Here’s one problem Olympic planners can address

Waiting to cross the street with Zeus

I RIDE MY BIKE a lot from the South End to Southie: under the Expressway (my real subject here), up to Dorchester Heights for the sweeping views (and a well-deserved rest after the climb, whew), along the beaches to the Kennedy library, Castle Island, and back.  Since the last time I navigated this route with any frequency last fall, Boston has become the United States entry for hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics and, as we all know, the Widett Circle area is a particular focus for the Olympic stadium and other facilities. Now that the weather has cleared, I’ve been able to get out on this route again, and see it with fresh eyes in light of the Olympics bid.

The so-called Midtown neighborhood, where Boston 2024 hopes to site an Olympics stadium and other venues, as well as Broadway, the main commercial hub in Southie, are reachable for bicyclists and pedestrians from points west only by the Broadway and 4th Street bridges.  If a cyclist, or a young mother pushing a baby carriage, were disinclined to try to cross at those places (and there is plenty of reason to be so disinclined), they would have no alternative way to cross for nearly a mile in either direction.  The young mother could go up to South Station, travel down Summer Street, and come back along the Fort Point Channel and Gillette to arrive at the other side of the bridge, a trip of well over 2 miles.  In the other direction, she would have to get down to Mass Ave, take Southampton Street into Andrew Square, then up Dot Ave, not a very pleasant walk, of nearly 3 miles.

Of course, no pedestrian or bicyclist is taking either of these unreasonable “alternative” routes.  I merely describe them to illustrate how critical this chokepoint is to travel between these neighborhoods.  In practice we are standing on one side of the Expressway and hoping that, with the help of whatever gods exist, we will get to the other side in one piece.  On many occasions, I have had my doubts.

The overarching issue is that this area is designed as part of the interstate highway system, not as part of the urban street grid.  It is where the two meet, and fight it out, and right now the fight is going to the highway traffic.  Cars and trucks, especially travelling north, come hurtling off of the Expressway at Frontage Road and keep driving like they are still on the highway – because the road is designed like a highway.  Then, suddenly, they encounter streetlights and a crosswalk.  Even when I know the walk light is in my favor, it is an act of faith to cross before the oncoming traffic has actually stopped.

There are similar challenges at every pedestrian cross point at the two bridges.  Just the other day I waited patiently, with a mother pushing a baby carriage, for a walk signal to get across the last part of the crossing to East Berkeley.  The walk light signaled us to cross, and we started out, only to be brushed back by a gasoline tanker truck who decided the green light gave him priority to turn left and cut us off, at a not inconsiderable rate of speed.  If it was pretty scary for me, it must have been terrifying for her, and I bet she will think twice before attempting it again.  Although we had the walk signal, we had to watch for a gap in traffic turning left and make a run for it.  It happens to me all the time, and surely I am not alone.

Now imagine, if you will, hundreds of thousands of people visiting Boston, unfamiliar with our rules of pedestrian/cyclist/gasoline tanker engagement, attempting to go to opening ceremonies at the stadium in Midtown.  We can only hope that the gods of Olympus would be smiling upon us on that day.

I am not a transportation engineer, and I don’t pretend to have the foggiest notion of how to make this chokepoint – the only real pedestrian and bicycle connection between these neighborhoods – safe and efficient for all users, but someone is going to have to, especially if Boston wins the Olympics.  Maybe the walk lights should signal for pedestrian crossing without a concurrent green light.  Or maybe a pedestrian-only bridge would solve it.  The pedestrian bridge connecting the North Point Park in Cambridge to Charlestown is a great success, but I know MassDOT doesn’t like that type of bridge.

We already have a bustling, densely developed neighborhood growing up around Broadway Station, and we should not have to depend on the prospect of building an Olympic stadium nearby to ensure that cyclists and pedestrians can pass to and from this neighborhood to the South End, Back Bay, and Chinatown.  I don’t have strong feelings about the Olympics, but if planning for them focuses us on issues like this one, and leads to some concrete solutions that improve life for Bostonians, that, at least, is a good thing.

Meet the Author

Peter O'Connor

Lawyer and economic development consultant, Self-employed
But it’s only 2015, and I just want to get across the street, and so does my friend with the baby carriage.  I hope we don’t have to wait for the gods of Olympus to give us a fighting chance.

Peter O’Connor is a former deputy secretary of transportation and an attorney and development consultant in Boston.  He can be reached at peteroconnorboston@gmail.com.