Rethinking a very unacceptable roadway

Are we serious about prioritizing person-throughput?

TAKE A WALK with me.

Let’s start at the exit from the Science Park Green Line station in Boston. Wait for the pedestrian signal to go west, then cross two lanes of Nashua Street to a small concrete island. Wait for another signal, then cross the right turn lane from Nashua Street. Keep going west on the Route 28 sidewalk as you pass over Craigie Bridge, a small drawbridge. You’ll pass the spot where a driver crashed through the fence into the Charles River in 2015, killing himself and his passenger. Notice how fast the cars go in both directions on the roughly quarter-mile stretch built like a drag strip. Look for the bicyclists; they’re either riding in the street as motor vehicles zoom by (and then inching by those same vehicles as they sit at a traffic light further up), or riding on the narrow sidewalk.

Keep walking and look for the white-painted bike memorializing Meng Jin, a BU student run over by a dump truck driver just two months ago. As you cross the three lanes of Museum Way, watch carefully to make sure none of the fast-moving cars or trucks turns into your path. Go a short distance to the next traffic light, then turn left to cross all eight lanes of Route 28. Walk along Edwin Land Boulevard with its seven lanes and you’ll eventually see in the median a well-kept memorial for Conrado Medina, a 67-year-old East Boston resident, who was struck and killed by a driver there after working an overnight shift at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in 2013. On your way back to Science Park, notice the driveway for the Museum of Science, which is roughly 60 feet wide, and try not to get hit by a driver who is distracted trying to make a left turn across six lanes of traffic.

If it’s evening rush hour then perhaps you’ll see an ambulance with lights flashing and sirens blaring trying to get to Massachusetts General Hospital, but slowed to a walking pace by all the cars and trucks jamming the approach to Leverett Circle. You’ll certainly see heavily delayed employer-funded, open-to-the-public EZRide buses, taking close to 1,000 people to North Station every weekday. When you get to Science Park, if you’re headed to North Station, you can either cross Route 28 (six lanes, then an island, then one more lane) and go along the river, or continue east to Martha Road (two lanes, then an island, then two more lanes, another island, and three more lanes).

You get the point. Route 28 and the surrounding roads have designs which are wildly inappropriate for their location in the heart of the city. These are city streets, though their designs do not reflect it. For drivers of motor vehicles, all those lanes mean lots of empty road space and room to accelerate to high speeds, until they reach a traffic light. For people on foot, crossing these streets is dangerous or deadly. For people on bicycles, the unsafe conditions mean very few people ride here, and those who do are at very real danger of serious injury or death.

There’s a solution to this unacceptable situation: a radical rethinking of these roads and intersections, which recognizes that they are grotesquely overbuilt, inequitably allocating nearly all their space to single-occupant motor vehicles. Such a rethink must recognize, as Gov. Charlie Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation said in its recent report, that state projects must “be designed in ways that maximize multi-modalism and prioritize person throughput over vehicle throughput.” Buses, bicycles, and walking are vastly more efficient at moving people than cars. This will be even more urgent when the Green Line is shut down for the reconstruction of Lechmere Station, and buses fill in for well over 10,000 subway rides. But let’s be clear: this is not just about mobility efficiency. This is also about public safety.

A recent Boston Globe article quotes a state engineer noting that expectations for bicycle facilities have advanced rapidly in recent years. So has our understanding of bike infrastructure best practices, as documented in the state Department of Transportation’s own well-regarded 2015 Separated Bike Lane Planning & Design Guide. People today demand solutions that enhance both public safety and mobility efficiency. “What everyone is asking for is full separation, to be separated from traffic” along the entire roadway, said Becca Wolfson of the Boston Cyclists Union.

MassDOT seems not to have gotten the gubernatorial commission’s clear message to prioritize person throughput; officials declared at a recent public meeting that any roadway redesign must provide five travel lanes. Having five lanes was one of their self-imposed “constraints.” The “constraint” of providing five travel lanes exists only in the minds of the MassDOT Highway Division, and their own data prove it.

MassDOT’s recent traffic count was 37,500 vehicles per day for Route 28 between Land Boulevard and Everett Circle. Just three miles west, Route 28 crosses the Mystic River bridge from Assembly to Wellington, where the same six lanes carried 63,300 cars as of 2017 – that’s almost 70 percent more!

Reducing Route 28 to four lanes at the Museum of Science would still leave each lane about 11 percent less busy than each lane at the Mystic River bridge. The biggest backups in the area are on Route 28 approaching Leverett Circle, but they are caused by backups on Storrow and the other roads leaving the intersection, not by lack of capacity on Route 28. The only real constraint standing in the way of a safer, more mobility-efficient roadway redesign is MassDOT’s stubborn adherence to outdated auto-centric thinking.

MassDOT engineers also seem not to have absorbed what their very agency will be doing in two adjacent projects on Route 28. Starting at Land Boulevard and continuing to Third Street, the owner of the massive Cambridge Crossing development will be working with MassDOT and the city of Cambridge to rebuild Route 28 with four lanes and curb-level protected bicycle lanes. Just past that, where Route 28 enters Somerville, the roadway will be rebuilt by MassDOT with—you guessed it—four lanes and protected bicycle lanes. It is disappointing and perplexing for MassDOT to resist treating the length of this road in Cambridge and Somerville as a cohesive whole, with consistent width and consistently safe bicycle facilities.

First, a small start would be to promptly design and build fully separated bicycle lanes on Route 28 in both directions. Provision should also be made for priority bus access to the roadway, which would already help emergency vehicles and EZRide and other shuttle buses, and which will be critical during the long Green Line shutdown while the new Lechmere Station is constructed on the north side of Route 28.

The Massachusetts Vision Zero Coalition and LivableStreets Alliance recently renewed their call for fully separated bicycle lanes after MassDOT reneged on its earlier promise to build such lanes, citing outdated models prioritizing high-speed driving over safe, efficient movement of people. The recent insistence on five travel lanes is only more of the same. There is no longer any excuse for delay, given that the governor’s report says “MassDOT should update its design standards, policies, and traffic impact analysis guidance to reflect” multi-modalism and person throughput.

Second, the state should immediately draw up plans for giving Land Boulevard fully separated bicycle lanes in both directions, from Route 28 to Binney Street or further. That will help slow dangerously fast traffic, provide safer pedestrian crossings than the present immensely wide ones, and provide a safe place to bicycle. Temporary curb bump-outs might be usefully tested there.

Third, the state should promptly pilot additional changes to the streets in the area, including giving pedestrians a head start over drivers when crossing a street (called leading pedestrian interval); making intersections no turn on red; closing “slip lanes” which allow for high-speed right turns; and reducing the number of lanes on all the overbuilt roads, including Land Boulevard, Route 28 (probably going as far west as Lechmere), Nashua Street, and Martha Road.

The redesign of Route 28 and Leverett Circle might be the first important test of whether the strong recommendations made by the governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation —recommendations embraced by the governor and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack—will be adopted and implemented by MassDOT’s Highway Division. If MassDOT cannot adopt new ways of approaching mobility improvement projects, the commission’s report will quickly become just another well-intentioned report collecting dust on state office bookshelves. That’s certainly not what anyone should want.

Meet the Author

Andy Monat

Board member, TransitMatters
The opportunity to get this right is within reach, once we recognize that the ways of the past are no longer responsive to the needs of the present or our expectations for the future. If we do all these things, we will have taken steps towards a higher-capacity, safer, and more enjoyable connection across the Charles. We will have reclaimed a vital piece of urban land from misguided car-centric designs of the past. And we will have demonstrated that the commission report actually means something.

Andy Monat is a TransitMatters board member who regularly walks along Route 28 from Boston to Cambridge.