Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

February 16, 2018

A look at the Brattle Street bikeway

In 2017, Cambridge installed a two-way separated bikeway on Brattle Street between Mason Street and Brattle Square. In the video here, I take a look at part of that bikeway, from Church Street to Brattle Square.

This is a high-definition video. For best viewing, start the video playing, click on “Youtube”, and then click on the Full Screen Icon — the square at the lower right.

December 1, 2016

A Peanut in Inman Square?

Inman Square is a difficult, pre-automotive, cramped, often congested, diagonal intersection. Thoroughgoing safety and traffic-flow improvements are not possible, short of tearing down buildings to create more travel space, or an expensive grade separation.

Anne Lusk, Visiting Fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health and a relentless advocate for on-street barrier-separated bikeways, has promoted a proposal for a “peanut roundabout” as a solution to the problems with Inman Square.

A grade separation was built long ago, farther west where Cambridge street runs between Harvard buildings. Though Lusk works at Harvard University, Inman Square does not adjoin the campus, and the political and financial resources of the University evidently don’t come to bear on the Square’s problems.

A Web page from the Boston Cyclists Union describes the “peanut roundabout” concept which Lusk is promoting for Inman Square. Here’s a conceptual drawing from the Web page:

"Peanut Roundabout" concept for Inman Square

“Peanut Roundabout” concept for Inman Square

I do think that the peanut roundabout concept is clever in itself. By eliminating traffic signals, this design might improve traffic flow.

— except for problems for bicyclists and pedestrians.

In the conceptual drawing on the page, to continue across the square in the same direction, bicyclists are directed to follow a circuitous route on separated bikeways, subject to right-hook risks, and turn sharply left after waiting at locations where they would block other bicyclists bearing right. There is no waiting area other than the narrow bikeway in which the bicyclists approach. The page describes the crossings as “European-style protected crossings” — but they aren’t. Strictly speaking, in traffic engineering, “protected” means that conflicting movements are prevented by traffic signals. No traffic signals are shown in the conceptual drawing. Four of the six crosswalks are raised, and these would slow motorists, but there are no waiting areas that would make it clear whether bicyclists will be turning across motor traffic or proceeding straight.

All in all, I cannot imagine how this concept would work for bicyclists or pedestrians without traffic signals for the crosswalks. Signals, though, would result in more motorists in the roundabout blocking other motorists’ travel in the roundabout. The conceptual drawing avoids raising this issue. Few vehicles are shown in the roundabout, inconsistent with the many in the connecting streets.

The conceptual drawing shows door-zone bike lanes leading to and from Inman Square at every approach. Earlier this year, cyclist Amanda Phillips was killed when the opening door of a parked vehicle flung her under a truck — the incident which led to calls for redesign of the Square. She was, however, not in the Square: she was had left the Square. (Identification of the crash location) It has been reported that she was exiting the sidewalk just before she was doored — so, she came from behind the vehicle whose door opened in front of her. What lessons from this crash have informed the proposed peanut design? Apparently none. The bike lanes shown at exits from the Square place bicyclists in the same hazardous situation as Phillips: emerging from behind parked vehicles, rather than where they might be visible with a driver’s-side mirror or a glance over the shoulder.

The page claims that “[s]uch a design could radically improve traffic flows, safety, and the community fabric of crash-prone Inman Square.” It would be useful in evaluating proposals, and claims like these, to have  a traffic capacity and flow analysis, and a crash study.  Instead, on the Web page, there is a list of claimed advantages, with no mention of potential problems and no analysis.

My overall impression of this design as a bicyclist, in addition to the concerns about safety, is that while it might increase appeal to bicyclists who are fearful of riding in mixed traffic, delays will be such that bicyclists who want to get where they are going will ride in the motor traffic. And let’s hope that they understand that safety would require them to ride in line with the motor traffic rather than keeping out of its way, as the designated routes strongly imply to be the key to safety.

The City of Cambridge has put forward two other proposals. A  “bend Cambridge Street” proposal is shown in the image below. Traffic on Hampshire Street would travel straight through, and traffic on Cambridge Street would zigzag. A similar “bend Hampshire Street” proposal is more or less a mirror image of this one. These proposals are similar to what has been done with Union Square in Somerville and at Lafayette Square (the intersection of Main Street and Massachusetts Avenue) in Cambridge.

City of Cambridge "bend Cambridge Street" proposal

City of Cambridge “bend Cambridge Street” proposal

The “bend” proposals include traffic signals and require bicyclists and motorists to make left turns. I do think, however, that the blue space in the “bend Cambridge Street” proposal might include bikeways, so  bicyclists on Cambridge Street could continue straight where the street bends left toward the first traffic light and then re-enter Cambridge Street by crossing Hampshire Street at the second traffic light rather than by turning left. (This would not be practical with the “bend Hampshire Street” proposal, because bicyclists would have to turn left across Hampshire Street to enter the blue space). The drawing below shows my proposal. Bicyclists would follow the red arrows.

Bend Cambridge Street proposal with shortcut bikeways

Bend Cambridge Street proposal with shortcut bikeways

The blue areas also might include useful social space — unlike the peanut roundabout proposal, where the extra space would be in the middle of the street.  The two traffic lights in the Bend Camridge Street proposal would, to be sure, increase delay for motorists. Bicyclists following the red-arrow route would encounter only one traffic light.

I’ll admit that I don’t have any more thoroughgoing answers to Inman Square’s problems other than the two I’ve already mentioned — tearing down buildings or creating a grade separation — which are not going to happen. I’ll be trying to think of other possibilities, and please, you do also.

June 24, 2014

Starts and Stops, mostly stops

I’m commenting on the “Starts and Stops” article which appeared in the Boston Globe on Sunday, June 22, 2014.

That’s behind a paywall. You may need to log in as a Globe subscriber to see it. (I’m one, but if I recall correctly, there’s a limited number of views till the paywall descends). You can also log in from home in the Boston area using a library card number.

The Globe article describes a bicycle-specific traffic signal on Western Avenue and makes the claim:

The Western Avenue signal is timed so that cyclists get a green light a few moments before their vehicular counterparts headed toward Memorial Drive; that way, cyclists have several seconds of a head start to get out ahead of the cars and become more visible to motorists, especially motorists turning right who may not think to look for cyclists approaching on their right side.

That only works if bicyclists happen to be waiting when the light changes. Otherwise, according to the description in the article, there is a right-hook conflict, with motor vehicles turning right across the path of bicyclists approaching in their right rear blindspot. I haven’t checked out the installation yet; I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with more detail.

The article goes on to say:

Additionally, signals like this one address one of the biggest gripes motorists have with bike riders: that they’re constantly running red lights. For cyclists, there can be no confusion whether they’re expected to stop at a red light when that light shows a little bicycle. Many engineers believe that when cyclists are assured that a traffic light is targeted at them and designed to protect their safety, they’re much more likely to wait for their rightful turn to proceed through the intersection.

Here’s the photo which the Globe posted with the article.

New bicycle-specific traffic light on Western Avenue

New bicycle-specific traffic light on Western Avenue

Wishful thinking. Normal traffic lights also apply to bicyclists. Do we need our own very special, and eexpensive, signal just so we will feel pampered? The traffic light shown in the photo, by the way, isn’t at Memorial Drive. It is at Putnam Avenue, a block earlier. Because the photo doesn’t show the installation which the article describes, I’m not entirely clear about the details.

It was previously possible for bicyclists to approach Memorial Drive in the through lane and enter on the normal green light — or sensibly, though in violation of the specifics of traffic law, at the left side of a right-turn lane lane, and also enter on the normal green. Now, bicyclists and right-turning motorists are, at least as described in the article, forced into a right-hook conflict.

Please, who are the unattributed “many engineers”? Opportunistic bicyclists and pedestrians, motorists too — commit traffic-signal violations because they get annoyed with waiting. Compliance improves if a traffic-light system is designed to minimize waiting time. This one doesn’t, and right-hook conflicts don’t protect anyone’s safety.

I am about to attend the summer meeting of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD), where I sit on its Bicycle Technical Committee. Two proposals currently before the Committee, in experimental status, are special bicycle traffic signals, and right-turn lanes with a bicycle lane inside their left side. I would have hoped that Cambridge had submitted a formal Request to Experiment from Cambridge for either of these proposals — which would add to the knowledge base, and confer immunity from legal liability — but I’ve seen none. I should have. The Federal Highway Administration calls on the NCUTCD to review them.

Oh, and also — in the Globe’s photo, it looks as though a car is sitting in the bikeway.

More to come.



November 3, 2010

Specific issues with Western Avenue project

In this post, I’m going to examine some of the drawings of its Western Avenue project which the City of Cambridge has provided.

All of the illustrations below are from the City’s conceptual design booklet.

Western Avenue concept drawing

Western Avenue concept drawing

The cars shown parked at the left are real cars, in the original photograph that was modified to show the conceptual design. Typical sedans are about 5 1/2 feet wide, not counting the side-view mirrors, but common light trucks are as much as 6 1/2 feet wide. Big trucks and buses can be 8 1/2 feet wide.

The cars shown parked at the right are drawings added when the photo was modified. All of them are micro-cars, very much smaller than the cars on the left — only about 4 1/2 feet wide.

Bicyclists complain about “door zone” bike lanes — where opening car doors pose a threat. On the other hand, the door zone serves an important function. A motorist can open the car door without its protruding directly into the path of motor traffic, and can walk around the car.

In the drawing below, I have copied the nearest car in the original drawing into each travel lane. This drawing shows too little clearance between parked vehicles and moving ones to allow motorists safely to walk around to the street side of their vehicles or open the doors. The right lane as shown is especially tight, even with micro-cars parked on the right and ordinary sedans in the travel lanes — though Western Avenue is a designated bus and truck route.

Western Avenue concept drawing, modified

Western Avenue concept drawing, modified

To show how wide the left lane is at present, the white line in the foreground replaces the gray patch that is dimly visible in the original drawing, covering up the location of the present lane line.

The parts of the illustration that are from the original photo are to scale — including the cars I have copied into the travel lanes. The drawn-in elements are conceptual, and some are not to scale.

The drawing below, also from the City, is dimensioned, showing a 36-foot wide roadway. The elements are to scale: 10.5 foot travel lanes, 7-foot parking lanes and mid-sized cars 6 feet wide, not counting the mirrors — like a a Ford Taurus. This drawing shows more room between vehicles than the right lane in the photo, but on the other hand, the parked cars are tight against the curbs, and no trucks or buses are shown.

Cross-section of street with cycle track

Cross-section of street with cycle track

Now let’s look at an overhead drawing, which shows a typical treatment at an intersection.

Western Avenue at Jay Street

Western Avenue at Jay Street

Let’s put more cars and some bicyclists and pedestrians into the picture. I’ve put three bicyclists on the blue strip which represents the cycle track. Two are headed with traffic and one is headed opposite traffic. (Off-street facilities encourage two-direction traffic, and this is particularly so on a one-way street where there is no opposite-direction paired street conveniently nearby.) There also is a group of pedestrians standing on the bulbout before the intersection. Excuse me if the bicyclists and pedestrians look like ants, I’m no Picasso.

Pedestrians and parked cars conceal  right-way bicyclists from drivers of cars A and B, increasing the risk of a “right hook” collision. Also, Car B  is blocking the right-hand travel lane. Such blockages will increase congestion. The more bicyclists, the more often turning motorists will have to wait in the position shown. At present, motorists can keep moving as they prepare to turn right, because they can merge behind a bicyclist before reaching the intersection.

Car C in the drawing must wait far back from the intersection, what with the separate sidewalk and cycle track. Then, on reaching the intersection, as shown in the illustration below, the car must block the cycle track as the driver scans for traffic. If more than one car is in line, both the sidewalk and the cycle track will be blocked at the same time.

Western Avenue at Jay Street, cycle track blocked

Western Avenue at Jay Street, cycle track blocked

Presently, without the cycle track, this kind of blockage happens only for the sidewalk. It is more troublesome and hazardous for bicyclists than pedestrians, because bicyclists are faster, and farther away when the driver must first see them, and can be hidden by buildings or by pedestrians on the sidewalk. The crash rate for wrong-way cyclists on cycle tracks like this one is very high — research in Finland, Sweden and Germany has shown it to be about 10 times as high as for right-way travel on the street. Right-way travel on a cycle track located, like this one, behind parked cars, and with unsignalized intersections and driveways, has been shown only two or three times as hazardous.

There is also a much greater risk of collisons with pedestrians, and with other bicyclists, than when riding in the street. This cycle track has about 6 feet of width where bicyclists are clear of car-door hazards or plantings — very substandard for a two-way facility.

There is a question what the wrong-way bicyclists will do when they reach Franklin Street and the cycle track ends. Most likely, they will go up onto the sidewalk or ride opposite traffic in the bike lane.

Finally, let’s look at the intersection of Western Avenue and Memorial Drive. At present, Western Avenue has four travel lanes approaching the intersection.  The rightmost lane is a right-turn-only lane which the City describes as underutilized. I agree with that description — even in the evening rush hour, I have been able to filter forward to the intersection on my bicycle in that lane.

The City proposes to change that lane into a cycle track, so right turns are made from the next lane to the left. In this connection, I question the City’s conclusion that its plan will not increase congestion. In the evening rush hour, traffic already queues on Putnam Avenue and Memorial Drive, all the way back to River Street. Even one vehicle waiting to turn right, while bicyclists overtake on the right, will block all other vehicles in the lane behind it. This is aside from the issue of institutionalizing the “right hook” — placing all responsibility for bicyclists’ safety on the motorists, and stripping away bicyclists’ defense of merging into the line of right-turning traffic.

Western Avenue at Memorial Drive, conceptual drawing

Western Avenue at Memorial Drive, conceptual drawing

I suggest instead that bicyclists be encouraged to travel along the left side of the right-turn lane, by means of shared-lane markings and signage, or better, if there is room, a through bike lane.

The question remains of how to handle opposite-direction bicycle traffic. It does not admit of an easy answer.  At this point, I’m most inclined to try to address it on River Street.

And, I’ll add: the sacredness of on-street parking is the issue that makes the problem insoluble. If parking could be removed form one side of Western Avenue, a contraflow bike lane would be an option.

There is no such issue on River Street, because there are many parallel streets in Cambridgeport that allow travel in the opposite direction.

Signing off…

October 29, 2010

Burning bridges

I have removed my most recent post.

Though it was factual — and passed muster with Robert Winters, who manages this forum — it did not address the main issue that motivates me to post here: my intense frustration with some directions which the Cambridge bicycle program is taking. My post was an expression of frustration rather than a description of current issues, and as such, it created more heat than light.

In the post, I asked whether Jeff Rosenblum was a builder of bridges. I think that was a fair question, but on the other hand I have burned some, and not only with him. I am no longer a member of the Massbike Technical Advisory Committee. Executive Director David Watson had already explained to me that my presence on that committee was getting in the way of Massbike’s work with governments. My recent post was the last straw for him.

I had already considered resigning for a couple of months. I regret that I did not have the courage to ask for a resignation. Instead, I backed myself into this situation. In the light of some of my posts in this forum, it may come as a surprise to my readers, but confrontation does not come easily for me. Sometimes I do not manage it well, and it bursts out.

Massbike and its predecessor organization, the Boston Area Bicycle Coalition, have been a major part of my life over the years. I have been on the Board of Directors, been President, attended hundreds of meetings and public hearings, written large reports under contract. I part from Massbike with considerable regret. On the other hand, I am also feeling much relief with this change. I had become increasingly frustrated with some directions Massbike is taking. I was increasingly uncomfortable as a member of the Technical Advisory Committee, and Massbike leadership was increasingly uncomfortable with me.

My underlying drive, my lifetime quest, as I must acknowledge to myself, is as a journalist. When I see something that disturbs me, my primary instinct is to provide information, to explain my concern, to try to make it understandable to other people. I am highly uncomfortable with biting my tongue in the interest of political expediency and compromise.

I have now freed myself from that obligation as it involves bicycling issues in Massachusetts, and so I think I will now be able to do a better job here on this forum. I offer my heartfelt thanks to Robert Winters for hosting this forum and for his support.

I’ll sign off with a quote, which I think is apt:

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” –Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:57

October 27, 2010

Western Avenue proposal: ill-considered

Cambridge has posted its preferred design proposal for Western Avenue.

Conceptual Design Selection booklet, October 2010. This NEW booklet details the current draft proposed conceptual design. Online/ download:

Conceptual Design roll-plan. This shows the draft proposed conceptual design in plan form.
Online/ download:

Neighborhood Walk this Thursday, Oct 28, 5:30pm, Andala Cafe, 286 Franklin Street

Community-wide Public Meeting, Wed Nov 3, 7:00pm (open house 6pm), Cambridge Senior Center, 806 Masssachusetts Avenue.

Cambridge continues with its plan to slow traffic by making streets narrower, and so more stressful and hazardous for motorists, while moving bicyclists onto glorified sidewalks where it is difficult or impossible for crossing and turning motorists to see them. The repeated invitations for right-turning motorists to turn across the path of through-traveling bicyclists in this proposal leave me breathless, especially where groups of pedestrians will wait on a bulbout, concealing through-traveling bicyclists. Also, the proposed cycle track will greatly encourage contraflow bicycle travel without making any reasonable or safe provision for it. If you have any doubt about the hazard of contraflow travel on a bicycle sidepath, here’s a link to a study which addresses it. There also will be the same issues of snow clearance as already occur on Vassar Street. It is predictable that bicycle-pedestrian collisions will be a problem, as they have been on Vassar Street.

The word “protected”, in traffic engineering used to mean, for example, a left-turn traffic signal phase where opposite-direction traffic had a red light.

Now in the Cambridge proposal it is being used to mean “motor traffic turns right across through bicycle traffic, with interrupted sight lines and no traffic signal.”

The word “protected” sure sounds good, if you don’t know that the treatment under discussion results in increased crash rates.

“Traffic calming” in very ancient times (50,-100 years ago) used to mean traffic-law enforcement. Despite the availability today of efficient tools such as license-plate cameras to record speeding and traffic-signal violations, Cambridge chooses a hardware solution — narrow lanes, which make for more stressful, difficult and dangerous driving conditions — to address the software problem of poor motorist behavior, and emphasizes the point by using bicyclists as obstacles.

Cambridge’s message to its motorists, delivered by creating an obstable course: drive real slow, and look back over your right shoulder when you turn right, or you might kill one of our highly valued and highly vulnerable bicyclists, and it’s all your fault if you do, because, you see, they are protected.”

Please don’t peg me as a naysayer. I made suggestions for alternative treatments in an earlier post, which led to a lively and welcome discussion.

Also see Paul Schimek’s post on this blog.

I hope to see good citizen participation at the public events.

Your comments on this post are welcome too.

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.

View Google Map

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.

May 4, 2010

Jessica Eckhardt’s conversation with Nicole Freedman and Jeff Rosenblum

Following the Urban Revolutions event on April 28 (see previous post on this blog), Cambridge resident Jessica Eckhardt spoke with Boston’s Bicycle Program director, Nicole Freedman. They had known each other as members of the bicycle racing community. Eckhardt also spoke with Jeff Rosenblum, who works in the Cambridge Community Development Department and who was a co-founder of Livable Streets. Following (you may have to click on a “more” prompt just below this) is Eckhardt’s account of the conversation.


Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress

%d bloggers like this: