Design evolves, at the margins

The latest iteration of plans for Mass. Ave. in East Arlington would, like previous version, introduce bicycle lanes and a three-lane configuration for much of the length of the street.

The drawings, made available to the public at a meeting of Arlington’s Mass. Ave. Review Committee at the Senior Center on August 4, largely tinker at the margins of the design. They are still drafts labeled “for discussion.”

But compared to the plans unveiled at the community meeting last June, the new version sports narrower travel lanes for cars, wider sidewalks in the business district, and a 3-foot flush buffer zone between bicycles and cars on the westbound side of the street.

Not restored in the latest version is a five-foot traversable median, flush with the street, that would provide a refuge for pedestrians.

There are also improvements to several of the unsignalized pedestrian crossings in East Arlington.

The 11-foot travel lanes and the wider sidewalks were features of the plan adopted by the Selectmen last summer.

For those keeping score, the following table compares recent versions:

August 2010 June 2010 August 2009
Lane widths 11 ft 12 – 13 ft 11 ft
Business-district sidewalks Wider Some narrowing Wider
Bicycle “buffer” 3 – 4 feet, westbound only no no
Traversable median no no yes
Parking lane 10 feet 9.5 – 10 feet 8.5 – 10 feet

Rick Azzalina of Fay Spofford & Thorndike defended the plan, arguing that the 10-foot parking lane would protect cyclists in the bike lanes from being “doored” by parked cars. He also expressed skepticism about the value of a flush median to pedestrians.

He also told the committee that based on traffic counts and service studies, the three-lane design will more than accommodate traffic in 2028 and will not have an impact on cut-through traffic issues, which he said are primarily exacerbated by conditions off of Mass. Ave.

Although some pedestrian crossings, particularly east of Late Street, would be improved by adding curb bump-outs, Azzalina said that some crossings were not improved for fear of losing parking spaces adjacent to the crosswalks.

He said he hoped to resubmit final drawings by the end of August.

The latest drawings should be posted on the Town web site soon.

Update: The Town has posted new drawings to its web page for the project, but the plans have changed a little from the version discussed at Wednesday’s meeting.

My take:

With the return to 11-foot travel lanes, wider sidewalks in the business district, and improvements to some pedestrian crossings, the engineers have clearly taken some of the concerns expressed at the June 22 meeting into account.

However, the latest plan remains less safe than the 2009 version, in which a five-foot traversable median would provide a car-free zone in the middle of the street for pedestrians.

I was particularly surprised at the vehemence with which Azzalina defended the ten-foot parking lane as a safety feature for cyclists. The “door-zone” issue is legitimate, but last year Arlington’s own Bicycle Advisory Committee seemed satisfied with nine feet.

The proposed buffer zone feels like an odd afterthought mostly to soak up excess width that could better be deployed in the center of the street.

In any case, these changes, coming at this stage of the process, really risk “mission creep” from the original goals of this project.

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