With this in mind, throughput goals should be ordered as follows:

  • Transit users
  • Bicyclists
  • Pedestrians
  • Motorists

This is not to say that we should kick motorists to the curb (so to speak). But when looking at various segments of the roadway, it is a good guideline to see if our priorities are askew. For instance, are we arguing against separated bicycle facilities (or protected bike lanes or “PBLs”) to maintain parking on both sides of the street? Are we forcing hundreds of bus passengers to narrow, crowded stops to facilitate a left turn used by only a few motorists an hour? Are we creating space for vehicle queues where we could instead have a transit lane to allow bus passengers to pass slow-moving traffic?

This post will use this approach to consider the stretch of Mass Ave between Memorial Drive and Central Square. West of Central Square, Mass Ave is quite narrow: the street is only 44 feet wide. This section has the least traffic and is rarely congested, and while a complete streets treatment may be warranted, it would not be possible to provide transit lanes and PBLs even with all parking eliminated. (North of Harvard Square is beyond the scope of this post, but that section of street was redesigned in the 1950s to eliminate safety island streetcar stops and build a wide highway-like road, a design which begs to be rethought. In fact, the city actively campaigned against the safety islands for the streetcar, which may have helped lead to its demise. The cars operating from the North Cambridge carhouse to Arlington Heights, Waverley and Watertown were the last cars operated by the MTA which didn’t feed the Central Subway in Boston. Whether streetcar service would have survived with the city’s support is an open question. This page has some opinions on that.) It will break the Avenue in to two parts: one stretching from Memorial Drive to Sidney Street, and a second from there through Central Square past City Hall. It will then discuss strategies to implement best implement this plan in the short and longer term. For the most part, it will attempt to rebuild the roadway within the current curbs and right-of-way, although in several areas will propose shifting curbs and, in a few, widening the right of way in to currently-unused space.

Legend for maps. Data generally
from City of Cambridge.

A few notes on syntax:

  • Mass Ave will be referred to as westbound towards Harvard Square and eastbound towards Boston. Cross streets will be referred to as northbound and southbound. 
  • All cross sections will be looking west, with the Cambridgeport side on the left and the Area 4 side on the right.
  • PBL = Protected Bike Lane, also known as a separated bicycle facility or a cycletrack. PBLs can either be sidewalk level or at street level, and can be set off by curbing, bollards or parked cars and a painted median. Sidewalk level PBLs are generally preferred.
  • Bus stops are generally shown as “floating bus stops” which allow some traffic (bikes, or bikes and cars) to pass to the right. Bus lanes are generally best located in the middle of the street, especially since curbside lanes preclude any other curbside use.
  • All street cross-sections are from the website.
  • Each map shows the current condition of the street on top, an the proposed layout below.

MIT: Memorial Drive to Sidney Street

Memorial Drive and the Harvard Bridge

Before focusing on the Cambridge portion of Mass Ave, a note should be made about the Harvard Bridge. The bridge carries tens of thousands of bus passengers, motorists and cyclists daily between Boston and Cambridge, but is too often choked with traffic, especially eastbound in the evening, when queues often back up across the bridge and in to Cambridge. Bicycle lanes were only recently extended all the way across the bridge (previously, merge zones at the end were quite dangerous for cyclists) but are still suboptimal for bicycle safety, with storm drains on the right and fast-moving traffic on the left. When not queued, vehicles drive quite fast—especially motorists exiting Storrow Drive who are used to highway speeds (it is possible to drive directly from I-93 to Mass Ave without encountering a traffic light or pedestrian until exiting Storrow)—on the straight, wide roadway.

For traffic traveling westbound, there are neither concurrent walk signals with a green phase nor a “no turn on red” sign, so pedestrians either have to wait for a walk signal which is still often crossed by traffic or walk against the signal, despite through traffic having a green light. (This is an extremely busy pedestrian area.) Without any commercial traffic, this right turn could easily be made more severe with more restrictions (or even rebuilt as a raised crossing to further slow traffic) and priority could be given to pedestrians instead of cars. As for transit, it receives no priority, and there are frequently three or four buses stuck in a queue on the bridge. When this is the case, however, these buses carry more passengers than every other car on the bridge.

The bridge is maintained by MassDOT, with the cities maintaining the approaches at either end. The bridge environment could certainly be improved with better separation for bike lanes, narrower travel lanes to curb speeds, and bus lanes to prioritize transit users crossing the bridge. A more outside-the-box idea would be to cantilever an additional six feet of sidewalk on either side of the span and move the bike lanes to the right side (in both senses) of the crash barrier, allowing five lanes of traffic: through bus lanes and queue space at either end of the bridge. Extending bus lanes in to Boston would be necessary as well. This would require cooperation of both cities and multiple state agencies: certainly a high bar to clear but by no means an impossibility. This post will assume that this is indeed possible.

Memorial Drive to Vassar Street

Crossing the bridge, Mass Ave bisects the campus of MIT. The roadway varies in width but the right-of-way is generally 90 feet, while there are two westbound lanes from Memorial Drive past Albany Street, the eastbound roadway narrows from two lanes to one lane in front of MIT. There are small street trees planted along the curb, but they are overshadowed by the stately oaks on MIT’s campus.

The main actor against a more balanced street here is parking. While there is the need for some short-term parking (or perhaps just pick-up/drop-off space) in this corridor, two-hour parking is by no means the best use of this space. If the average space is used by 15 vehicles per day, the 28 spaces between Memorial Drive and Vassar provide parking for 420 users per day, which is barely 1% of the total throughput of the street, yet it accounts for 16% of the right-of-way. Parking at MIT, while somewhat constrained, is still ample: the institute has parking available on Amherst Street (which it controls), along Vassar Street and in many lots and garages.

The usual fallacy that removing street parking will harm small business doesn’t even ring true unless we consider MIT and it’s $14 billion endowment as a small business. The city would have to work with MIT to reallocate parking, but this should not be a particularly heavy lift, especially since charging for parking on Memorial Drive could allow better turnover and availability in the area. One other displaced user would be the tour buses which park along Mass Ave in front of MIT. These users should not be prioritized but still accommodated, and MIT and the city should work to find off-street parking for these buses (perhaps in the lot adjacent to Mass Ave and Vassar Streets or on Amherst Street) where they will be out of harm’s way.

For westbound traffic coming off of the bridge, the left turn to Memorial Drive could be eliminated, and bus lanes extended across the bridge. Traffic wishing to access Memorial Drive westbound can take a right on to Memorial Drive and use the U-turn to the east to go westbound, a move often called the “Michigan Left” because of the preponderance of its use in the Great Lakes State. The right turn from the bridge to Memorial Drive could be sharpened and perhaps raised to slow vehicles in this high-pedestrian area. Rather than two lanes through campus, through traffic would be funneled in to a single lane, with the left lane reserved solely for buses. The bike lane would be moved to a sidewalk-level lane, which would move cyclists from the “door zone” of parked cars to a safer facility (as is planned for the entire corridor to Central Square). Westbound cyclists would have a specific bike light at the Amherst Street T intersection, which could be set to flashing red during the Amherst portion of the cycle to allow bikes to proceed after yielding to pedestrians since there are no vehicular conflicts.

The large MIT crosswalk could be rebuilt as a raised cross similar to the crosswalk in Kendall Square to slow traffic, although it likely needs to retain a signal due to the higher volumes of vehicle and pedestrian traffic. The bicycle facilities would create a slightly wider roadway and may require a slightly longer light cycle for pedestrians than exists today. Floating bus stops—not a new concept, but rather a direct descendant of streetcar safety islands which were first used in Cambridge in 1922—would be placed to the west of the crosswalk and accessed during the pedestrian phase. Past the bus stop, the left lane’s exclusive use for buses would end and allow left turns to Vassar Street. Approximately four parking/loading spots would be provided on the north side of the roadway.

The Vassar Street intersection will be changed dramatically and discussed in detail below.

Coming east from Vassar Street, a single through vehicle lane will be provided to the left with buses and turns into and out of the MIT bus loop on the right. The separated bicycle facility will run to the right of the bus lane, moving in to the current sidewalk right-of-way before the bus stop. (the right-of-way may need to be widened slightly here with MIT’s cooperation). Coming east crosswalk will serve two purposes, both to allow the passage of pedestrians and to allow the swapping of the bus and general purpose travel lanes. When the bus stop is occupied by a bus, the next cycle will have a transit only phase for eastbound traffic, allowing the bus to proceed diagonally to the left-side bus lane before a green light appears for general purpose traffic (a right-side bus lane could be retained across the bridge, but might not be preferable). Making this switch allows vehicles to move to the right side of the roadway, where several parking or loading spaces are provided, and for the transit vehicles to move to the center lanes for a speedy trip across the bridge. These spaces require some extra road width, but can be attained by moving the cycle track on to the sidewalk, which is quite wide between the crosswalk and Amherst Street; some cooperation between MIT and the City would likely be necessary. (See cross-section B-B.) Between there and the river, three exclusive lanes would be provided for cyclists, motorists and transit. (See cross-section A-A.) Since the bridge is controlled by a separate entity from the rest of the street, side transit lanes could be retained until bus lanes were installed on the bridge of the agencies’ schedules didn’t match.

Mass Ave and Vassar Street

The acute angle from Mass Ave to Vassar Street requires
trucks to roll up on to the sidewalk—which is often
filled with pedestrians—to make a right turn.

Vassar Street is one of the most complex and quite possibly the most dangerous intersection in the Mass Ave corridor. It has been the location of the death of a cyclist in 2011, and many more close calls. The roads do not cross at a right angle, and there is significant turning traffic. The crosswalks are long and askew, and turning vehicles often block the bike lane only to wait for pedestrians to cross before they are able to make their turn (if they don’t “take initiative” and attempt to weave through the crowds). A short term fix would be to make the right lane of Mass Ave westbound right-turn only, and have a red turn light for most of the signal’s cycle, but a green arrow during the exclusive left turn phase on Vassar Street. This would be similar to the setup where at the corner of Granite, Waverly and Brookline streets north of the BU Bridge, and the new phased right turn light on Comm Ave immediately south of the bridge. This would allow safe passage by cyclists and pedestrians during the Mass Ave phase, and an exclusive turn for cars when the street is already blocked. This would require that the eastbound side of Mass Ave become a single through lane (with the left lane for left turns only; this is already the de facto use of that lane) and might require three westbound lanes: a left turn lane, the current through lane, and a right lane for queuing cars waiting for the light. This, however, would preclude the start of the bus lane on the eastbound side of the street, so the tradeoffs would have to be examined.

In the longer run, since Vassar Street is home to Cambridge’s first cycletrack and, if it intersects with a protected bicycle facility on Mass Ave will require a different treatment. (As an earlier iteration of a PBL—in fact, one of the first in the nation—the facility is somewhat substandard, and separation must be extended on Vassar through the Mass Ave intersection. If built today, it would likely look much more like the Western Avenue facility.) This intersection begs for a better a better design. Luckily, there is one: a protected intersection.

Protected intersections are used commonly in Europe (especially in the Netherlands) and the first have recently been installed in the United States. The City of Boston is planning one along Commonwealth Avenue in the area of Boston University. A protected intersection moves cyclists adjacent to crosswalks and creates sharper turns for drivers, decreasing speeds and allowing for better sightlines. In addition, it allows left-turning cyclists to cross the intersection and then take a left, rather than having to merge in and out of traffic. With intersecting PBLs, such a treatment is often required.

This intersection is generally large enough for a PBL, but some modifications to the intersection would need to take place. The east and west corners would have to be extended to provide better bicycle crossings and queueing space. This would require a sharper turn for traffic turning from Mass Ave east to Vassar south, although this is a relatively rare movement. The eastern corner would need to be rebuilt as well, since the current shallow curve does not serve the purposes of a protected intersection to calm traffic and allow better sight lines. This is a more frequently-used movement, and congestion may be exacerbated by this change.

This could be mitigated by eliminating the right turn there altogether and providing more queue space for right turns on to Albany further west, as this post proposes. This intersection is frequently choked by cars attempting to turn from both lanes, with left-turning cars stymied by eastbound traffic and right-turning cars waiting for a constant stream of cyclists and pedestrians. Removing this turn would allow better throughput towards Albany Street, mitigating backups towards Memorial Drive. For most motorists, the extra one or two minutes to access Kendall Square is negligible, and Vassar is a narrow, often congested street. As discussed later in this post, the Albany Street intersection could be reconfigured to better accommodate this traffic.

Vassar Street to Albany Street

The section between Vassar and Albany Streets is unlike any other in the corridor: it has a mid-block railroad crossing of the Grand Junction line. There is minimal queue space between the two streets, and the area is often congested, causing backups through the intersections at peak hour. Other than parking lots and MIT deliveries, there are no abutters requiring access to the street which is bounded by two parking lots, the blank brick wall of a warehouse and a small laboratory which faces on to Albany Street. Even if redeveloped, it will likely never be an opportunity for placemaking with the rail line and delivery corridor running through the center. While this post generally calls for the downsizing of the streetscape, in this case, it calls for additional traffic lanes. By providing a wide roadway in this section, queues would be minimized in adjacent segments and the potential lights at Vassar and Albany to impact each other would be minimized.

This additional space is not free, of course, but the right-of-way here can be widened: the 90-foot right-of-way could easily be widened by ten feet or more on the north side. This assumes that PBLs would be located to the right of the travel lanes. Most likely, this would require a new PBL on the south side of the current roadway to account for two mature trees abutting the road, and moving the northernmost PBL in to the area occupied by the sidewalk and the sidewalk in to unused space and a parking lot owned by MIT. Obviously, MIT’s cooperation here would be required.

For westbound traffic, this would allow two lanes of traffic east of the Grand Junction widening to three beyond. These three lanes would allow an exclusive lane for each turning movement at Albany Street, the busiest single junction east of Central Square during the morning peak hour (and the busiest cross street by total vehicles). Going eastbound, Albany Street splits in to Albany and Portland with no stop sign or other traffic control device, so queuing space is not an issue, traffic entering Albany is unlikely to back up across Mass Ave (in fact, Mass Ave is often the bottleneck itself, and Albany backs up from Mass Ave south towards the BU bridge). The three lanes could be used exclusively for left, straight and right movements to clear traffic out of the short queue from Vassar Street, with the bus stop relocated west across Albany (far-side bus stops are generally preferred). With the right turn at Vassar disallowed, a number of steps could be taken to ease the right at Albany. First, the bike lane would be curved slightly and curb extended to allow for better sightlines between through cyclists and turning vehicles. Second, two lanes could be provided on Albany eastbound towards Portland (at the expense of a few parking spots) to mitigate any queueing issues. (See cross-section F-F.)

Coming eastbound, two lanes would be provided approaching Albany, with the potential for the left lane to be a turn lane with an exclusive phase. These two lanes would continue past a floating bus stop (the bus would stop in the right travel lane, with the cycle facility running to the right of the boarding platform) widening to three past the Grand Junction. This would allow the right lane to serve buses and right turns exclusively (there are only about 15 right turns per hour, or one every three light cycles, so this movement is minimal) with the middle lane for straight traffic and the left lane a queue for left turns, which often have to wait for opposing traffic to clear. With such a lane, an exclusive left turn phase could be provided, as this is an important movement for traffic and for the EZRide shuttle. (See cross-section E-E.)

Albany Street to Sidney Street

West of Albany Street, the corridor becomes much less complex, at least until Lafayette Square. Side streets are narrow and have little traffic, and there are few driveways to preclude the use of a protected bicycle facility on both sides. By moving the bike lanes to the right of the parking, the current layout of the roadway would be largely unchanged with two lanes westbound (where there are sometimes queues which form from Central Square) and one eastbound. Little parking would be lost. (See cross-section H-H.)  This would be one of the easiest portions of the roadway to rebuild since few changes would take place other than protected cycling facilities, and could be done quite quickly to improve conditions for cyclists without major impacts to other users. One change that could be made would be to cut back the corner at Landsdowne and Mass Ave for right-turning traffic. This is the turn made by buses laying over on Franklin Street (and in this plan, more buses would use this layover) and it is a tight, acute turn for buses. If the gas station were bought or taken by the city (a similar gas station taking allowed the repurposing of Lafayette Square), it could be used as a pocket park in addition to providing a better turn radius.

Central Square: 

Sidney Street to Inman Street 

[If you’ve read my original post on Central Square, this uses a lot of it as its basis. There’s some new thinking here and updated graphics, but if you’re familiar with that post, you can probably skim over a bit of it.]

Central Square is complex. I often cite it as an example of the difficulties autonomous vehicles will have operating in urban environments; the number of human cues and interactions between the tens of thousands of users of Central Square—most of them not driving—is intense (this is the topic of another post entirely). The complexity and confusion of Central Square is its saving grace: traffic rarely moves fast enough to do much harm. Still, the roadway is often congested, it is no place for a beginner cyclist, vehicles frequently pull across the bike lane or make illegal U-turns, and that doesn’t even get in to the transit users.

Transit on Green Street is frequently blocked by delivery
vehicles. It shouldn’t be there in the first place.

Central Square is, at its heart, a transit node. The Red Line below carries more passengers through the Square than all other modes combined, and as many passengers board and alight from the Red Line as vehicles pass through the streets above. It also serves half a dozen MBTA bus routes, and the MASCO shuttle, which collectively carry more than 30,000 passengers per day, with the bus stop on Mass Ave processing dozens of buses per hour. Most other such bus nodes and transfer points in Boston were built with some sort of separated subway-surface transfer facility like Harvard, Lechmere, Ashmont, Kenmore, Ruggles or Forest Hills, and former such facilities at Massachusetts (now Hynes) and the former Egleston station on the Washington Street Elevated. Not Central. Not only are bus passengers served by curbside stops, but some of these stops are along Green Street, a narrow street a block away. A new bus user would have trouble simply finding the bus stop, to say nothing of the luck needed to get a seat on a 70 bus at rush hour. (The geometry of these streets is not conducive to bus operations, notable are the poor “one way” sign at Pearl Street and Green Street, encased in a tube of concrete after too many chance encounters with the CT1 bus making a turn, and the 47 bus, which swings practically in to the opposing traffic lane to make the right turn from Mass Ave to Pearl Street.)

Yet if you look at a cross section of Central Square, it’s mostly used for cars and parking. Despite ample and inexpensive space available in nearby lots and garages, street parking is provided on both sides of the street. (This is the case despite the fact that the majority of users of Central Square likely arrive by foot, bicycle and transit.) The only exception to this is between Pearl Street and Prospect Street, where the curb plays host to a major bus-subway transfer point (and the City still finds curb space for loading zones and taxicabs). But Central Square will not be solved merely by trying to shove more uses through this already congested area unless we take a step back and look beyond Mass Ave, at which point there are some intriguing options.

For most of the length of Mass Ave, there is no useful parallel street. Unlike the grids of many cities, Cambridge’s streets, while mostly straight, run in any number of directions, rarely running parallel for more than a few hundred yards. Many gridded cities—most cities in the United States are built on some sort of grid—use “one way pairs” to better manage traffic (although sometimes to the detriment of the urban form) but the layout of Boston means such a scheme is basically unheard of. Yet, in a small sense, Central may be the exception, and this may provide an interesting solution.

Between Landsdowne Street and Putnam Avenue, Green Street parallels Massachusetts Avenue for just shy of a mile. This distance may not seem particularly impressive, yet it is twice the length of any other street paralleling Mass Ave anywhere along its 16-mile route from Boston to Lexington. The section of Green Street west of Central Square is narrow and residential in character and adding significant traffic there would be difficult politically. However, from Pleasant Street east, there are only a few residences, and the street serves mostly commercial properties, as well as several bus routes. This post will argue that these bus routes should be relocated to Mass Ave to provide better connections and amenities, and that general eastbound traffic on Mass Ave should be relocated to Green Street, which will be reconfigured to run eastbound. While the number of vehicles will increase, hundreds of buses will be removed from the street daily, a sensible tradeoff for the abutters of the street.

This, in a sense, would spread the users of Mass Ave across 140 feet of right-of-way (Green Street and Mass Ave combined), making Green Street an extension of Mass Ave. Westbound traffic would remain as is, and buses would use an exclusive busway through the center of the square, mitigating congestion and allowing passengers to transfer to and from the Red Line adjacent to the bus stops rather than forcing many to use inadequate stops on a side street. Eastbound traffic would be relocated to Green Street, allowing the two streets to serve, for a short distance, as a one-way pair, with the goal not to improve and increase traffic throughput, but to improve transit flows and safety for cyclists and pedestrians.

This can be imagined in several steps. Rather than moving intersection-by-intersection, I’ll detail the entire corridor, since it is being proposed as a major rethinking.

1. Green Street is rerouted to run eastbound. This allows all of the traffic from Mass Ave to be shunted south on Pleasant Street by the Post Office and then left on to Green. (Franklin would probably also be flipped from east to west, which would have the added benefit of eliminating the Franklin/River intersection, which has very poor sight lines.) Green would be two lanes wide, with one lane for through traffic and the other for deliveries and drop-offs and potentially parking between Magazine and Brookline, and turn lanes where necessary. The street is 24 feet wide, which is wide enough for two 12-foot travel lanes. The sidewalks would remain as is, with significantly less use since they would no longer be used for bus stops (the bus stops are frequently so crowded that pedestrians are forced to walk in the street).

Once past Pearl Street, traffic would be able to filter back to Mass Ave. Some traffic would take Brookline Street, mostly to zigzag across to Douglass Street and Bishop Allen. Some traffic destined to Main Street could turn here but most would continue east to Sidney or Landsdowne. At Sidney, signals would be changed to allow a straight-through move on Sidney Extension to Columbia and Main, and there would no longer be a left turn allowed from Mass Ave to Sidney Extension. (This would be the new hazardous materials detour for traffic unable to pass through the downtown tunnels.) Traffic going towards Boston could continue on Green Street as far as Landsdowne, where the diagonal street allows for less severe turns.

Eastbound traffic on Green Street is preferable to rerouting westbound traffic via Bishop Allen, for several reasons. First, it’s probably good from a political and practical sense to have some vehicular access to Mass Ave, so only one direction of traffic should be rerouted. Otherwise you wind up with some dead-ended narrow streets abutting the square. Complete streets include cars. They just don’t make them the priority. Second, the right turn for through traffic from Mass Ave to Bishop Allen would be very hard to figure out; the Sidney Extension-Main-Columbia turn would be implausible with increased traffic. Douglas Street is only 20 feet wide and is probably too narrow for trucks. Norfolk is 24 feet wide, but then you’re creating a busy turn right in the middle of the square.

2. Mass Ave eastbound is rerouted to Green Street. As described above, all traffic from Mass Ave eastbound would be diverted to Green Street at Pleasant. Traffic wishing to turn left on to Prospect would take a right on Pleasant, and a left at Western, which is the current traffic pattern. Light timings would be changed at Western to allow for additional traffic, although they are already optimized for north-south traffic, which is significantly higher than east-west traffic on Mass Ave. The current right-turn lane from Prospect to Mass Ave would be repurposed as a bus-only lane. Mass Ave westbound would remain mostly is.

3. A two-way busway would be built on the south side of Central Square from Pleasant to Sidney. Eastbound buses would be exempt from the turn to at Pleasant to access Green Street and instead proceed directly down Mass Ave. East of Pearl Street, this busway would allow for some general traffic: right turns from Brookline Street to Mass Ave and left turns from Mass Ave to Pearl. (See cross-section K-K.) The busway would also allow emergency vehicles (including from the nearby firehouse) to bypass gridlock in Central Square, creating BRT elements in one of the most congested areas of the 1 bus route (as opposed to, say, the Silver Line in Roxbury, which has bus lanes on the least congested part of the route but in mixed traffic in the most congested areas). Bus stops would be consolidated between Pearl and Essex for both better access to the Red Line and to ease confusion about which buses stop in which stops: with the exception of the rush-hour 64 bus extension to Kendall, all buses would stop in the same location. This 160-foot long section could accommodate four 40-foot buses at the same time. (See cross-section L-L.)

Since Central is a terminal for most routes, buses are required to turn around, and would be able to loop as follows:

  • 1 is a through route. The CT1, which should be consolidated in to the 1 bus since recent stop elimination have made the routes mostly redundant, could loop via Pleasant-Green-Western.
  • 47 would go left from Brookline to the busway. Its loop and layover would be made via Pleasant-Green-Western. A single-bus layover would be retained at the end of Magazine Street. This would eliminate the need for passengers to walk a block to transfer.
  • 64, when not operating through to Kendall, would loop via University Park, but instead of serving stops on Green Street, it would loop back to the busway. Left turns would be allowed for buses from the Mass Ave busway to Western.
  • 70/70A would loop via University Park as above, making inbound and outbound stops on Mass Ave, eliminating the walk to Green Street and the inadequate boarding facilities there
  • 83 and 91 would use a left-turn lane for buses only on Prospect Street (this is currently a painted median; the 30-foot-wide street would allow a bus lane here) to allow access to the busway. An actuated signal there would allow a left turn phase when necessary (approximately ten seconds every ten minutes, which would have a negligible effect on other traffic). Buses would then loop and layover in University Park like the 70. This would allow these routes to serve the growing University Park area, which has seen significant redevelopment in recent years. 

4. Eastbound bus stops would remain largely where they are on the south side of Mass Ave, but any pull-ins and bulb-outs would be removed to allow vehicles to maneuver more freely. (The additinal crossing distance would be mitigated by the bus platform mid-street; see cross-section L-L.) Westbound bus stops would be placed in the center of the roadway; one between Pearl and Essex (approximately 160 feet long) and another east of Sidney Street (60′ long, for the 1 Bus only; more on the Sidney Street intersection later on, see cross-section I-I), where those buses (and general traffic turning left on Sidney and Pearl streets) would be shunted to the left of the floating bus stops. These stops would be ten feet wide at Pearl Street and eight at Sidney, significantly wider than the current stops on Green Street, and built with modern amenities and shelters. The 1600 square foot bus stop at Pearl Street would provide waiting space for 400 to 500 passengers at three to four square feet per passenger (see MBTA crowding policy). Pedestrians transferring between the Red Line and westbound buses would have to cross just the westbound traffic lanes of Mass Ave, no longer making the trek to and from Green Street. West of Essex Street, the bus lanes would jog to the right to allow clearance between the head house and elevator for the main entrance to the Central Square station. (See cross-section M-M.) The bus platform—which could be raised to allow level boarding akin to the Loop Link in Chicago—would span the distance between the Pearl and Essex crosswalks, allowing access from both ends of the platform. (The sidewalk/bus platform for eastbound buses would also be raised to allow level boarding.) The MASCO shuttle would also use this corridor.

5. In between the westbound bus stop and the westbound traffic would be a 10- to 12-foot-wide center-running protected bicycle lane, running from Sidney to Inman. Except where adjacent to the firehouse, it would be raised above grade and separated from traffic; most minor cross streets would allow only right turns to and from Mass Ave. At either end, a separate bicycle signal phase would allow cyclists to move from existing bicycle facilities to the center of the roadway (more on this in subsequent section). This would eliminate the constant conflicts between cyclists, motorists and buses. Bicycle traffic calming measures would be required in the vicinity of the bus stop at Pearl Street with high pedestrian traffic, but cyclists would otherwise have an unobstructed trip from Sidney to Inman (with traffic lights at Brookline and Prospect, where a bicycle phase or two-stage turn boxes might be necessary for right turns). For turns to Prospect and Western, bike boxes would be provided to allow two-stage turns. For turns to minor streets, cyclists could use areas adjacent to crosswalks to move between the PBL and the curb. Since bike lanes in Central Square are frequently blocked by vehicles, this would wholly eliminate these issues.

Why not side-of-street PBLs, which are generally considered to be best practice? A few reasons:

  • Red Line head houses. If it weren’t for the location of the Red Line head houses, it would probably make more sense to have side bike lanes, but we should assume that the Red Line infrastructure are immovable and constrain the width of the street in this area.
  • Right turns. While turns from the bike lane to adjacent streets are somewhat more difficult for cyclists, putting the bicycle facility in the center of the roadway eliminates right-hook turn hazards. 
  • Bus-Subway transfer passengers. Since Central is one of the busiest bus-subway transfers in the MBTA system without an off-street facility, it requires large bus stops to accommodate passengers (the current stops are grossly inadequate). To accomplish this, it would need to pull the cyclists far back from the street, which would create more severe turns to allow the cyclists to clear the head houses on one side and the bus stops on the other. Since the eastbound stop is busier for waiting passengers—handling boardings for the 1, CT1 and 47, which at peak times account for a full busload of passengers every three minutes—floating it would require a larger bus stop than the westbound stop (which, at peak boarding times, only serves the 70, 83 and 91, and a few 1 bus passengers traveling from Central towards Harvard). Integrating the eastbound stop with the sidewalk allows for more overflow.
  • Pedestrian traffic, especially between the buses and the subway. A successful PBL would need significant separation from the sidewalks to avoid becoming choked with pedestrians. In high-pedestrian areas, this is easier to accomplish in the middle of the road than it would be alongside the sidewalks; since this proposal separates the eastbound bus stop from the bicycle facility. Passengers moving between the outbound Red Line and 70, 83 and 91 buses will have to board at a station adjacent to the PBL, but there are fewer of these passengers than those waiting for the 1, 47 and CT1 in the morning. 
  • The busway creates the need for a buffer between the westbound travel lane and the buses, which is a good place for the cyclists; with side-running lanes it would require additional buffer space on each side. It does create two points of conflict on either end of the PBL to transition from the existing lanes (which are already at signalized intersections, so it would require only a short additional phase) but otherwise have relatively clear sailing for cyclists devoid of the current maze of turn lanes, parking spaces and taxi stands. 
  • Finally, side-of-street bicycle facilities would mostly preclude the use of curb space for vehicles, which is necessary for loading, pick-up and drop-off zones in Central Square.

It’s worth noting that there were similar challenges in placing bicycle lanes near North Station, with extremely high pedestrian activity, as well as bus and shuttle drop off areas, and the solution there was similar: to put the bicycling facility in the center of the street. There are even lights now in operation which allow cyclists to cross from a side-of-street facility to the center, much the same as would be required in Central.

The bicycle facility could be placed on an adjacent street, but this would be both a practical and optical detriment of cyclists. As a practical matter, it would require cyclists to take a longer and less attractive route, causing cyclists to use other modes. It would also make it harder for cyclists to reach the businesses in Central Square, which do not generally front on to Bishop Allen or Green streets. From an optics standpoint, it would once again show that the street was designed first for motorists, with cyclists an afterthought. In any case, many cyclists would ignore lanes on a parallel street leading them to travel in shared vehicular lanes in Central, which would solve little.

Beyond Green Street and Bishop Allen, there are few if any parallel streets to accommodate cyclists. The nearest such street is Broadway, which runs from Harvard Square to Kendall, which would require cyclists destined for the Harvard Bridge to detour to the point that most cyclists would likely vote with their feet and stay on Mass Ave, even if it were more dangerous. Other streets, such as Broadway, also traverse more residential areas, with many more driveways and which would require the removal of significant residential parking to install bicycle facilities, a bit third rail of Cambridge politics.

6. The westbound lanes of Mass Ave would be 20 to 24 feet wide, allowing the current travel lane as well as a wide area for a loading zone for area businesses, a taxi stand and other pick-ups and drop-offs near the transit station and, in places, a wider sidewalk. (This is also a width required by the fire department.) These uses would no longer conflict with bicycle traffic in an adjacent lane. Some street parking could be provided, but it is probably best relegated to side streets nearby or parking lots (there are generally few on-street spots today). It is important to provide loading zones, as the businesses in the area do need service from suppliers which often have little choice but to use the bike lanes to load and unload today. Separating the bike lanes, and providing specific loading facilities, will remove this as an issue.

N.B.: there is no way to show headhouses in Streetmix, so the information signs are used instead.

Central Square Signals:

Mass Ave and Sidney

The two intersections at either end of the treated area will both need to be reconfigured and retimed to allow traffic throughput as well as transition cyclists and buses between in and out of the mid-street bike facility and busway. The intersection at Sidney Street was rebuilt in the late 2000s and despite its complexity, it by-and-large works. The best feature of the intersection isn’t even the roadway itself but the adjacent plaza, Jill Brown-Rhone park. What was once a sea of asphalt and a gas station is now one of the best-used parks in the city. From frequent dances, bands and the omnipresent consumers of Toscanini’s ice cream (currently relocated to East Cambridge for the redevelopment of its building), the park is a testament to what can come from the reappropriation street space for a different use.

Currently, the Mass Ave and Sidney intersection has three light phases, one for traffic going straight on Mass Ave, a second for traffic going straight on Sidney and a third of left turns from Mass Ave east to Sidney Extension and Mass Ave west to Sidney, and corresponding right turns (the right turn from Sidney north to Mass Ave east is the only movement allowed from Sidney). These phases are coordinated with the light at Main, Sidney Extension and Columbia to mitigate queueing on the short piece of Sidney Extension. These phases would have to change to allow for a bicycle cycle to move cyclists between the right-side PBLs to the east of Sidney and the center PBLs to the west. This phase could be quite short—perhaps only 10 or 15 seconds—as many cyclists can cross the intersection in a few seconds. At the same time, cyclists from Mass Ave could make turns on to Sidney Street, and the right turn from Sidney Extension to Mass Ave west could be allowed for motorists.The proposed phases are as follows as a 75 second cycle:

  1. Straight-through vehicular traffic on Mass Ave and Main Street, broken in to three streams by the floating bus stop (westbound traffic, buses and Pearl Street turns, eastbound traffic). Concurrent walk signals on Mass Ave, with right and left turns allowed (turn traffic is relatively low). The only restricted turn would be the left from Mass Ave east to Sidney Extension, which would not be allowed at any time (traffic from Mass Ave to Main or Columbia would mostly be on Green Street and could use the straight-through move on Sidney). This phase would last about 25 seconds
  2. Straight-through vehicular traffic on Sidney Street. The current vehicle-bike-vehicle lane on Sidney Extension south would be retained, but the right side bike lane would be eliminated and cyclists would be allowed to continue straight on Main and cross the plaza in a designated area. (More information about this below.) Unprotected turns would be allowed between Sidney and Mass Ave with concurrent walk signals. Main Street westbound would also have a straight signal on to Columbia. This phase would probably last about 25 seconds.
  3. The bicycle phase on Mass Ave would allow cyclists to move between the side PBLs and the center PBL on Mass Ave. Concurrent walk signals east and west on Mass Ave. To clear traffic from Sidney Extension queued from phase 2, a left turn from Sidney to Columbia would be signaled, and a right turn across an active sidewalk (this is currently the phasing structure). Adjacent right turns from Columbia to Sidney Extension would also be permitted. This short signal would be only long enough to clear any queues from Sidney on to Main/Columbia, probably only about 10 seconds.
  4. A fourth phase would be necessary to provide a crossing of Columbia west of Sidney Extension. At 3.5 feet per second this would require 13 seconds of crossing time. The bicycle crossing on Mass Ave would remain active, as would the crosswalks in Phase 3. At 15 seconds, this would provide a combined phase of about 25 seconds.

Perhaps the trickiest current movement at Lafayette Square is the left-right movement for a cyclist from Main Street to Mass Ave. Thanks to a citizen request (guess which citizen), a bike box was installed at the end of Main Street to allow a cyclist to move in front of traffic and prepare for the turn; otherwise a cyclist is required to take a left across a stream of traffic. The cyclist then uses the right hand turn lane to make a sharp, sweeping turn on to Mass Ave, often with car traffic immediately to the left. This could be reworked by allowing cyclists to proceed straight on Main Street and across the plaza (a shared roadway here could also accommodate fire apparatus pulling out of the firehouse and, in the long term, buses from Mass Ave to Main Street if the 70 were ever extended to Kendall Square, as some plans propose).

A bike crosswalk would have to be installed adjacent to the crosswalk across Columbia to allow cyclists to make this maneuver (non-standard, but not-unprecedented and doable in this context), as well as adjacent to the crosswalk to the PBL at the west end of the plaza. It could be coupled with a limited-use lane for firetrucks to cross over the park area in emergencies, but would otherwise be a shared space. Some cyclist calming would be in order as well (ramps would help this) as this is a high pedestrian area. There is a similar facility with a bicycle-only crossing of a sidewalk at the corner of Concord and Garden streets west of Harvard Square. Here, this would allow cyclists to take a safer, more direct route, and also allow a green light for vehicles during part of the bicycle phase at Mass and Sidney to clear out right-turning queues on Sidney Extension.

Mass Ave and Inman/Pleasant

The other end of the treated area is a bit more congested than Lafayette Square, with all traffic on Mass Ave taking a right on Pleasant and Inman feeding across to Pleasant as well. However, the signal phasing is much easier than at Mass and Sidney. The current phase has a straight movement for Mass Ave, a turning movement for Inman Street in both directions and an all-walk signal for the crosswalks. This would largely stay the same, with a couple of added signals and phases. This is planned for approximately 90 seconds.

  1. Inman southbound right and left. All vehicles southbound on Inman going left would be forced to turn right on to Pleasant. If Pleasant were striped with two parallel lanes (at 25 feet wide, it is plenty wide enough, but would require removing four parking spots) this would allow traffic to turn concurrently from Mass Ave west and Mass Ave east on to Pleasant. This adds a signal for the current unsignaled turn from Mass Ave west to Pleasant Street south. (20 seconds)
  2. Bicycle phase between the side-PBLs and the center PBL. During this phase, buses could also turn left from the busway on to Pleasant Street. This is required for the 47 and CT1 buses. (20 seconds)
  3. Walk phase for all crosswalks. At this time, westbound buses (1 and MASCO) would cross diagonally from the westbound busway to the eastbound travel lane, but then wait at the crosswalk for the next phase, a queue jump to allow them to leave the busway ahead of adjacent westbound traffic. (20 seconds)
  4. Westbound and eastbound traffic on Mass Ave. Eastbound traffic would turn right, except for buses which would continue straight in to the busway. (30 seconds)
  5. This actuated phase would allow a bus arriving during phase 4 to make the diagonal crossing and continue through the light, while still allowing eastbound traffic to make the turn on to Pleasant Street. (10 seconds, borrowed from Phase 4, if actuated).

There is potential for reduced throughput at this intersection and would have to be modeled—especially on Mass Ave—but it already has lower traffic than areas to the east. Two lanes are provided westbound because of this reduced capacity. It may be necessary at this location—and at Pearl Street—to install a gate to minimize the number of errant drivers in the busway, although the bus layover at Magazine Street and Green Street is seldom-if-ever used by vehicles as a straight-through move from Magazine to Prospect.

Other Intersections

There would also be changes to other intersections along the corridor. Western and Prospect would remain mostly unchanged, although buses would be allowed to make the left turn on to Western for the trip west. There would be the addition of the short bus-only left turn lane from Prospect to Central Square for the 83 and 91 buses, this would be actuated by the buses and would only require one ten-second cycle approximately every ten minutes, less than 2% of the overall throughput of the intersection. The only other street which would allow access across the PBL would be Brookline Street, which would otherwise remain unchanged. Finally, the left turn from Mass Ave to Pearl Street, which is currently an unsignaled turn from an exclusive turn lane, would remain unsignaled, with cars turning left and buses continuing straight. Depending on compliance, a gate may be necessary to keep cars out of the busway (although enforcement by Cambridge and Transit police may keep drivers from erring, some drivers unfamiliar with the area may follow a bus in to the busway despite any number of signs).

Green Street would have to be resignaled as well. The current intersection at Western/River/Magazine may become less complex, as traffic which currently has to merge out of Magazine and Green with a very short queue before the light would be turned. Pearl and Green streets would remain a four-way stop, and four-way stops or signals may be required at the Green Street crossings of Brookline and Sidney due to increased traffic. However, several intersections on Mass Ave in Central Square currently operate without signals, and this may be possible on Green Street as well.

Implementation Strategies

The sorts of changes proposed here would be a sea change for Mass Ave in Cambridge, and would likely have both broad support and broad opposition. Unfortunately, Cambridge frequently bows to opposition (and any sort of change), such as reneging on bicycle facilities on Pearl Street because of a few complaints about parking spaces. It would thus be important to work with transit and bicycling groups as well as business and community stakeholders to build a coalition of support for this sort of project before implementation. Working with other stakeholders would be imperative as well. MIT controls much the property on both sides of the corridor east of Sidney Street and while it should, in theory, be in the Institute’s best interest to promote safer and more efficient traffic, they must be involved from the start. MIT would lose about three quarters of the parking in front of the main entrance at 77 Mass Ave, but considering the mode share of visitors to campus (the majority coming by foot, bicycle or transit) it is anachronous to have most of the space in front of the campus devoted to a few parked cars.

The most drastic changes, however, take place in Central Square. Rather than a single owner, the Square is home to many businesses, large and small, and some would certainly bemoan the loss of a single parking space in front of their business. (This is despite the fact that businesses regularly overestimate the number of customers arriving by car and underestimate other modes.) A concerted effort would be required to assure businesses that deliveries could still be made (by designating convenient loading zones on Mass Ave and adjacent streets) and that patrons could still arrive by car, but that nearby parking lots and the Green Street garage would be a better option. The City could even promote use of the garage during construction with short-term discounts for parking there. Working with City staff, committees and the City Council would be important to put forth a united front for improving Mass Ave in general and Central Square in particular.

The hardest of these groups to organize will be transit users. While pedestrian and cycling advocates have longstanding interest groups and city committees, the City’s transit committee is much younger, as are groups such as TransitMatters and LivableStreets representing the interests of transit users. Meeting with those groups and selling the idea of a signature infrastructure improvement in Cambridge prior to public plans would allow for mobilization of transit users interested in a better experience, rather than letting the conversation get hijacked by parking interests as is so often the case.

Finally, the City should view this as an opportunity, not a threat. In 2015, the organization People for Bikes named the Western Avenue Cycle Track the best new cycling infrastructure in the country, despite the objections of some City Councilors, who worried that narrowing the street would cause increased traffic congestion (it has not). Western Avenue should be a blueprint for Cambridge, and rebuilding Mass Ave would be a connecting piece of infrastructure on a grander scale. If Western Avenue was named the top new cycling infrastructure in the country, imagine what the impact of a forward-thinking, transit-bicycle-pedestrian priority Mass Ave as a showpiece of the future of Cambridge in the 21st Century.

Let’s talk about safe streets in Cambridge

I’m tired of going to public meetings. Especially meetings organized by businesses in Cambridge where they accuse bicycle advocates of top-down planning which is making the roads unsafe, open the meeting by saying they don’t care about data (“then why are we here?”) and close by saying the want to collect anecdotes. They go on to complain that there has been no public process (which is interesting, given I’ve been part of a lot of this process) and say that the facilities are unsafe because they think they look unsafe. Let’s look at some of their “arguments” and break them down, and then let’s give the public some talking points for pushing back at subsequent meetings.

1. Don’t let “them” set the meeting agenda. If a meeting is billed as a “community” meeting, it should be led by the community. If the businesses are taking charge, before the start the meeting, go up to the dais and propose the following: that the meeting be led by a combination of the community members and the business association. Have a volunteer ready to go. If they refuse, propose a vote: let the people in attendance vote on the moderator. If they still refuse, walk out. (This obviously doesn’t go for city-led meetings, but for these sham public meetings put on by the business community which are only attended by cyclists if we catch it.)

2. Ask them about business decline data. I don’t believe they have it. They claim that business is down because of the bike lanes, but ask by how much, and how many businesses. There is very likely a response bias here. Which businesses are going to complain to the business community about sales being down? The ones with sales which have gone down. Better yet, come armed with data, or at least anecdotes. Go and ask some businesses if their sales have been harmed by the bike lanes. Find ones which have not. Cite those.

3. There has been plenty of public process. The anti-bike people claim that there has been no public process, and that the bike lanes have been a “top-down” process. These arguments are disingenuous, at best. The Cambridge Bicycle Plan was the subject of dozens of meetings and thousands of comments. If residents and businesses didn’t know it was occurring, they weren’t paying attention. It would also do them some good to come to the monthly Bicycle Advisory Committee meetings, where much of this is discussed (they’re open to the public; and committee members take a training on public meeting law to make sure procedures are carried out correctly). These are monthly, advertised meetings. If you don’t show up, don’t complain about the outcome.

Then there’s participatory budgeting. The bike lanes on Cambridge and Brattle streets rose directly from participatory budgeting. This was proposed by a citizen, promoted by citizens, vetted by a citizen committee and voted on by citizens. Yet because the Harvard Square Business Association didn’t get a voice (or a veto), it was “top down.” They’d propose a process where they dictate the process, which is somehow “grassroots.” This is untrue. Don’t let them get away with this nonsense. The bike lanes are there because of grassroots community activism. If they don’t like them, they had their chance to vote. They lost.

4. Bike lanes cause accidents. After the meeting, a concerned citizen (a.k.a. Skendarian plant) took me aside to tell me a story about how the bike lanes caused an accident. I didn’t know what to expect, but they told me that the heard from Skendarian that a person parked their car and opened their door and a passing car hit the door. I was dumbfounded. I asked how the bike lane caused the accident and was told the bike lane made the road too narrow. He liked the old bike lanes, so he could open his door in to the bike lane. So if you hear this story, remember, this was caused by a car hitting a car. And if someone says that bike lanes require them to jaywalk to reach the sidewalk, remind them that 720 CMR 9.09(4)(e) says that a person exiting a car should move to the nearest curb, so crossing the bike lane would be allowable.

5. Data. The anti-bike forces will claim they don’t want to use data. There’s a reason: the data do not work in their favor. They may claim that the data don’t exist. This is wrong. The Cambridge Police Department has more than six years of crash data available for download, coded by location and causation; the Bicycle Master Plan has analyzed his to find the most dangerous locations. Who causes crashes? More than 99 times out of 100: cars. (Note: object 1 is generally the object assumed to be at fault.)

When I dowloaded these data last year, there were 9178 crashes in the database. If someone mentions how dangerous bicyclists hitting pedestrians is, note that in six years, there have been five instances where a cyclist caused a crash with a pedestrian. (This shows up as 0.1% here, it’s rounded up from 0.05%. Should this number be less? Certainly. But let’s focus on the problem.). There have been 100 times as many vehicles driving in to fixed objects as there have been cyclists hitting pedestrians. Maybe we should ban sign posts and telephone poles.

I’ve written before about rhetoric, and it’s important to think before you speak at these sorts of meetings (and, no, I’m not great about this). Stay calm. State your points. No ad hominem (unless someone is really asking for it, i.e. if you’re going after the person who says they don’t care about bicycle deaths, yeah, mention that). Also, don’t clap. Don’t boo. Be quiet and respectful, and respect that other people may have opinions, however wrong they may be. When it comes your turn, state who you are and where you live, but not how long you have or haven’t lived there. When they go low, go high. We’re winning. We can afford to.

Cambridge Council Endorsements

I know you’ve all been waiting for it … the Official Amateur Planner 2017 Cambridge City Council endorsements!

I’ve lived in Cambridge for 6 years now, served on the Bicycle Committee for most of that time and gone to more council and zoning meetings than I care to admit. I’m making these endorsements based on two criteria: bicycle safety and progressive development policy (with a bit of transit thrown in). A bit of background:

1. Bicycle safety has become a hot button issue in Cambridge in recent years as more and more people have embraced cycling to work, and our infrastructure hasn’t kept up. There is some talk that the recent activism, especially among younger voters, will change the makeup of the electorate in Cambridge this year. Nominally, all candidates are for safe cycling, but in reality, some are more than happy to sell out to the interest of the minority of people driving in Cambridge. After several “pop-up” lanes were installed this spring, there was a bit of “bikelash” in Cambridge, with some City Councilors calling for a moratorium until we could figure out how to make bike lanes not impact—well, something. They’re not sure. Let’s call it “easy parking and the free flow of traffic.” Most insidious: the Harvard Square Business Association trying to kill bike lanes because cars. Councilors Simmons, Toomey and Maher supported this. they’re off the list. (They also got their comeuppance: hundreds of cyclists, three hours of public comment and a meeting that ran until after midnight; I doubt they’ll be pulling this sort of stunt any time soon.) Craig Kelley, based on several interactions, is kind of wishy-washy on safe cycling infrastructure, and while he often touts himself as a cyclist, he often veers in to the vehicular cycling realm. Sorry, Craig. For others, and for new candidates, I’ll defer to the Cambridge Bicycle Safety group’s list.

2. Development. Here, most candidates fall in to two camps, the Cambridge Residents Alliance and A Better Cambridge. Both are nominally aligned with allowing more development, but only one—A Better Cambridge—actually follows through. There are a few arguments against additional density and development, none of which hold water:

  • Gentrification. In Cambridge, this has already happened. So new luxury housing is not going to “improve” neighborhoods and increase existing rents, despite what CRA may say. This is, in general, grade-A horse manure.
  • Road/transit congestion. This too is a red herring. Cambridge itself is not that congested, most people bike, walk and take transit to work. It’s the getting to Cambridge part. More local housing will mean more bike/walk/transit commutes, and the answer is not to build less housing, but to improve connections to Cambridge. Yet the CRA won’t take a position on reducing parking minimums.
  • Open space. There is an argument for keeping some Open Space. But for an organization like CRA, open space becomes “parking lots.” This needs no further explanation. (Apparently they have softened it to “it can be redeveloped for affordable housing”—good idea—”but only if the parking is replaced.” Just, no.
There have been recent pushes by small groups of residents to downzone parts of Cambridge (I’m not sure if the CRA took a position on this, but they claim that Cambridge faces “over-development“; however, I know ABC opposed it wholeheartedly.) I don’t like going to these meetings and don’t want to have to go to more! Let’s get councilors who we know won’t buy in to this nonsense. 
A local zoning case in point: There used to be an autobody shop and a couple of businesses in a decaying, single-story building at 78 Pearl Street. These were non-conforming uses, built before the area was zoned C. The land was bought and the businesses relocated. It would have been a perfect opportunity to build a mixed-use, multifamily dwelling with apartments sized appropriately for the area. However, because of the zoning, mixed-use was out (even though it was replacing businesses!) and in place of the building went 78 and 80 Pearl: 4 bedroom, 3.5 bathroom (as a friend said: “oh, so everyone can poop in their own toilet!”) single-family houses (on tiny lots) for $1.75 to $2 million. Two units instead of six. There are plenty of examples of non-conforming uses which could never be built today but fit in fine with the neighborhood. But given the land values, and the zoning, developers are forced to build this type of low-density, pseudo-suburban housing which is completely unaffordable.

So, while some CRA-endorsed candidates are beyond excellent on bicycle infrastructure (Jan Devereaux in particular, but she’s past president of the very NIMBY Fresh Pond Residents Alliance, so there’s that), this page can not endorse anyone who is endorsed by the CRA. If you’re voting just based on bikes, she should be on your list.

There is some “whataboutism” going on with some anti-development types who say that the fault lies in other cities and towns not doing their part. This is true, but it’s no reason for Cambridge not to develop more housing as well. Remember when Homer Simpson ran a campaign for garbage commissioner with the slogan “can’t someone else do it?” Can’t someone else do it is not a logical policy. Yes, there would be less pressure on local housing prices if the Newtons of the world did their part. But it’s no reason for Cambridge to keep density down.  

Oh, then there’s Tim Toomey. He’s already out for a number of reasons (when he was a Councilor and State Rep, he was making more money than the governor, so don’t feel bad if he loses his job, his pension should be just fine), but please leave him off your ballot entirely. He quashed the idea of running commuter rail to Cambridge because he was afraid of big, bad trains running on train tracks, so instead everyone from the Metrowest/Turnpike corridor drives. More congestion! More pollution! Progress! Thanks, Tim.
So with these criteria in mind, here are the official Amateur Planner-endorsed candidates. It’s easy to remember: they all begin with “M”:

  • Alanna Mallon: I met Alanna when she was canvassing. She gets it. I think she didn’t get the Bike Safety endorsement because she holds back a bit on implementation of bike lanes. But from my conversation, she is very much in favor of transit and bike lanes, and will be an ally on the Council.
  • Marc McGovern: Marc has been on the Council since I’ve lived in Cambridge, and has been on the right side of the debate the whole time. I look forward to him serving another term.
  • Adriane Musgrave: I may have talked to Adriane longer than I talked to Alanna! (Note to candidates: knocking on my door helps.) She also very much “gets it” and is super data-driven and wonky. That’s my kind of candidate!
So there you have it. If these three candidates are on the City Council, the future is bright. I will be ranking them #1, 2 and 3. (I’m not giving away my order.) If you live in Cambridge, vote how you wish. But I would urge you to vote for these candidates.

(I don’t live in Boston, but here’s my at-large council endorsement for Michelle Wu, of course. )

What to do with Central Square

Traffic-wise, Central Square is a mess. Squeezed in to the streets are about 30,000 vehicles on Mass Ave and Prospect Streets, bus routes—most of which terminate in or near Central—serving more than 30,000 daily riders, thousands of cyclists and countless pedestrians going to and from work, home, businesses and transit. (This leaves out the tens of thousands of Red Line riders moving through under the street.) The street has been rebuilt many times, most recently between 2006 and 2009, to widen the sidewalks and realign Lafayette Square at the east end of the area. Sitting as it does adjacent to Kendall, Central has seen more traffic (of all types) in recent years, and often devolves in to gridlock at peak times.

That’s a lot of space for cars, isn’t it?

Still, the Square is remarkably car-oriented for a community where the majority of residents don’t drive as their main means of transport. Bike lanes are an afterthought, and cyclists jockey for space as buses, taxicabs and parked cars pull in and out, crossing and frequently blocking the bike lane. It is one of the most dangerous locations in the city for cyclists, which is no surprise to anyone who bikes there. For pedestrians, crosswalks are frequent and Mass Ave and Prospect Street have five second leading pedestrian intervals, but sidewalks are still congested, especially near transit stops which often fill with riders if a bus is a few minutes off of its headway.

Back in the day, transit riders boarded streetcars in the center of the street
in Central Square (these were not exclusive lanes but rather “safety zones
where passengers could board streetcars while automobiles passed on the
right; cars could pass on either side of the platform.

And transit riders? They have it worst. Long queues can form entering and exiting the too-narrow subway entrances at Pearl Street. Bus riders have a small shelter on Mass Ave, which is often inadequate for the number of riders waiting for the multiple routes which board there, and riders on Route 70 are forced to board buses a block away from the Square, on Green Street, with minimal shelter, narrow (just five feet wide!) sidewalks and on a grungy back street which is often so choked with traffic the bus can barely manage a crawl between the stops.

Unlike most other parts of the 1 Bus route, there are parallel streets in Central which could be used to alleviate traffic on Mass Ave and provide safer options for cyclists and pedestrians and better conditions for transit riders. It would require a major rethinking of how street space is used, changing the direction of Green Street and moving eastbound traffic one block to the south. That hurdle aside, Mass Ave could be reapportioned to allow for a safe, separated bicycle facility, bus stop consolidation at a single point adjacent to the Red Line (not, for many riders, a block away), and a transit-only facility stretching several blocks, free of the traffic snarls that routinely hold up buses. It would also (gasp) reduce some street parking, but the majority of businesses in Central cater to walk-in traffic, and there is ample parking at the too-numerous parking lots nearby and at the ugly-and-should-be-torn-down-for-housing Green Street Garage.

So, how do we create a Central Square where pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders are put first, and not an afterthought?

1. Green Street flips from west to east. This allows all of the traffic from Mass Ave to be shunted south on Pleasant Street by the Post Office and then left on to Green. (Franklin would probably also be flipped from east to west, which would have the added benefit of eliminating a the Franklin/River intersection, which has very poor sight lines.) Green would be two lanes wide, with one lane for through traffic and the other for deliveries and drop-offs and potentially parking between Magazine and Brookline. While this would increase traffic on Green Street, it would be mitigated by removing most if not all of the buses (more on that in a moment). Furthermore, there are very few residential buildings on Green Street, which is really mostly a service corridor for Central Square, so the impact of any additional traffic would be minimal. The street is 24 feet wide, which is wide enough for two 12-foot travel lanes.

Once past Pearl Street, traffic would be able to filter back to Mass Ave. Some traffic would take Brookline Street, mostly to zigzag across to Douglass Street and Bishop Allen. Traffic destined to Main Street could turn here, or signals could be changed to allow a straight-through move on Sidney Street. Traffic going towards Boston could continue on Green Street as far as Landsdowne, where the diagonal street allows for less severe turns.

What about westbound traffic via Bishop Allen and a transit-only corridor? There are several reasons this is suboptimal. First, it’s probably good from a political and practical sense to have some vehicular access to Mass Ave. Otherwise you wind up with some dead-ended narrow streets abutting the square. Second, the right turn for through traffic from Mass Ave to Bishop Allen is very hard to figure out. The Sidney Extension-Main-Columbia turn would be implausible increased traffic. Douglas Street is only 20 feet wide and is probably too narrow for trucks. Norfolk is 24 feet, but then you’re creating a busy turn right in the middle of the square. Finally, complete streets include cars. They just don’t make them the priority.

2. Mass Ave eastbound is rerouted to Green Street. As described above, all traffic from Mass Ave eastbound would be diverted to Green Street at Pleasant. Traffic wishing to turn left on to Prospect would take a right on Pleasant, and a left at Western. Light timings would be changed at Western to allow for additional traffic. Mass Ave Westbound would remain as is.

Eastbound traffic patterns for traffic to and from Mass Ave. The dashed line shows where traffic would be allowed but not encouraged; signs would direct through westbound traffic to Mass Ave to proceed to Landsdowne Street, but right turns from Brookline to Mass Ave would be permitted. For simplicity, not all traffic movements are shown.
Eastbound traffic patterns for traffic to and from Mass Ave. The main change would be the split for traffic destined to Sidney Street and Pearl Street, where turning traffic would share a separate lane with buses before turning left.

3. A two-way busway would be built on the south side of Central Square from Pleasant to Sidney. Eastbound buses would be exempt from the turn to Green Street and instead proceed directly down Mass Ave. East of Pearl Street, this busway would allow for some general traffic: right turns from Brookline Street to Mass Ave and left turns from Mass Ave to Pearl. The busway would also allow emergency vehicles (including from the nearby firehouse) to bypass gridlock in Central Square, creating BRT elements in one of the most congested areas of the 1 bus route (as opposed to, say, the Silver Line, which has bus lanes in the least congested part of the route). Bus stops would be consolidated between Pearl and Essex for betteraccess to transit. (This 160-foot long section could accommodate four 40-foot buses.) Buses would be able to loop as follows:

  • 1 is a through route. CT1 should be eliminated. Short turns could be made via Pleasant-Green-Western.
  • 47 would go left from Brookline to the busway. Loop would be made via Pleasant-Green-Western. A single-bus layover would be retained at the end of Magazine Street. This would eliminate the need for passengers to walk a block to transfer.
  • 64, when not operating through to Kendall, would loop via University Park, but instead of serving stops on Green Street, it would loop back to the busway. Left turns would be allowed for buses from Mass Ave to Western.
  • 70 would loop via University Park as above, making inbound and outbound stops on Mass Ave, eliminating the walk to Green Street and the inadequate boarding facilities there.
  • 83 and 91 would use a left-turn lane for buses only on Prospect Street (currently a painted median) to allow access to the busway. An actuated signal there would allow a left turn phase when necessary (approximately once every ten minutes, which would have a negligible effect on other traffic). Buses would then loop and layover in University Park like the 70. This would allow these routes to serve the growing University Park area, which has seen significant development in recent years. 
A busway, a cycletrack, a travel lane and even some parking! Emergency vehicles would be able to use the busway, too.

4. Eastbound bus stops would remain largely where they are on the south side of the street, but any pull-ins and bulb-outs would be removed to allow vehicles to maneuver more freely. (The additinal crossing distance would be mitigated by the bus platform mid-street.) Westbound bus stops would be placed in the center of the roadway; one between Pearl and Essex (approximately 160 feet long) and another east of Sidney Street (60′ long, for the 1 Bus only), where those buses (and Pearl Street turns) would be shunted to the left. These stops would be ten feet wide, significantly wider than the current stops on Green Street. Pedestrians transferring between the Red Line and westbound buses would have to cross just the westbound traffic lanes of Mass Ave, no longer making the trek to and from Green Street. West of Essex Street, the bus lanes would jog to the right to allow clearance between the headhouse and elevator for the main entrance to the Central Square station. The bus platform—which could be raised to allow level boarding akin to the Loop Link in Chicago—would span the distance between the Pearl and Essex crosswalks, allowing access from both ends of the platform. (The bus platform for eastbound buses could also be raised.)

MBTA bus routes shown, including loops for routes terminating in Central. At non-rush hours, the 64 bus would follow the route of the 70. The dashed blue line shows the ability for the 1 bus to short-turn (today known as the CT1). Other buses, such as the MASCO shuttle, could also use the busway.
East of Pearl, the busway would allow some general traffic (left-turning cars to Pearl Street). Through traffic would remain on the north side of the street, and the cycle track would have no vehicular crossings between Brookline and Prospect.

5. In between the westbound bus stop and the westbound traffic and loading zone lane would be a 10- to 12-foot-wide cycletrack, running from Sidney to Inman. Except where adjacent to the firehouse, it would be raised above grade and separated from traffic. At either end, a separate bicycle signal phase would allow cyclists to move from existing bicycle facilities to the center of the roadway. This would eliminate the constant conflicts between cyclists, motorists and buses. Bicycle traffic calming measures would be required in the vicinity of the bus stop at Pearl Street with high pedestrian traffic, but cyclists would otherwise have an unobstructed trip from Sidney to Inman (with traffic lights at Brookline and Prospect, where a bicycle phase might be necessary for right turns). For turns to Prospect and Western, bike boxes would be provided to allow two-stage turns. For turns to minor streets, cyclists could use areas adjacent to crosswalks. Since bike lanes in Central Square are frequently blocked by vehicles, this would wholly eliminate these issues.

A bus-only facility would dramatically improve facilities for transit passengers, a cycletrack would eliminate car-bike conflicts make biking through Central much safer, and a bus platform would decrease crossing distances for pedestrians. And there would still be ample room for taxis and loading zones on the westbound side of the street.

Why not side-of-street cycletracks? A few reasons. If it weren’t for the location of the Red Line headhouses, it would probably make more sense to have side bike lanes, but we should assume that the Red Line infrastructure are immovable. Putting the cycletrack in the middle of the street means that you don’t have right-hook issues (although right turns from the cycletrack are trickier). Second, bus stops. Central is one of the busiest bus transfers in the MBTA system without an off-street facility (think Alewife, Harvard, Forest Hills, Ashmont, Sullivan, Kenmore, etc). You’d need large floating bus stops and really need to pull the cyclists back from the street. Third: pedestrian traffic. There are a lot of pedestrians in Central Square. A successful cycletrack would need significant separation from the sidewalks to avoid becoming choked with pedestrians. This is a lot easier to do in the middle of the road than it would be alongside the sidewalks. Finally, the busway creates the need for a buffer between the westbound travel lane and the buses, which is a perfect place for the cyclists. You do have two points of conflict on either end of the cycletrack to transition from the existing lanes (which can be signalized) but otherwise have relatively clear sailing for cyclists devoid of the current maze of turn lanes, parking spaces and taxi stands.

East of Sidney Street, Mass Ave westbound would split, with left-turning traffic to Sidney and Pearl to the left of the bus stop island for the 1 bus (the floating stop on the south side of the street would serve the 1, as well as routes short-turning at University Park). The westbound bike lane could be cycletracked inside parking. Both bike lanes would have a signal phase at Sidney to allow a safe transition from the side of the street to the center-street cycletrack.

6. The westbound lanes of Mass Ave would be 22 to 24 feet wide, allowing the current travel lane as well as a wide area for a loading zone for area businesses, a taxi stand and other pick-ups and drop-offs near the transit station. These uses would no longer conflict with bicycle traffic. Some street parking could be provided, but it is probably best relegated to side streets nearby or parking lots (there are generally few on-street spots today anyway).

All of this might increase traffic congestion for some drivers. (Horrors!) But it would benefit the large majority of users of Central Square who arrive by transit, walking or biking, or a combination of all of them. Central once had transit stops in the center of Mass Ave (for streetcars), and it’s time that those users were the priority for the heart of Cambridge, not an afterthought.

Longfellow Bike Count Update

I’ve been counting bikes on the Longfellow for … a while (although apparently not in 2015, slacker). In any case, with the layout of the bike lane changed appreciably over the past several months, I decided to count again. Here’s a quick breakdown of the Longfellow’s bicycle facilities in the past few years:

  • 2013: “Normal” pre-construction travel: bike lanes on both sides, two lanes of general traffic.
  • 2013–early 2015 construction: all traffic on the downstream side, one lane of traffic inbound, inbound bike lane, outbound contraflow lane with a buffer.
  • Early 2015–Late 2015: Inbound bike lane unchanged, but sections of outbound lane routed on to the sidewalk to accommodate work on the salt and pepper shakers.
  • Late 2015–Early 2016: Inbound bike lane eliminated for approximately 100m at the Cambridge end for Red Line shoo fly trackage; outbound lane eliminated entirely, cyclists asked to walk bikes across the bridge.
  • Early 2016–present: all cyclists on upstream sidewalk, pedestrians asked to use downstream sidewalk, outbound cyclists asked to loop under bridge to access Kendall. (The netting which broke free from the barriers in high winds has partially been removed, at least.) 
Average bicycle traffic on Broadway. The westbound
Longfellow lane has been impacted since Nov 9 2015.
Back in 2014, nearly 400 cyclists used the bridge during the peak inbound commuting hour. Since then, there have been significant disruptions to the bicycling facility, so some traffic may have chosen alternate routes. When the outbound bike lane was closed in November, there was a marked drop in westbound cyclists on Broadway; this persists this spring as many cyclists seem to be avoiding the suggested loop-the-loop under the bridge. Yes, there’s data. See if you can tell when cycling west on the bridge was made more difficult?
This spring, eastbound cycling traffic in Cambridge has reached new heights, surpassing even last September’s average (although this could be due to the number of weekdays and weekend days averaged). Westbound traffic has dropped, owing to the bridge construction. Has eastbound traffic?
Yes. Slightly. The count on May 18 tallied a peak of 358 cyclists between 8:02 and 9:02. This corresponds to 392 cyclists counted at the Eco-Totem on Broadway between 8:00 and 9:15, or 314 per hour. (In other words, there are a few more cyclists crossing the Longfellow than there are at the Eco-Totem; i.e. more join the flow from Main Street and elsewhere across the bridge than leave Broadway after the Eco-Totem, or miss the counter entirely.) This drop could be due to a variety of factors, from construction to noise in the data. Hard to know.
This count was different than others since to see both sides of the bridge required sitting in an office high above the bridge. This meant, however, that I was able to see whether cyclists were using the upstream sidewalk, the roadway (sans bike lane) or, in a few cases, the downstream sidewalk (intermixed with pedestrians and some very narrow passageways under the turret reconstruction). The answer? Most cyclists use the upstream sidewalk. For Boston-bound cyclists, 95% used the upstream facility. For those coming to Cambridge, only 88% used the facility, but the absolute numbers were much lower, so that meant that only about 10 riders per hour were using the downstream sidewalk. While I wasn’t counting pedestrians, it seemed that most were using the downstream sidewalk, although this was the morning commute, which is not prime sightseeing time. Many of the upstream users seemed to be joggers, so at least their pace was better matched.
Westbound commuter counts were about even with the last count in 2014, although bizarrely the 2014 count peaked in the 8:15 range while the current count was highest around 8:45 (this could be noise in the data). There would probably be more marked differences looking at evening data; the Cambridge data suggests that many outbound commuters are avoiding the Longfellow in its current configuration.
What does this all mean? It means that most cyclists will roll with the punches as infrastructure changes, although the Cambridge data suggest that if it is too hard to use, cyclists will find other routes. It will be interesting to see how the upcoming phases change cyclist behavior as facilities are twice again shifted around the bridge prior to the final configuration. Finally, the Cambridge data is a great supplement to these counts, as it can give us a good idea of whether we counted on a high-use day or low, and such automated counts are obviously much more data-rich than simple eyes on the street, although it will take some time to build a multi-year data set to look at definitive trends. For instance: I counted more bikes in 2014, but there is no similar Cambridge data to compare that count to since the counter was only installed in 2015. 
But next year’s count, well, that will have data. And the bridge might be shifted around. Again.