This post contributed by John S. Allen
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.
Western Avenue, Concept 1
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.