Facts on the ground

Here’s Mass. Ave. at rush hour.

Zero seconds (8:08:47)

It’s a little after 8 a.m. on Thursday, December 2. The temperature is about 35°. I’m standing at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Henderson Street, looking more or less west.

Long shadows mark the bright clear morning. And there’s no traffic.

Wups, my bad. Of course I see those cars stacked up eastbound. I should have said, no westbound traffic.

Westbound gets our attention today because that’s where the Town of Arlington would cut the number of vehicle lanes from two to one. The number of eastbound lanes is unchanged. So whatever problems may be over there, at least the redesign does not make them worse.

Back to the photo. I chose this day at random. It turns out to be a typical day, midweek. If anything traffic is a bit heavier than average eastbound, but nothing unusual.

Of course the above photo is just, well, a snapshot. Here’s the scene 47 seconds later:

Zero plus 0:47 (8:09:34)

A few seconds after I snapped my first photo, the light changed at Route 16 and a wave of traffic headed westbound on Mass. Ave. By the luck of the draw, the cars were all snagged by the red light at Teel and Thorndike streets. This light cycle included a pedestrian-crossing segment so the wait was as long as it ever gets.

Forty-seven seconds after the first photo, then, there is plenty of westbound traffic on Mass. Ave. Note two things however. First, the left westbound lane is mostly empty. Second,  eastbound traffic has cleared out completely as a result of the light change at Route 16.

The light at Teel turned green a few seconds later and all of the waiting traffic cleared the intersection with time to spare.

Early discussion drafts of the redesign would have removed the traffic signal altogether. Community pressure restored the light to the plan, but according to the Functional Design Report (at 45) the length of the red light will be shortened to 12 seconds (plus pedestrian crossing time if any).

Here is the view 67 seconds later:

Zero plus 1:54 (8:10:41)

This is the next red light, about to turn green. This signal did not happen to coincide with a change at Route 16. That lone car waiting for a westbound green is not left over from the previous red-light queue, it’s just the next “wave” of traffic. Insofar as a single car can be a wave.

Eastbound the queue for the light at Route 16 has reformed.

Speaking of eastbound traffic, check out the sequence beginning with the photo below.

Zero plus 3:16 (8:12:01)

Westbound moves along with no problems. At no time are the two westbound lanes at anything close to capacity. The Eastbound queue has again reformed.

Zero plus 3:22 (8:12:07)

A scant six seconds later (check out that time stamp) and the eastbound situation has improved visibly. Westbound is empty again.

Zero plus 3:38 (8:12:23)

What a difference 16 seconds makes! All of the eastbound traffic that had been queued up west of the traffic light has cleared and is heading towards Route 16.

These last three photos, spanning 22 seconds, show how briskly things usually move (but not always).

Both westbound lanes are still empty.

A few notes, and a few points.

The times on the photos are from my camera, beginning with 8:08:47 am. That time is accurate to within a minute of Eastern Standard Time; the times are completely accurate in relation to each other.

I chose this day at random. It was a typical morning. The eastbound queues were if anything a little longer than average; I don’t know why.

Many of you drive or take the bus on Mass. Ave. in East Arlington during the morning rush hour. For six years I walked it at this time of day in all weathers, taking my daughter to the Hardy School until she moved on to the Ottoson in 2009.

Sometimes there is terrible immobilized traffic eastbound. The queue backs up Mass. Ave. well west of this spot. This was a regular morning event earlier this fall during work by the mwra on water pipes that pass under the intersection with Route 16.

In my experience, that level of  paralysis is extreme and happens maybe once or twice a month, mwra-scale construction excepted. The cause is invariably something in Cambridge, and there’s nothing we in Arlington can do about it with our design for Mass. Ave.

I deal with that topic a little more here. However the real takeaway from this morning is that the redesign does not change the eastbound commute. The lane reduction is westbound, where there is plenty of slack. Still two lanes eastbound, same as it ever was.

Two eastbound lanes. Source: Design drawings.

My five minutes of observation does not prove anything conclusively. On the other hand, the comprehensive 24-hour traffic counts in the Functional Design Report found no time of day when westbound traffic requires two through lanes.

Furthermore, my photos corroborate six years of experience walking Mass. Ave. in the morning. They are a fair snapshot of normal conditions.

If you are skeptical, do what I did and go see for yourself.

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1 comment so far

  1. dr2chase on

    If people were really hacked off about traffic jams, they’d ride bicycles. Bikes flow through stopped traffic like water. The fact that most people don’t, indicates that relative to other things (like the hassle of figuring out a bicycle commute), traffic is not that big a problem.

    Seriously, finest day to ride a bike to work, ever, was October 19, 1989, in Silicon Valley. 5:04pm, earthquake hits, power goes out, traffic signals stop working. And all of us who rode bikes that day, had a lovely ride home.


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