Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Step Sideways for Mass DOT

I went to a somewhat disconcerting public meeting this evening.  The project was the reconstruction of the Cambridge St (Allston) overpass over the Mass Pike between Lincoln St and Harvard Ave.  I'd link to the drawings online, but the project team didn't seems to realize that people want to see drawings online, and hadn't made any plans to put them up.

 This is a scary place to bike or walk because in the 1950's, a dense, walkable urban neighborhood was torn in half by a freeway.  Then the planners who designed the freeway "reconnected" the two halves of the neighborhood with an overbuilt 6 lane highway and a scarily isolated, dangerously steep, chainlink enclosed pedestrian bridge.  The sidewalks are crumbling and bordered with chainlink fence and highway style crash barriers.  Because there are too many, too wide lanes, drivers go way too fast, and with crosswalks spaced half a mile apart, pedestrians end up playing chicken to try to get to the bus stop.

The first shocking thing about this meeting is that while it was the first public meeting any of the advocates knew about, the proposed design was purportedly at 100%.  I guess it's a sign of how much Mass DOT has changed, that public process has gone from a vestigial "this is what we're going to do, like it or lump it" single meeting to an actual process where advocates expect meetings at 25%, and 75% and sometimes even pre-design meetings.  This is important because it becomes harder (more expensive) to make big design changes the further a project goes along, so a bike-ped unfriendly project can be rammed through because it's "too late" to make any changes to a bad initial design.  There was a watershed moment in local advocacy in 2008, when the "Old"  Mass DOT tried to ram a pedestrian and bike- unfriendly plan for the rebuilding of the Cragie Dam/ Museum of Science bridge through by presenting it as "complete"  and the public outcry made them reconsider and made the project better.  The old Mass DOT didn't understand or design for people, they just designed for cars. The new Mass DOT may still be mostly in a car minded design mindset, but they've learned that they need to listen to the people who bike and walk, and make some concessions to allow them to do so safely.

Anyway, the crew responsible for this meeting were clearly from the old school, and as was explained later in the meeting, this project was designed and contracted for by the old Mass Turnpike Authority, before it was rolled into Mass DOT.  So these engineers wouldn't know a livable street if it bit them, they were all about Level of Service and throughput and crash barrier standards.  They had grudgingly put in bike lanes and put the road on a lane diet to slightly compensate for the fact that the street was 150% overbuilt.  But they obviously hadn't given any real thought to pedestrian and bicycle motions at intersections or midblock.  They'd even made the pedestrian environment less friendly by putting a giant concrete median and chainlink fence down the middle to prevent people from crossing where the side streets connect to this big road.  There have been some tragic pedestrian deaths in this area, but putting a giant fence in the middle of the road is like forcing women to wear the hijab to prevent rape. God forbid we should require the cars to go a reasonable speed and provide safe and frequent pedestrian crossings.

The good news is that they are putting the road on a lane diet.  At only 27,000 cars per day, 6 lanes was way WAY too big (for a local point of reference, Mass Ave which is 4, and sometimes only 3 lanes carries more than 30,000 cars a day).  The lanes are being "tightened"  to a generous 11'6" and the extra space is going into wider (10') sidewalks and buffered bike lanes.  However the buffer is only a painted stripe zone, basically a glorified shoulder.

Given the speeds of the cars here (hopefully reduced by the lane diet)  it's not comfortable for bikes to ride right next to 50 mph traffic with only a few painted stripes between them.  Unlike many of the roadways around here, there's actually plenty of width to build cycletracks, and it would be a shame not to provide more protection- either flex posts or a curb to create a safer solution.

Basically it all comes down to the great saying "If you build for traffic and cars, you get traffic and cars.  If you build for people and places, you get people and places."  Right now Mass DOT is proposing to re-build a half mile long highway through a city neighborhood,  but what the neighborhood needs is a city street that's comfortable for the people who live there.

The one member of the panel who was from the "new MassDOT" seemed a bit embarrassed by this whole dinosaur of a project, although not embarrassed enough to commit to changes or more public process.  I think that the advocacy groups will attempt to have a meeting with the city of Boston, and Mass DOT  (BTD wasn't really represented, so Mass DOT kept blaming some of the worst features of the design on BTD).  I'm hopeful that some coordination and a bit of thought will mean it's not too late to make this a better project.


  1. The present road is indeed awful. I once used it to get back to Somerville from long rides in the 'burbs and it was treacherous enough on weekend days. It really does need a make over.

    Aren't there rules about public meetings? I've watched the Somerville Beacon Street project and had plenty of time to comment well in advance of a 100% plan. Did we all miss this one or were rules not folllowed or are the rules just recommendations?

    1. I think that there are a couple issues with public process, and I don't know all the legal requirements. My guess is that process is legally mandated by funding source, ie federally financed projects have certain requirements, MA general fund others. There are separate requirements for environmental review. And MassDOT has in some cases (,Longfellow ) adopted a much more involved process with stakeholder groups just to try to build ones sues with the community

      This project is funded by mass pike tolls, and therefore I'm guessing was exempt from more stringent requirements, and it was being run by holdovers from Mass Turnpike authority days who didn't care much about what the community thought.

  2. I agree, the lane diet is much needed for Cambridge Street. But their plan seems a bit meager.

  3. Six lanes are WONDERFUL - devote one lane each way to bikes and peds and all would be harmonious. I'm sure y'all can work out further details.