Rethinking Mass. Ave.

Ken Kruckemeyer examines sidewalk widths on Mass. Ave. Ken Kruckemeyer examines sidewalk widths on Mass. Ave. (Ethan Gilsdorf for The Boston Globe)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ethan Gilsdorf
August 10, 2008

How do you reconstruct a major, urban artery notorious for its traffic congestion and safety issues, but do so in a way that pleases not only neighborhood residents but supports the street's many users - cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, and buses?

Such are the challenges faced by the city's reconstruction of seven blocks of Massachusetts Avenue in the South End, from St. Botolph to Albany streets. A task force of residents, business owners, and neighborhood associations has been meeting, incredibly, for more than a decade trying to iron out a plan. For years, funding was stalled and other delays kept the project from moving forward. Finally, this summer, the plans entered the final design phase.

The puny $12.3 million budget means not every improvement, both practical and pie-in-the-sky, can be funded. But changes will be made to sidewalks, roadway width, signal timing and placement, and streetscaping, and construction is expected to begin in next spring and be complete by 2012.

To some, the rehab constitutes a major improvement. Others, particularly those groups behind the new "complete streets" design concept that gives pedestrians, bicyclist, and mass transit users equal footing with car traffic, have serious reservations.

In fact, some bicycling advocates feel the Mass. Ave. plan flies in the face of Mayor Thomas Menino's own agenda to put in bike lanes across the city - Menino announced last week that the city's first lanes on Commonwealth Avenue and in the Franklin Park area are just about ready. Bike advocates don't understand why a key street like Mass. Ave. would not be redesigned to also make room for traffic other than cars. The current plan widens travel lanes and inserts several left-hand turn lanes, but includes no dedicated bike lane.

"We are disappointed that the City was unable to incorporate the latest thinking on bicycle, pedestrian, and disabled access into the design, instead choosing to focus on moving cars through the corridor faster," commented David Watson, executive director of MassBike, in an e-mail. "Over the many years that this project has been in process, standards for road design, both nationally and here in Massachusetts, have evolved to become less car-centric and more inclusive of non-motorized users."

Part of the problem is that the project's roots reach back to the early 1990s, before concerns about gas prices and global warming drove urban planners to rethink how a roadway might work for all its users. The state body that regulates road design, MassHighway, only recently revamped its "Design Guidebook" in 2006 to give planners more flexibility to better favor bikers and walkers.

"The city is at a different place than it was when this project began," admitted Tom Tinlin, commissioner of the Boston Transportation Department. "It's unfortunate that some use Mass. Ave. as a snapshot to see where the city is with biking." Any redesign at this stage, he said, would "start the process over" and jeopardize the funding. "You don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water."

Yet many who push for a more human-centered, not car-centered design, hope it's not too late to revisit the design.

"Mass. Ave. is really the most critical connection in Boston for bikers," said Ken Kruckemeyer, a 41-year South End veteran and former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Works who now sits on the board of Livable Streets. "This is setting the stage for the next 50 years on this street," he added. "I think it's a huge missed opportunity."

"This is a major point of travel for residents of two groups: older people, and people with disabilities," said Valerie Fletcher, a 26-year South End resident and executive director of Adaptive Environments, which advocates for accessible human-centered design. She feels cars are given too much room in the Mass. Ave. plan, and that wider sidewalks would be better use of the space.

"We're going to live with a street torn up for three years and end up with a street that is not better," she added. "It will be cleaner and prettier but not better." Neither Fletcher nor Kruckemeyer was on the task force, but both recognize the difficulty in pleasing all constituents.

Tinlin stands behind the plan and the work of the task force. "It is a great design that increases public safety, bicycle safely, and pedestrian safely," he said. In his view, the left-hand turn lanes create a "more orderly flow of traffic" that makes the street safer. While he had hoped to include a dedicated bike lane, he said a 14-foot-wide outside (right-hand) lane was created "to accommodate bicycles" and that "share the road" signs and pavement markings will alert car driver attention to the presence of cyclists.

But an opposing argument also holds sway: that the wider outside lane will make more hazardous conditions. "The wider the lane, the faster the cars. I don't see how this makes this safer. I am mystified by this," Fletcher said. The design "makes it as easy as possible for people to go 35 miles per hour." Fletcher claimed Mass. Ave has the highest rate of pedestrian death of any street in the city.

Fletcher and others wish the design had been closer to what has happened on the Cambridge side of Mass. Ave., where in many stretches lane widths were actually reduced to calm traffic, make room for bike lanes, and widen sidewalks.

Still, some feel there's still time to tweak the design. When bike advocacy organizations got wind of the recent project to reconstruct Commonwealth Ave. near BU, they mobilized to insist on changes. The overall design had already been approved, but space was found within the existing curb locations for dedicated bike lanes.

"If we can keep the funding and keep the reconstruction going I would love to sit down with Livable Streets, MassHighway, and the city and make some minor adjustments," said Christos Hamawi, a Mass. Ave. task force member for five years. He hopes to persuade others that a foot or two can be gained by reducing travel-lane width. Change may be possible, even though the project is at "100 percent Plans Received" stage, and will be put out to bid to construction companies beginning Aug. 16. One idea that Hamawi likes: a dedicated lane for bikes and buses.

"I'm not done," Hamawi said. "I'm going to be continue to be outspoken about it. I don't want to stop it, [but] Commonwealth Ave is a good example, of how we can make changes within the scope of the overall project."

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