Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

June 22, 2010

Comments on Cambridge’s Western Avenue project

This post contributed by John S. Allen

Note as of May 20, 2015: The document linked in the paragraph below is no longer on the City’s Web site. It has been retrieved from the Internet Archive.

Western Avenue is a major one-way arterial street, a truck and and bus route, the only direct route from the Central Square of Cambridge to Allston, Brighton and other points west. Western Avenue presently needs full-depth reconstruction, which also provides the opportunity to reconstruct sewers. The City of Cambridge has recently posted conceptual drawings showing three ways to reconstruct Western Avenue. These and additional information are posted on the City’s Web site.

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Western Avenue is lined with typical Boston-area “three-decker” apartment buildings for most of its length. These date back to the early decades of the 20th Century. There are a few businesses as well. Between Pleasant Street and Memorial Drive, Western Avenue presently has two travel lanes, with parallel parking on both sides, except at bus stops and at the right turn lane before Memorial Drive. There is a bike lane for part of the way.

The construction of a Massachusetts Turnpike extension interchange just across the Charles River in Allston in the mid-1960s led to an increase in traffic on Western Avenue and on River Street, which carries traffic in the opposite direction. The much-despised Inner Belt limited-access highway – Cambridge’s equivalent of Boston’s Central Artery – was never built. Governor Francis Sargent vetoed its construction in 1971. It would have diverted traffic from Western Avenue, but it would have split Cambridge in half, just as the old Central Artery separated downtown Boston from the waterfront.

Western Avenue and River Street join at Central Square in Cambridge, but they diverge from each other toward the river. They do not form a convenient one-way pair for short trips.

Western Avenue presents a difficult problem of accommodating all interests, as an arterial lined with residences. Accommodating through traffic including trucks and buses conflicts with the interest of residents in safe walking conditions, in peace and quiet, and in on-street parking.

I am writing this to comment on three conceptual drawings which Robert Winters has sent me. These were posted on a Cambridgeport neighborhood e-mail list. I’ll make my own suggestions after discussing them.

Concept 1

Western Avenue, Concept 1

Western Avenue, Concept 1

Note as of May 20, 2015: The 2010 Cambridge Bike Trends report has been moved from its original location to a different location on the City’s Web site.

Concept 1 is the most conservative. It keeps the two travel lanes but has a bike lane and bulbouts on the right side. This design would presumably somewhat increase the appeal of the street to young and timid bicyclists. However, the bike lane, like most bike lanes in Cambridge, is in the door zone of parked cars. Cambridge’s recent report on bicycle trends showed that doorings amounted to 20% of all reported car-bicycle crashes, the highest percentage I have seen anywhere. Bicycle facilities that encourage riding in the “door zone” do nothing to resolve this problem and probably increase it. Educating cyclists to avoid riding in the “door zone” becomes more difficult when bicycle facilities direct cyclists to ride there.

Due to the total width’s being unchanged in the Concept 1 proposal, Western Avenue would remain suitable for longer-distance through bicycle travel at normal speeds for adults who make regular use of a bicycle. Shorter-distance neighborhood bicycling would not be encouraged because, as mentioned, Western Avenue is one-way and River Street does not make a convenient two-way pair with it for shorter trips.

The drawing shows a bus shelter. A bus shelter is nice in wet weather, but this one is shown on a long bulbout (at sidewalk level) in the no-parking zone currently occupied by the bus stop. With this arrangement, buses will have to stop in the right-hand travel lane and bike lane, blocking them.

The bulbout on the right side of the street shortens crossing distances for pedestrians – but the drawing shows no bulbout on the left side of the street, where there is parallel parking but no bus stop. Why not? At bus stops, there could be bulbouts on the left side only, resulting in the same crossing distance but still allowing buses to pull to the right and avoid blocking other traffic.

All in all: Concept 1 would only improve conditions for pedestrians and for people waiting for buses, and clear the way ahead of buses by blocking other traffic. Conditions would worsen for other motorists and for bicyclists.

Concept 3

Western Avenue, Concept 3

Western Avenue, Concept 3

Concept 3 shows a so-called “cycle track” – a bicycle path – at the right side of the street, located behind the bus shelter and parked cars. I use the quotes because the term “cycle track” has been used to describe various types of facilities. All they have in common is that they parallel roadways like sidewalks.

The “cycle track” would be fitted in by narrowing the travel lanes and eliminating the bike lane on the street. The drawing does not show whether the “cycle track” would be intended for one-way travel or for two-way travel. Two-way travel would occur in any case, because many bicyclists would perceive the “cycle track” as a safe facility, separate from motor-vehicle traffic.

Research on bicycle paths adjacent to streets in Germany, Sweden, Finland, the USA and Canada has shown alarming increases in crash rates above those for riding in the street, due to increased conflict with motor traffic at intersections and to conflicts with pedestrians and other bicyclists everywhere. These results have been confirmed in a recent study in Copenhagen. There are exceptions when the paths are very carefully engineered, with traffic signals to prevent conflicts and with adequate width, but this one does not meet those requirements. The “cycle track” as shown would be partially in the door zone on the right side of motor vehicles, and would be crossed frequently by motorists making turns into and out of side streets — with sight distance problems due to the parked cars; also by pedestrians getting in and out of cars, going to and from bus shelters and preparing to cross Western Avenue. People on inline skates and skateboards, and pedestrians overflowing the sidewalk, would also use the “cycle track.”

One effect of Concept 3 would be to discourage longer-distance through bicycle travel, and to encourage shorter-distance, low-speed bicycle travel by children and novice cyclists. This encouragement would be purchased at the expense of a higher construction cost, more crashes, increased congestion of motor traffic, and making future reconfiguration expensive. Also, it is very difficult to keep a “cycle track” at sidewalk level clear of snow and ice though winter; probably only a single sidewalk width would be plowed, as with the existing “cycle tracks” on Vassar Street; plowed snow would melt back onto the surface and refreeze. Transitions from street level to the “cycle track” typically also are difficult to keep clear of ice and plowed snow.

The bus stop in Concept 3 is just like that in Concept 1, but the travel lanes are narrower, making it even more difficult for other traffic to overtake stopped buses. Placing a cycle track behind a bus stop was shown in the recent Copenhagen study to lead to an increase of 17 times in bicycle-pedestrian crashes, and 19 times in injuries.

Concept 3 is at the very least ineligible for Commonwealth funding, and probably unlawful, because required signage would not comply with the Massachusetts Project Development and Design Guide. A procedure does exist through the Federal Highway Administration to legalize projects that are not within design standards, and to exempt non-standard treatments from liability. The procedure defines new treatments as experimental, and requires that research data be collected, so that non-standard designs may serve to direct the standards-setting process. That is very desirable outcome from the installation of non-standard treatments, of which Cambridge has not taken advantage despite its having installed a number of such treatments.

Concept 5

Western Avenue, Concept 5

Western Avenue, Concept 5

Concept 5 shows Western Avenue with a bike lane, only one so-called “car lane” and back-in angle parking on the left side. Vehicles would have to stop and back up to enter the parking spaces. The bike lane would not be in the “door zone”, because all the parking would be on the other side of the street, but buses would block the bike lane and the one general-purpose lane. Truckers making deliveries would block it for extended periods of time, as trucks would not fit into the back-in parking spaces. Other vehicles might just be able to squeeze by, it’s not clear, but even so, a reduction from two lanes to one would result in gridlock, absent a Cambridge Big Dig to divert traffic.

General comments

What happened to concepts 2 and 4? What did they show? Or does the City just like odd numbers?

I have put the term “car lane” in quotes. There is no such thing as a “car lane”, and it is odd for the City to use this term. Cars are not the only vehicles — there are also trucks, buses, motorcycles, motor scooters, bicycles, and yet others. All may use these lanes under Massachusetts law. However, narrowing the roadway and creating a separate bikeway, as in Concept 3, will recruit motorist animosity to chase bicyclists off the road.

The conceptual drawings are notable for what they do not show. They are far from a complete plan. Though there is some technical data on existing conditions in other documents which the City has provided, there is no analysis of traffic capacity and volumes or signal timing to go with the different concepts. Good decisions about street layout can not be made without this information.

It is clear, however, that all three options for Western Avenue would increase congestion, due to the placement of the bus stops. Option 3 would increase congestion further due to conflicts between cyclists and turning motorists. Option 5 would create congestion all day long.

Transportation reformers like to point out that building road capacity results in an increase in traffic. In practice, if demand exceeds road capacity, traffic does indeed increase — until congestion prevents it from increasing further. An increase in capacity may lead to development and make longer trips convenient. Cambridge is already a built-up area, and development has occurred elsewhere as the Turnpike has encouraged commuting to/from distant suburbs.

Western Avenue can’t comfortably accommodate all current uses. Reducing its capacity, as in the proposed concepts, isn’t going to solve its problems. Only draconian measures – extreme taxation of motor vehicles and motor fuel; a major build-out of public transportation to serve suburban commuters; removal of on-street parking from one side of Western Avenue, and/or a Cambridge Big Dig to provide an alternative route – would relieve Western Avenue of the competing pressures that have resulted in its intractable problems.

Removing parking on one side of Western Avenue would allow a contraflow bikeway behind a median barrier, so the street would be two-way again for bicycle trips. University Avenue, in Madison, Wisconsin, offers an example of such a treatment. I don’t think it would be as successful on Western Avenue, though, because University Avenue is much wider, making room for an ample with-flow bike lane and discouraging wrong-way travel in the contraflow bikeway. Another possibility if parking were removed on one side would be a bus/bike lane — but this would have to be policed with license-plate cameras, or else Massachusetts motorists would ignore it.

What can be done until/unless political will builds to make the needed changes?

If Western Avenue is to remain one-way, then the bus turnouts should remain. Bicycle accommodation on the left side of one-way roadways is not a new idea; it is common in New York City and has been used recently on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. It might make sense here, and would avoid conflicts with buses. But then there is the issue of transition from/to the right side, and especially to get to the right of left-turning traffic before Memorial Drive and the Western Avenue Bridge. Traffic-signal timing and special (experimental) bicycle signals in the block before Putnam Avenue could ease the transition back to the right. A bike lane on the left side would still most likely be in the door zone, though there would be fewer door openings.

The simplest improvements, and those which can be done now, would be to leave Western Avenue with two travel lanes but to place shared-lane markings in the right lane and bulbouts only at the left side if there is a bus stop on the right. Strict speed-limit enforcement would be helpful, too. In the last block between Putnam Avenue and Memorial Drive, it would be helpful to remove parking entirely on the right side, so as to relieve congestion caused by the large volume of traffic turning from Putnam Avenue and the long red on the traffic signal at Memorial Drive. Perhaps the removed parking can be accommodated off-street, so as not to decrease the number of parking spaces, which are held sacred by business owners and residents. There appears to be space for parking around the city-owned generating plant in the last block before Memorial Drive. Synchronization of traffic signals also would be very helpful, as well as strict speed enforcement and a lower speed limit. These might be enforced by means of license-plate cameras if the objection to them as an intrusion on privacy can be overcome. Since when is speeding on a public way a private matter?

Comments on presentations

Now, some comments on presentations and meeting summaries from the task force studying Western Avenue:

Note, as of May 20, 2015: all three of the documents linked in this section are no longer online, or possibly have moved to different addresses. The versions now linked have been retrieved from the Internet Archive.

The April 15, 2010 presentation most addresses design goals: Notes on this presentation are also online.

“Pedestrian safety a main concern.” The cycle track option will decidedly worsen pedestrian safety.

“Design goals: safe, efficient pleasant” Choose any two as long as one of them isn’t “efficient”. All three of the proposed concepts would reduce efficiency.

Page 47 (page 8 of PDF): shows narrowed travel lanes and cycle tracks on a street that extends to the vanishing point in the background without any cross traffic or parking. The apparent goal of narrowing the travel lanes is to reduce travel speed and make the sidewalks more pleasant for pedestrians, though it’s unclear just where pedestrians would be going on this endless street without destinations. On a street with cross traffic and multiple, conflicting uses, narrowing the traveled way results in seriously decreased efficiency. Reduction in speed is best achieved by rigid enforcement, rather than by reducing efficiency.

Page 10 of PDF, lower left: shows a bus blocking the bike lane, because a bulbout has been placed at the bus stop, exactly what will happened with Concepts 1 and 3 for Western Avenue.

Page 11 of PDF: shows 3 different kinds of inconsistent and nonstandard markings for speed humps and speed tables.

Some notes on the public meeting summary from March 31, 2010:

goal #22, page 6 of PDF:

“Undertake reasonable measures to improve the functioning of the city’s street network, without increasing through capacity, to reduce congestion and noise and facilitate bus and other non-automobile circulation.”

Not achieved, all of the concepts increase congestion. Concept 3 produces gridlock.

Goal 23, page 6 of PDF:

“Encourage all reasonable forms of nonautomotive travel including, for example, making improvements to the city’s infrastructure to support bicycling and walking.”

The concepts generally improve walking conditions, though concept 3 drastically increases conflicts between bicyclists and pedestrians and will predictably increase the crash rate.

Preliminary project goals, page 7 of PDF:

“Ensure corridor is safe for all users • Maintain adequate traffic flow • Reinforce residential character • Appropriate traffic speed • Improve conditions for walking, bicycling, and transit riders.”

None of the concepts furthers all of these goals. Achieving goals of reinforcing the residential character and improving bicycling conditions is particularly difficult.


Improving conditions on Western Avenue isn’t going to be easy. The City’s concept drawings show three plans which, at best, improve conditions for pedestrians, but which worsen them for motorists and which either effect little change or worsen them for bicyclists. Some alternatives are more promising, but any that are to effect major improvements are unlikely to be politically palatable until and unless the price of motoring gets much higher.


  1. Removing parking on the right-hand side to create a shared bus/bike lane would help those modes most without making motorists worse off, except for parking. But reducing parking capacity is not even shown as an option (I assume the angle parking concept on one side only would not reduce parking very much compared to current conditions). Thus at least consider a peak-period only right-side parking restriction and using the parking lane for buses and bikes only at those times. That would also require finding a bit more width for that lane, which might have the desirable affect of permitting room for bicyclists to ride outside the door zone and still permitting motorists (although maybe not trucks and buses) to pass in the same lane.

    Comment by Paul Schimek — June 23, 2010 @ 1:12 am

  2. I don’t know what the implications of removing parking capacity would be, but my best guess is that with that much population density, it would be deeply unpopular. And the problem with time-of-day parking restrictions is that they discourage you from leaving your car parked days at a time while you commute by bike. That was a real problem for me when I lived in the city of Allentown.
    So for the sake of discussion, let’s suppose parking restrictions can’t occur.
    With that stipulation, I recommend:
    “Bicycles may use full lane” signs on both sides of the street. Shared lane markings right in the middle of the lanes. Education/publicity program telling cyclists to use the lane, and, specifically, to use the whole left lane to pass buses.
    Walk signals long enough to permit safe crossing without the need for bulbouts (otherwise known as “snowplow targets”).
    Low speed limit (exact number subject to discussion).
    IPMBA or LEBA bicycle training for police who regularly patrol this area.
    All far, far cheaper than any of the current proposals, without reducing capacity, and without building accident causes into the infrastructure.
    John Schubert

    Comment by John Schubert, — June 23, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

  3. I’d like to start by asking a more fundamental question– where is the evidence that Western Avenue is a mess? I’m not being flippant here; I honestly haven’t seen traffic there reach anything I’d consider a crisis level, and I suspect most residents along that road will say much the same if you start talking about reducing parking spaces or doing long-term reconstruction outside their front door. If Western Avenue really does need a facelift, that’s going to be your biggest challenge: residents saying, ‘Ah, well, if that much dislocation is involved, it’s really not that big of a hassle.’

    I should add that I don’t live in Cambridgeport, and don’t take Western Avenue all that often. But I find myself on the road at least once per week, usually in a car and occasionally on a bike. I’ve never considered it anything terribly undue for life in an urban area.

    Comment by Matt — June 24, 2010 @ 6:32 am

  4. Matt — since I’m from out of state, I don’t have your local knowledge. I think you comments are quite valuable. Note that my proposal is much closer to the “do nothing” option than any of the official proposals, both in cost and disruption.
    My proposal is based on the assumption that local government has an irresistible itch to ‘do something.’ So I offer them a cheap-yet-effective something that doesn’t have any of the harmful effects of their other proposals.
    ANY change to a road should be behavor based, i.e. the change is based on maximizing safe behaviors. A correctly placed shared lane marking maximizes safe behavior. A door zone bike lane does not. A ‘behind the parked cars’ cycletrack increases intersection collisions (which is why they were ripped out of Davis, Ca some decades ago), so it doesn’t maximize safe behavior.

    Comment by John Schubert, — June 25, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

  5. As I introduced the word “mess” in my original post, I’ll explain:

    Traffic backs up in the last block of Western Avenue before the Charles River, perhaps farther — and for a long way on Memorial Drive and Putnam Avenue (the two cross streets before the river) in the evening rush hour, due to the heavy motor traffic crossing the river — especially headed for the Turnpike. Lack of coordination of traffic signals between the City of Cambridge and the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages the riverfront expressways and crosswalks, has also been mentioned. Advocacy organizations are pushing for grade separations for the riverfront paths, but that is by no means assured. Certainly, there is a capacity problem, at least at the evening rush hour.

    The mess in the largest sense is the conflict between the needs and desires of residents and Western Avenue’s function as a major arterial and truck route. I recall that there is a ban on heavy trucks late at night, but that doesn’t fully address the residents’ concerns. On-street parking worsens the capacity problem. Removing it would be very unpopular with residents.

    The conflict is a result of accretion over 100 years. It’s similar to the problem of a small town with a major highway through it, except that there’s nowhere to build a bypass.

    Cambridge’s transportation plan states that one goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A bypass, even if it could be built, would be inconsistent with this goal. Another goal is not to increase capacity, same issue. A third is to get people out of their cars, onto bicycles and public transportation.

    Cambridge’s cycle track projects reduce capacity, but in a rather sneaky and obscure way: by throwing crossing and turning bicyclists into conflict with motorists.

    Cambridge would like to advance the idea that cycle tracks will get people out of their cars, and that safety in numbers will trump all other safety concerns. Such safety, if it occurs in fact, is purchased along with reduction in capacity at the expense of increased congestion, delay and pollution. None of the proposed concepts for Western Avenue is going to reduce demand for motoring there, because bicycling and motoring support very different kinds of trips.

    I see Cambridge as trying to apply a hardware solution to a software problem. Discretionary driving, congestion, speeding and truck traffic at late hours are best addressed with congestion charges, license plate cameras and other strict enforcement measures, not by drafting bicyclists as the footsoldiers to make motoring less convenient.

    When and whether there can be the political will to apply software solutions is an open question.

    Oh, and there is one hardware solution: better public transprotaiton — but it benefits from the software measures that decrease congestion.

    I am reminded of Sir Winston Churchill’s quip that democracy is the worst form of government, except, of course for all the others. At least in this democracy we have the freedom of speech to discuss the issues, even if it might be 20 or 30 years before a consensus develops to work toward real solutions.

    Comment by John Allen — June 25, 2010 @ 6:52 pm

  6. I do agree that traffic getting from Cambridgeport onto the Turnpike is a mess. But I’ve always suspected we could alleviate a lot of that with coordinated traffic signals; if the city and state aren’t coordinating all those signals, that needs to be the first change before we spend a dime on construction.

    I also believe we need to move away from the idea that if you build more bicycle lanes, people will get out of their cars and onto their bikes in large numbers. At the risk of disturbing the Bicycle Brigade, let me say it: they will not. People use bikes for recreation or exercise– not for serious transport, since you end your ride sweaty and that feels gross, and you rarely have opportunity (or time) to shower off. I have no problem putting cyclists into conflict with motorists, because common sense for cyclists should be that they cede way to the cars. I know we’re supposed to treat bicycles and cars as equal, but they aren’t, and that’s the fact. (And I say this as someone who cycles down Western Ave regularly.)

    Comment by Matt — June 26, 2010 @ 8:31 am

  7. I agree about the traffic signals, but I don’t know the details of the timing, so I can’t say how much of the congestion it causes. Anyone who has this information, please feel to add it to thsi discussion!

    As to sweat, I’d rather not generalize. It’s certainly a probem now, but not for most of the year and not for all rides. Still, even in the Netherlands where bicycle mode share is very high, car traffic continues to increase and the highways are jammed. As I said in my earlier post, we need to look in more directions for real solutions.

    About ceding the way to cars, whoa, please read my Bicycling Street Smarts — free online at that location, and available at most bike shops — and/or take one of Massbike’s bicycle driver training classes. Safe riding is not only about being defensive, it is also about being politely assertive — you make your intentions clear, and test other road users’ reactions. They will almost always cede to you as required by law. You’ll get where you are going sooner and feel better about it!

    Comment by John Allen — June 26, 2010 @ 10:03 am

  8. Bicycling is great, and should be supported. But the single most effective way to relieve traffic and reduce congestion is to improve bus service. No other method even comes close. And in this case, it would have the additional benefit of improving the pedestrian experience and the vitality of the neighborhood.

    The bulbous bus stops are clearly intended to solve an important problem – the difficulty for buses pulling back into the flow of traffic, and delays caused by cars stopped in designated bus stops. But, as other commenters have already pointed out, the proposals above seem to do this at the expense of traffic flow and cyclist safety. What I’d love to see instead is the removal of on-street parking along the right-hand side of the road, and its replacement with a dedicated bus express lane.

    There’s so much to like about bus service along that corridor. For one thing, central square serves as something of an intermodal hub, as passengers arrive by foot, T and bus, and depart in the same variety fo ways. This is great for struggling retailers and local businesses, in that buses generate far more foot traffic than do cars. For another, buses actually relieve congestion. As othes have pointed out, bike lanes become congested in their own right, as hardcore commuters and more casual riders compete for space and disagree over speed. But buses have substantial capacity to absorb more drivers without increasing congestion further. But the big point to make here is the advantage of express buses with dedicated lanes – they turn the rush-hour congestion from a problem into an incentive. As it stands, it’s much faster to drive. The buses have to pull over, and then fight their way back into traffic. But buses speeding past bumper-to-bumper traffic have a powerful psychological effect. Drivers leave their cars at home, if they can, and board the buses instead. Such a lane would also be an invitation to the mbta to increase the frequency of service, making the option even more appealing. Finally, buses are a local benefit – the stops along Western, and the ease of use, would substantially compensatemresidents for the relatively minor loss of on-street parking.

    So: parking, two lanes of traffic, and a dedicated bus lane. If we need better bike lanes, I’d much rather see them on another street – counterflow on River, say, or Magazine. Western’s unique value is in funneling motor vehicle traffic to the Pike, the river roads, and across to Allston and the Arsenal. There are other ways for cyclists to reach those destinations- that’s less true for vehicles.

    Bicycling is trendy at the moment, and has a far more dedicated and organized set of advocates than decidedly-unglamorous buses. And let’s not kid ourselves – that’s tightly linked to social class. But buses tend to be used by workers with the fewest resources, they do more than anything else to reduce congestion, and they have a demonstrated ability to improve retail around their exchange points. I’m surprised, frankly, that the city isn’t at least considering a bus lane as an option.

    Comment by Cynic — June 27, 2010 @ 9:32 am

  9. I don’t see how any proposals that lessen vehicular throughput on Western can be considered. The domino effect of the afternoon rush-hour congestion will hurt everyone.
    I agree that for travelers in cars seeking the Pike, bicycling is not an alternative; it pays to be realistic about that.

    If it is indeed possible that better signal coordination could help, that should be explored first.

    Comment by Tony Tauber — June 30, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

  10. >>I’m surprised, frankly, that the city isn’t at least considering a bus lane as an option.

    Don’t misunderstand me, I’m definitely ‘pro-bus’– but to plan a bus route, you need to worry about various points along the entire length of it; where to place stops, and what’s at each end of it. That involves the MBTA and surrounding towns.

    When you’re planning to rehab a road, you just need to worry about all points along your town’s particular part of the road. That’s different than above, and for city planners, I suspect it’s easier to accomplish. Of course, that’s just a guess, and I’ll defer to others’ wisdom. But how many busses carry how much passenger traffic along Western Avenue, really, that such a substantial overhaul as creating a bus lane would be worth the disruption to what users experience now? That would be a key question.

    Enjoying the discussion here.

    Comment by Matt — July 1, 2010 @ 6:22 am

  11. <>

    It’s a great question, Matt – but I have only an incomplete answer. According to the T, the 72 line carries 3,500 passengers each weekday, and the 64 carries 500. So on the average day, you have something like 4,000 trips. For context, the upper segment of Western Ave carries some 9,000 cars each day; the lower segment carries some 15,000. We live in a world in which carpooling is regrettably rare; the overwhelming majority of bus riders are individual commuters who would otherwise drive. I think it’s safe to assume that the buses currently take about 3,000 vehicle trips off the road each day – or between one-third and one-sixth of the total load.

    I think a dedicated lane could probably boost those totals somewhat modestly. We’re talking about 8-9 buses every hour, during peak travel times, making between 2 and 4 stops along Western Ave. Their schedules are already staggered, to allow them to use the same set of bus stops. It’s possible that a dedicated lane would inspire the T to boost service, but we don’t need to count on that. There’s surplus capacity built in to the current buses. Allowing them to speed easily down Western Ave serves everyone’s interests. It reduces pollution and relieves congestion, by taking cars off the road. It makes bus travel comparatively attractive. It simplifies navigation for the cars moving down Western, by eliminating the need for buses to pull into and out of traffic. It enhances access for the disabled. The price is the sacrifice of one lane – either taken from parking, or from travel.

    I can’t find cumulative totals for cyclists anywhere, but even at rush hour, the busiest segment of Western Ave sees less than one bike rider per minute. We’re talking about a few hundred cyclists every day. That’s not exactly congestion. By contrast, the busiest segments see 9 pedestrians and more than twenty cars per minute, respectively. So I’d flip your question around, to wonder whether such a substantial overhaul as an enlarged, more prominent, or more protected bike lane is worth the disruption to the other 97% of users. And it quite simply blows my mind that the city is prepared to dedicate a lane for the use of a few hundred cyclists, but hasn’t even done its own surveys or prepared renderings to ease the rides of some four thousand transit users. There’s a basic incongruity there. If dedicated lanes and reduced vehicle trips are actually the policy goals we’re pursuing, there’s simply no question that dedicated bus corridors are a more efficient and more effective means of achieving those goals.

    If, on the other hand, this is an exercise aimed at cultivating a progressive image and pleasing a small but vocal segment of voters, it makes a little more sense.

    Comment by Cynic — July 7, 2010 @ 11:58 am

  12. The #64, #70 and #70A buses run on Western Avenue — not the #72. I use the #70 quite often when traveling between Cambridge and my home in Waltham. I leave it to you to look up passenger counts, as you clearly know where to find them!

    Also I’ve heard that the Cambridge Bicycle Committee prefers either the cycle track or the back-in-parking options.

    A combined bus/bike lane would serve both bicyclists and bus passengers. They’re quite common — this page shows examples from France and Germany and also from Philadelphia, here in the good ol’ USA.

    Comment by John S. Allen — July 7, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

  13. John:

    Thank you. The passenger totals I posted were for the 70/70A (3,500) and the 64 (500) – but I slipped up, and posted the wrong line number with them. And a combined bus/bike lane is a fantastic idea. At peak hours, there’s a bike every minute, and a bus every seven minutes. They could easily share the lane.

    What it would take, though, is eliminating parking along the right side of the road, and merging the parking and present bike lane into a single combined lane. To my mind, the benefits to thousands of Cambridge residents easily outweigh the loss of a few dozen spots. But there’s nothing quite so sacred in Cambridge as on-street parking. There’s real irony there. The city’s perfectly prepared to spend millions to reconfigure the road to discourage the use of automobiles and encourage alternative forms of transportation. But not at the expense of parking for those automobiles.

    It is, at any event, an option I wish they’d consider.

    Comment by Cynic — July 8, 2010 @ 8:44 am

  14. Yes, the contrast couldn’t be more stark between Cambridge, with its permits for on-street parking by residents, and Brookline, with its prohibition on overnight on-street parking. Landlords and homeowners in Brookline manage to cope with that, but transition to such a scheme in Cambridge would not be easy. Once residents are accustomed to using public street space as private car storage space, it’s hard to turn back. The problem might be resolved by providing off-street parking. That has been done elsewhere.

    But, as I said earlier in this thread, strong enforcement would be needed to avoid encroachment by general traffic into a bus/bike lane here in the USA. Cambridge has no effective enforcement against parking in the existing bike lanes — in any case, it’s unworkable anyway where truckers have no other option to make deliveries. I don’t hold out much hope that Cambridge would have the political will to keep a bus/bike lane open here.

    Any special facility at the side of the street, other than parking, creates difficulties in making deliveries and for construction projects. When the street is set up as usual, with a single traveled way, even with a bike lane or bus/bike lane, it can be narrowed by a vehicle making a delivery or by construction equipment and scaffolding, yet traffic of all kinds can merge together and get past the bottleneck. The only exception is for sidewalk traffic, which may pass behind the construction equipment or under the scaffolding, or have to detour to the sidewalk on the other side.

    The problem is much worse if the special bicycle facility is set off by a barrier, as my video of the Boulevard de Maisonneuve cycle track in Montreal shows. Then bicyclists too must detour to the other side of the street. You may notice a number of other problems with this cycle track in the video as well. (Watch it at 480 resolution — it has stereo sound…especially effective when I yell to freeze the pedestrian who runs out in front of me, avoiding having the video end in a bloody mess. Put your headphones on backwards, the channels are reversed. I’ll get around to fixing that sometime:-)

    Of the two options the Bicycle Committee has recommended, I’ll go for the back-in parking option, because its problems will be more immediately obvious, and it can be more easily undone than a cycle track.

    Comment by John S. Allen — July 8, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

  15. A bus lane makes no sense when there are at most 9 buses per hour. It makes sense in the range of 75 buses per hour or more. I used to commute on the 70, and the biggest correctable causes of delays were the unsynchronized lights in the Arsenal Mall area and Waltham Center, and the backups crossing the river roads and approaching the Mass Ave light northbound. Reserving a lane along Western Avenue in Cambridge would do nothing to address this.

    The city’s reports on this project say that the most common bike accidents involve cars turning right onto Western Avenue not yielding to bikes. This is exactly the type of accident that off-street cycle tracks cause.

    I think sharrows would be a great idea, but Cambridge’s traffic engineering staff considers them a measure of last resort, using them only where there’s no possible way to fit a bike lane or cycle track. They added bike lanes through Harvard Square rather than sharrows, even though the design of the relocated Holyoke Gate #1 bus stop leaves buses no choice but to block the entire bike lane and part of the right-hand general lane.

    Comment by boblothrope — August 5, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

  16. Frankly, I’m quite unimpressed with the designs above. But just removing the right parking lane would clearly work best. It wouldn’t decrease the road capacity, and would provide enough room for a wide bike lane. Perhaps even with a painted buffer or a contraflow bike lane on the other side! As far as resident complaints go, it’s obviously hard to give up the right to store private property on public land, but wouldn’t residents want a calmer and safer street?

    Comment by Herzog — August 17, 2010 @ 1:33 am

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