My slightly cynical crystal ball

Concentrate and ask again

Though I am hardly shy with my opinions, the focus here has been reporting on news of the Mass. Ave. projects and what others are saying and doing.

I depart from that for this post to make some outright predictions.

First, I think the state will approve the project, which will be built very much along the lines of the plan submitted. (My magic 8-ball is still cloudy about when.)

Second, Mass Ave. will neither become a paradise nor a parking lot. With a few important exceptions, the effect of the new design on traffic and safety will be small — for good and for ill. Here’s why.

Let’s start with the bicycle lanes, since this seems to have attracted the most heavy breathing of any single feature (“severely narrow Mass Avenue[!]….increasing the likelihood of accidents[!]”). These have been oversold both as as a safety measure and as a hazard.

These lanes will demarcate the exact region of the road where cyclists ride today. Of course, motor vehicles cross this region all the time, and of course cyclists often leave this zone (to make a left turn, or to avoid an obstacle).

They will all continue to do so. Nothing much will change.

I regret to predict that the many traffic ills commuters experience on Mass. Ave. and Lake Street will continue. How could it be otherwise? Those problems are not caused by the design of Mass. Ave.

Similarly, cut-through traffic will be unaffected for good or ill. Sorry.

The whole vibrant streetscape thing — sidewalks full of happy spenders, flitting among interesting specialty shops on their way to or from their homes — will not come to pass, at least not as a result of widening the sidewalks (which we are only doing on a few blocks anyway).

I like the sidewalks, but East Arlington currently lacks the density to support this vision. Build more housing on or next to Mass. Ave. and we’ll talk.

There are a few things that I expect this design to change in meaningful ways, mostly for the better and mostly having to do with pedestrian safety.

  • Striping the outbound (westbound) lane as a single lane will eliminate an entire class of auto-pedestrian collisions outbound.
  • The design improvements to pedestrian crossings will make pedestrians more visible to drivers and curb illegal parking that obstructs crosswalks.
  • To a lesser extent, the traversable median, where it exists, will calm traffic and make it easier to get across the street on foot.
  • And of course, getting federal funds to fix the crumbling street and sidewalk is a big win for Arlington.

These are tremendous improvements, and though I list them quickly I do not mean to minimize their weight. However, much of the rhetoric about Mass. Ave., pro and con, has been about things that are just not going to change very much.

Feel free to disagree! We’ll find out soon enough.

Image reproduced with permission, thanks!

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3 comments so far

  1. dr2chase on

    Something I’ve wondered about is whether we are screwing things up somewhat by being so vigilant about no-bikes-on-sidewalks, especially with wider sidewalks. One way to get more people into a shopping area, is to make it easy (comfortable) for them to get there on bikes. There are people who are comfortable biking on sidewalks, who are not comfortable on the road with cars, even in a bike lane. These same people are also usually not the sort of speed demons who knock pedestrians over, and Arlington is not Boston, is not New York. Bikes on the sidewalk are not in the same category of danger as cars on the sidewalk; a speed limit and “yield to pedestrians” might go a long way to making this work. One reason to believe it might work, is the minuteman trail — bikes travel there at a relatively high speed (compared to sidewalk riding) sharing the road with moms pushing strollers two abreast, dog walkers, etc. We do somehow cope. Even on my great big bike (trust me, it’s large), even cheating on Belmont Center’s skinny sidewalks, it’s easy to move quickly enough, yet yield to all pedestrians (well, on one side; the other really is skinny).

    We have similar issues in Belmont Center; business owners would like more parking for more people, but where do you put it, and how much could you add, anyway? They’d also like easier crosswalks, so that a parking space on one side was “good” for the other side, too.

    And yes, this is a compromise, mostly because we are unwilling to compromise on the construction of bike lanes that really feel safe, because we’re not sure that enough bikes would show up enough to justify that sort of investment.

    • Adam Auster on

      I have to admit that I do not like this idea but also that I can’t really defend my point of view. The only place where cyclists on sidewalks has been a problem in Arlington has been in the center of town.

      So maybe you have a point. On the other hand let me extend my cynical prognostication thusly: whatever is going on with cyclists on sidewalks in East Arlington will continue.

      In my experience there is almost none of this in the business district. The little sidewalk cycling I see is further east and almost entirely teenage boys going at a pretty fast clip. I think this is probably a Bad Thing, mostly for their sakes (since there are many driveways that cross that sidewalk and it is very hard for drivers to see sidewalk cyclists).

      In any case you should consider that even “wide” sidewalks fill up with fixed street furniture such as benches and lamp posts and the ubiquitous Boston Phoenix boxes. Add just one or two pedestrian in the mix and you can get bottlenecks even on wide sidewalks.

  2. dr2chase on

    Might be interesting to see how much the street furniture could be cleaned up. Lights, going forward, are more and more going to be LEDs, which are lighter-weight, easier to focus, etc — the fixtures might weigh much less.

    I am not sure how much things will really continue in the same rut. I’ve been reading a lot about bicycling in other places, and unlike places like Atlanta, where everything is spread out, all we lack here is the decision to ride bikes instead of drive cars. A much larger fraction of our commutes are short, everything is pretty darn dense, excepting a few substantial hills, things are pretty flat. And, for people who are put off by the hills, motors and batteries and electronic controls are all getting better and better (and a bicycle needs nowhere near the battery capacity of a car).

    What I imagine happening is that things will slowly increase until we hit a critical mass, and then this will change more rapidly. My understanding is that the ride share is creeping up slowly for a variety of reasons, and growth is actually impeded by a lot of stupid stuff — stupid ideas about what bicycles are appropriate, stupid ideas about “the right way” for bikes and cars to mix, and the stupid idea that there’s “something wrong” with people who ride bikes. (My pet peeves, are skinny tires and expensive lights. Wrong, wrong, wrong.)


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