It’s time to #FixMassAve

I should be doing reading right now for Fred’s class, so forgive me, Fred, if my response this week is a little thin, but it’s time to talk about fixing Massachusetts Avenue.

Mass Ave is the north-south thoroughfare for Boston and Cambridge. It may not have as many cars as some other roads, but with the Red Line, and cyclists, and especially tens of thousands (perhaps more than 100,000) bus passengers along much of it, it is the main drag. It connects Harvard, MIT, Berklee, Symphony Hall and Boston Medical Center and comes within a stone’s throw of the MFA, the BPL, BU and Northeastern. It doesn’t touch downtown Boston, but does touch some of the most important innovation, education and medical centers in the state, if not the world.

The level of human capital along Mass Ave may be unmatched by any single four-mile stretch of roadway in the world. Yet we accept a dangerous road choked with single-occupancy vehicles blocking transit vehicles and endangering the lives of everyone else. This must change.

In the last five years, there have three cycling fatalities on the street that I can think of off my head: One at Beacon, one at Vassar and the most recent one in Porter Square. All have involved large commercial vehicles. These have not been daredevil bike messenger types: they’ve been doctors, researchers, and engineers; the “second order” of cyclists: the people who are biking because there are better facilities and because there are more cyclists.

But the facilities we have are disconnected, and they are not good enough. There have been innumerable close calls. Buses transporting thousands cut in and out of stops across the bus lane because god forbid we would remove parking to build floating bus stops or separated lanes. The road was designed, mostly in the 1940s to 1960s, for throughput and parking, even though people in cars are the minority of users of the corridor.

It’s high time for that to change.

This page (and its author) has spent a lot of time discussing Mass Ave and advocating strategies to make it a complete street, one built for safety of all users first, and then built for transit, bicycling and pedestrians before people in cars. (Deliveries are important, too; we should build loading zones where commercial vehicles can safely load and unload without impeding traffic.) It is time to stop talking about what we could do and start talking about what we will do. In many cases in Boston and Cambridge, street real estate makes such implementation quite hard: we’re an old city with very narrow streets. But not on Mass Ave. In most cases, there’s plenty of room to build something better. Parking on both sides: medians (I’m looking at you, highway north of Harvard Square), multiple lanes catering to people in cars at the expense of everyone else.

Mass Ave connects many some of the great institutions of the world. Technology? MIT and Kendall Square. Law, arts, sciences? Harvard. Contemporary Music? Berklee. Classical Music? Symphony Hall. Cities? Boston and Cambridge. Yet these institutions are linked by a thoroughly mediocre street, one which wouldn’t pass muster in many of the world’s great cities.

Here’s what I have so far. Let’s talk about this further. Let’s meet and talk about the plusses and the minuses. Let’s not leave anyone out, but let’s remember that it’s 2016, not 1966, and we’re planning for a sustainable, mobile future, not one where everyone sits in a traffic jam:

Central Square
Harvard Bridge
Beacon Street

So here’s my call to politicians and citizens: let’s make that change. Let’s rebuild a Mass Ave that works for everyone, not just people in cars. Let’s create a street that says: “yes, this is a place I want to be, and a place I want to go.” Let’s #FixMassAve.

Now, back to my reading.

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.

A Complete Mass Ave in Cambridge

Cambridge is in the process of starting a citywide master plan (right now it’s in the naming phase). The major thoroughfare in Cambridge is Massachusetts Avenue (Mass Ave for short, of course), and it is pretty much the only street in Cambridge that is more than two lanes each way. Except for a couple of locations, north of Harvard Square Mass Ave is 72 feet wide, and it could be a great street.

Unfortunately, it’s not. It’s basically a highway.

Two wide lanes of traffic each way, parking and a median. Are we in Cambridge, or LA?
All diagrams shown made in Streetmix, which is a fantastic tool for this sort of exercise.

And that needs to change. The street currently serves two functions well: traffic and parking. There’s minimal traffic on Mass Ave because there is ample capacity (the bottlenecks are at either end of Cambridge). There is plenty of parking; nearly the entire stretch of the street has parking on both sides. And since the street is so wide, there is a median to help pedestrians cross, discourage left turns and make the traffic even faster. It is also a concrete waste of six perfectly usable feet.

The street does have 14 feet of pedestrian facilities on either side, but these are hardly enough for the various uses there, which include bus stops, bike racks, sidewalk cafes, building access, power and light poles, etc. And the current lane width is ridiculous. Each side of the street is 33 feet wide: a 7 foot parking lane and two 13 foot travel lanes. Considering that Interstate travel lanes are only 12 feet wide, and 10 foot lanes are used throughout much of Cambridge, this is far, far more width than necessary, meaning that with the median there are 18 wasted feet of space on Mass Ave. Wider lanes cause drivers to speed, which endangers other street users. As for transit, the 77 bus limps along Mass Ave, stuck in traffic and pulling to the curb at every stop, only to wind up stopped at a light behind the cars that passed it.

We need to re-plan Mass Ave, and we need to rethink our priorities. In the 1950s, when the removal of transit safety zones in Mass Ave sped traffic and the end of the streetcars (at the City’s behest, no less), the main priority was vehicular traffic, with no mind paid to cyclists, little to buses, and not much to pedestrians. This is nearly completely backwards. How we should plan is:

  1. Pedestrians. Every street user other than a pass-through driver is a pedestrian. We need to make sure crossings are manageable, sidewalks are wide enough, and traffic is slow enough to be safe.
  2. Transit. Right now there are four bus lines along Mass Ave, the 77, 83, 94 and 96, carrying 13,000 passengers daily (as opposed to 20,000 vehicles). In addition, the street serves as the pull-out route for the 71 and 73 buses, serving 10,000 more. At rush hour, there may be a bus every two or three minutes.
  3. Cyclists. Safe cycling infrastructure is imperative for Mass Ave, as it is the straightest line between Arlington and North Cambridge and Harvard Square and points south and east. It is also the main commercial street for the neighborhood, and safe cycling facilities will allow residents to access businesses without driving. Rather than shunt cyclists to roundabout side streets, we should give them a safe option on Mass Ave. 
  4. Cars. Yes, we need to provide for vehicles. We need a lane in each direction, enough parking to serve businesses (likely on both sides) and turn lanes in a few selected locations. Do we need two lanes in both directions? Certainly not; there are plenty of one-lane roadways which accommodate as much traffic as Mass Ave. And if we build a road that’s better for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users, many of the current drivers will travel by foot, bicycle or bus instead. We also need parking, and there’s enough for parking on each side. It would be eliminated where there are bus stops, but with fewer overall stops there would be only a minor loss of spaces. And with better non-driving amenities, fewer people would drive, anyway.
With that said, here are some Streetmix diagrams of the roadway, and an overhead sketch of how they would mesh together:

This is a typical section of street. The curbs and sidewalks are unchanged, but everything else is. Cars get one lane, plus parking. There are center bus lanes, which also allows cars to pass people parking, or a double-parked car, although this will require enforcement to keep drivers from using the bus lanes for travel or turns. Each lane is 11 feet wide, and emergency vehicles would also use the bus lanes to bypass traffic. On each side of the street, there is a 5 foot bike lane separated from parked cars by a 2 foot buffer (the bike lanes could either be at street or sidewalk level). This would be the baseline configuration of the street.

Now, how do people get on to the bus? A bus stop. Back in the day, this would be called a safety zone, so that passengers could safely wait for and board a streetcar in the center of the street. Mass Ave had these until the ’50s, as did Central Square, as did many other cities. (In fact, they still have them in Philadelphia and San Francisco.) Today, we’d call them part of Bus Rapid Transit. They’d be paired with a crosswalk to allow people to easily access the station, and allow buses to quickly and safely board and discharge passengers without having to pull in and out of traffic. The travel lane would be shifted towards the side of the road in these cases, and the parking would disappear; this chicane would also serve as a traffic calming measure. Of course, there would be no more curbside bus stops taking up parking. This would also reduce the crossing distance of the roadway at bus stops to 47 feet, although less since there would be refuge between the bike lane and the travel lane opposite the bus stop; meaning the longest distance would be only 33 feet.

When a crossing of the roadway is desired away from a bus stop, the parking lanes would be replaced with curb bumpouts beyond the cycle track, meaning that pedestrians would only have to cross four lanes of traffic—44 feet—instead of the current 72. Crosswalk treatments would be included in the cycletrack to warn cyclists of the pedestrian crossing.

A turn lane could be accommodated by reducing parking in a manner similar to a bus stop. This would often be paired with a bus stop opposite the turn lane, with through traffic proceeding straight and the turn lane becoming the bus stop.

What would it look like from above? Something like this:

In the 1950s, we planned Mass Ave for cars. Cambridge can do better. In 2015, we were honored to have built what was described as the best new bicycling facility in the nation. It’s high time we remake Mass Ave, this time for everyone.