Are these plans final? with focus on widths

The Town has posted new Mass. Ave. drawings at its web page for the project.

With some very small differences these are (I think) the same as the drawings unveiled at Town Day.

The big question for most people is still what will change from today: things like the bike lanes and lane configurations and wider sidewalks in front of the Capitol Theater block. I summarize these in my Town Day post.

However, those features have been off the design table for more than a year.  The unsettled issue this summer has been the ongoing tug-of-war over five or six feet of street width.

Wider parking lanes? Median? A westbound “buffer zone” surfaced briefly.

Detail showing 6-ft. median (right) giving way to wider lanes (left) at Orvis Road. The new design is a hybrid of previous ideas.

So in this post, I’ll try to describe what was lost and what was restored, with a dose of speculation about what will happen next and some out-and-out opinions – the latter in red.

First: those “small differences” in the drawings? The posted drawings  are dated September 16 and have the words “Draft for Discussion” prominently at the top. The Town Day drawings were dated September 25 and do not say “draft.”

Second: width. Mass. Ave has width that the motor-vehicle lanes do not need. Indeed, extra width in those lanes could encourage speeding.

Except in the business district, where the street is widest, none of that width will be used to widen the sidewalks.

So what is the best use of that space?

At the August 5 meeting of the Mass. Ave. Advisory Committee, consultant Rick Azzalina clearly favored widening the parking lanes, chiefly to enhance bicycle safety.

Azzalina made a pretty persuasive case for widening parking to 10 feet. At that width, the open door of just about any vehicle would be safely inside the parking lane, not projecting into the right side of the bike lane.

That would leave about three feet of width unaccounted for, thus various interim proposals for extra-wide vehicle lanes or an unusual buffer between the outbound bicycle lane and its nearest motor-vehicle lane.

At that same meeting, Azzalina made clear that he did not think much of the traversable median, flush with the street, that had been an integral part of the plan approved in 2009. The fact that it is flush, he argued, means it would provide little “comfort” to pedestrians.

In light of all that, it is interesting to see a little of everything in the most-recent drawings, which are probably final.

There’s a traversable median from Milton to Grafton Street (more or less), where the parking lanes are all 8½ feet wide. Outside of that zone, parking is 10 feet, and the outbound (westbound) lane eats up all the extra width, swelling to as much as 15 feet.

Both the traversable median and the extra width serve a traffic-flow function, in that cars in the outbound lane will have extra space to pass vehicles slowed or stopped to make turns.

The intriguing thing to me is the 6 feet devoted to the traversable median, where only 5 had been discussed, particularly in light of Azzalina’s previous skepticism. A 5-foot median would permit 9-foot parking lanes.

Azzalina is the guy with the drawing board. Did he change his mind about the median? Did the Town insist on 6 feet?

Or is he laying the groundwork for some raised traffic islands?

The idea of raised islands at pedestrian crossings has a lot of support, though I think you’d have to have police and fire on board to do it. Islands could be added in a subsequent design phase.

To me, it’s a fine point whether it’s better to spend that 1 foot of width widening the median to 6 feet or the parking lanes to 9. I’d probably argue for the parking lanes over the median. But if a 6-foot median gets us crossing islands, that just may be the way to go.

Update: The Town posted new drawings on October 15. I don’t see any significant changes, though my comparison is not exhaustive.

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6 comments so far

  1. Mark Kaepplein on

    Widening the sidewalk in front of the Capitol is off the table for several likely reasons:
    1. It would decrease the efficiency of the intersection with Lake St., a congested link to Rt. 2 and Belmont. This intersection needs removal of No Right on Red signs, like many in Arlington.
    2. The bus stop hinders efficiency enough – I favor moving it about a block east, in front of the bank/Fox Library. That allows right on red from Mass. Ave. to Lake. Downside is afternoon noise for Library, possible business loss for Quebrada, possible crossing increase across Lake. Current bus stop is a right turn lane when there is no bus there.
    3. A wider sidewalk would hamper drop off of (physically impaired or other) passengers at the theater.

    Wider traffic lanes have not made for many speeding tickets on Mass Ave. and provide benefits: fewer elderly drivers playing bumper cars, room for snow displacing parkers and traffic, room to go around double parked vehicles (passenger drop-offs, police, fire, UPS, FedEx, restaurant food/drink, business merchandise).

    One of the biggest problems with bump outs is they force more double-parking/standing. Gone are spaces at corners where one could stop a minute for the above example reasons (drop-off, delivery etc.).

    Do restrictions and inconveniences make Arlington more livable?

    • Adam Auster on

      Wow. Well, I am going to pass on most of this, but just want to clarify one point, about “the table” and what is on it.

      When I said that the broad features of the redesign, such as the lane configuration and the bike lanes, were “off the design table,” I simply meant that the issues they represent had been decided, for good or ill, in the summer of 2009.

      They have not been part of the conversation on design since then. Mass Highway seems to be okay with those decisions, and they are no longer at issue.

      On the other hand, when Mark asserts that wider sidewalks are “off the table,” he apparently means to register an objection to the idea, which which he disagrees.

      In the conventional sense, wider sidewalks in the business district are very much “on the table”: they were at issue this summer and are expressly part of the current plan.

      They may soon be headed for “off the table” status, as in no longer at issue, once the plans are approved by Mass. Highway.

      • Mark Kaepplein on

        From speaking with traffic committee people, I got the sense that the intersection of Lake and Mass. Ave. was a problematic location with traffic congestion. In fact, they justify reducing traffic capacity on Mass Ave, saying it is limited by its (congested) feeders: Pleasant, Lake, Rt. 16, Mystic, and side streets. The only high capacity feeds (two lanes) are Mass. Ave Cambridge and Rt. 16.. Our project needs to increase efficiency at Lake and Rt. 16. bottlenecks.

        Moving the bus stop from in front of the Capitol is/was considered in trying to increase the efficiency of the intersection, reducing traffic congestion. Pedestrian sidewalk congestion is a much smaller problem, mostly around film times, and a few times during bus commuter hours.

        The elderly population is growing in the US and the needs of older drivers must be accommodated in road redesigns. Right and left turn lanes for them reduces decision making, so one at the Capitol is important. There isn’t room for a right turn lane, wider sidewalk, and bus stop.

        I’ll toss a wrench into the works and even suggest the modern, safer intersection – a traffic circle at Lake!

  2. Mark Kaepplein on

    The image you posted is of an interesting spot. At Town Day, they agreed with me that the diagonal parking (at the top) should be back-in. Back-in is safer and the parking-challenged can just use parallel spots.

    Narrowing the entrance to the road slows cars for possible pedestrians in the crosswalk at the cost of more CO2 emissions from cars slowing, then speeding up. The road is one of the main feeders, now being defeated with changes, like others. The huge bump out will also hamper visibility and safety in winter with snow on it, hampering drivers exiting the convenience store parking lot.

  3. Mark Kaepplein on

    One more anti-green aspect of “new” local road designs: all the extra controls, “calming”, slowdowns, speed-ups, congestion etc. has greatly increased use of less-efficient automatic transmissions in US vehicles. The rest of the world has a greater proportion of drivers with the more-efficient manual transmissions. Manual transmissions also help discourage distracted driving by keeping the driver active…driving!

  4. Matt on

    One lane from 16 to Arlington Center? Oh my….


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