Thursday, October 7, 2010

Longfellow Meeting

There was a pretty good turnout at the Longfellow bridge task force meeting Wednesday night.
First of all,  so much appreciation for all the reps who went to seven three hour "stakeholder" meetings in preparation for this report.

I was kind of shocked to hear just how bad the conditions are in the existing scheme. According to their diagrams, currently there's a 15' wide car lane on the boston bound side, and the bike lane is only 3' wide.  I ride this bridge practically every day, and I still didn't realize how skewed to "car is king" old school transportation design it was.  Although after riding it the next morning, I think that someone has re-striped it to be at least 4'.

I think that the thing that everyone can agree on is that the pedestrian routes over the bridge HAVE to be improved.  It also seemed like there was real consensus about reducing the Cambridge bound traffic to one lane, which based on my experience is completely reasonable.  Since there's no nasty intersection creating a bottleneck, and the traffic is reasonably light every time I ever go through, I think that's pretty much a no-brainer.    I'm a little less convinced about reducing to one lane on the Boston bound side.  I think for now, they need to prioritize the pedestrian pathway, because once they get the guardrail in, it's not changing for another 100 years.  Re-striping is (relatively) easy,  crash barriers are forever.

The options on the inbound (Aka boston bound) side are:

A) Have two slightly 11' lanes for cars, a 8' sidewalk and a 5' bike lane.

A' )  two 10'6" car lanes, a 9' sidewalk and a 5' bike lane.

B)  reduce to one auto lane,  have 12' bike lane (some of which would be buffer zone) and 13' sidewalk.  Go to 2 car lanes in the last 400 feet before Charles Circle.   I would love this, but I do think that it would tend to back up cars.  Not so much because of the volume of  bridge traffic as because the intersection at Charles Circle is such a disaster and there's really no way to improve the signal timing.

C) the combo platter,  would have one lane of traffic and the wider bike lane and sidewalk on the uphill  (slow biker) side of the bridge,  which would then shift to two lanes of traffic and a more constrained sidewalk and bike path on the boston end.

I haven't made up my mind on this.   On one hand, I heard that the engineers say that 80% of the people who drive over the Longfellow into Boston do it from less than 5 miles away- a perfect distance for them to bike instead :)!  Also, when they went down a lane during construction, the delay was all of about 5 minutes, so it hardly seems onerous.  I understand that the evening rush is different, but still....
On the other hand,  we don't want the bridge to fill with idling traffic all the time (cough, cough wheeze)

A kind of a throwaway idea posited by the head of Mass bike, was wondering if it was possible to remove some of the traffic through Charles circle by providing alternate exits from Storrow that serve the Medical center North of the bridge via Blossom street.  Dunno if it's possible, but it's definitely intriguing.

A major consideration is that they need to maintain a 24' paved width for emergency access and evacuation  of the city.  On one hand a very wide bike lane would meet those requirements,  and would provide for ambulance access to Mass General Hospital, even if auto traffic was stalled.  Bikes can become very small if they need to pull over and out of the way.  On the other hand,  a very wide bike lane is an invitation for scofflaw drivers to drive, and even park (!) on it.  perhaps there could be a subtle grade variation (6")  enough to deter the average driver, but not enough to stop an ambulance.

I'll not go into the details of the pinch points at the existing towers and the abuttment at the Boston side. If you've ever walked across the upstram side, you know this all too well. It seems likely that they'll remove the existing abuttment at the Charles Circle end, in the interest of more pedestrian space, which is fine- it's not historic, and frankly, is ugly.  Technically there are "Parkland" issues there, but the area that would be encroached upon is a no man's land feral space which only attracts vagrants and dunkin' donuts cups at the moment.  Speaking of butt-ugly, there's also the potential for folding into the project the replacement of the cruddy existing pedestrian bridge there with a new one with better and more accessible connections to the bridge and to the esplanade. I don't know that the proposal is developed enough to respond to, but seems like a not-bad idea.

One thing that I noted with interest-  There were a couple of eloquent speakers from various Beacon Hill organizations.  They really want to calm Charles Circle,  and a lot of them walk a lot, including across the bridge.  They are really vocal about  improving the human scale and livability of this connection over the river.  They're almost more radical than the bike advocates about wanting to reduce the number of inbound lanes, and not giving a damn about the consequences for cars.  I'm working on a rennovation in Beacon Hill right now, and that gives me a real sense of the compromises that people make in their personal spaces to be able to enjoy such an urban culture,  and how seriously they take automotive assaults to that culture.  

Overall- I was pleased at the general support for bicycling and pedestrian facilities (SUCH a change from the past MassDot attitude).
Although it scares the pragmatist in me, after a day of reflection, I think  that we need to go big here, and build it so that people will come.  Boston is a city of pedestrians,  and we want it to be a city of bikers,  and we as a community need to put our will behind it,  and I really do believe that people will respond and fill those bike lanes.


  1. "...and even park (!) on it."

    LOL. I can totally picture that.

    You can pretty much count on 1 out of 100 drivers doing something really stupid like that. When I ride on Washington St. in Boston, there is always that douche that tailgates me and leans on his horn when I'm riding in the bus/bike lane. God I hate drivers in some parts of the city.

  2. thanks for the awesome write-up! i wish i could have gone to that, but am glad that you did!

    Jamaica Plain

  3. This is a wonderful write up and I'm glad to hear that there are lots of possibilities, all of which are better than what we have now.

    I used to walk the bridge every day and I hope that whatever they come up with will take snow removal into account. That was some treacherous going, once the sidewalk got icy for the rest of the winter. Occasionally they would bring prison crews in orange jumpsuits in to break the ice. I'm sure the Beacon Hill walkers are all over that particular concern.

    Thanks again!

  4. Thanks for the write up and I regret not having been able to make it to the meeting.

    The way this project is being handled sounds like good news. My personal preference is for wider lanes and sidewalks + 1 car lane, with the idea that if traffic starts building up as a result of this, drivers will begin to seek alternative routes and leave that bridge alone.

  5. I'm pretty sure MassDOT's dimensions for the current travel lanes and bike lanes are out of date. When DCR was still responsible for the bridge, they narrowed the travel lanes and created 5' bike lanes in both directions. I believe they get a bit narrower than that approaching Charles Circle however. I don't think DCR ever drew up updated plans though. I think they just went out there and adjusted the stripes.