MassDOT to hear latest plan for Center transit

A revised facelift for Arlington Center that would shift 7 parking slots from Mass. Ave. to Swan Place will be the subject of a design hearing in Arlington by the state’s Department of Transportation on November 6.

The new parking will also require approval from the Arlington Redevelopment Board, according to the Town Manager.

This design was make public at Town Day. Click for a close up. Note new parking at lower right.

This design was make public at Town Day. Click for a close up. Note new parking at lower right. Source: Town of Arlington.

The design would create bike lanes to help cyclists navigate the Town’s central intersection at Mass. Ave. and Route 60, add a new signalized pedestrian crossing on Mass. Ave. by Swan Place, and lengthen the southbound left-turn lane from Medford Street.

Other changes include curb extensions that reduce crossing distances at the intersection and a dedicated cycle track through Uncle Sam Park that will connect Mass. Ave. to the Minuteman Path.

With this version, the Town reverses itself on a plan floated briefly last spring to accomplish the above without removing 6 parking spaces and a taxi stand from Mass. Ave. eastbound.

The spaces, in front of the Cambridge Savings Bank and the Kickstand Cafe (formerly Jammin’ Java) parking lot, were first slated for removal in 2012.

New parking on Swan Place would replace that on Mass. Ave.

Detail: New parking on Swan Place would replace that on Mass. Ave.

However, the latest plan would relocate the 7 slots as head-in public parking spaces around the corner on Swan Place, reconfiguring the parking lot there.

The lanes-plus-parking scheme from the spring was criticized as unsafe, but the head-in parking, opposite the trail head of the Minuteman, poses its own hazards to cyclists.

The plan would entail a long-term lease for the parking slots with the lot owner, who has agreed in principle with the idea.

The Mass. Ave. parking at issue abuts businesses that already have dedicated parking lots.

The project is being built with a federal grant for the purpose of improving the intersection for all users. The design has gone through the following phases:

  • At a January 2012 design meeting, engineers for the Town presented five different plans in draft, including several that would have created an unusual diagonal bicycle crossing between the intersection’s northwest and southeast corners.
  • The Town narrowed this down to a single plan in which conventional bike lanes would displace the parking spaces in March of 2012. The diagonal crossing lane was dropped at that point.
  • In March 2013, the Town revised the plan to squeeze the parking back in by narrowing the raised median and motor-vehicle lanes, include a 9-1/2-foot turning lane and a parking lane only 7 feet wide.
  • That aspect of the plan was roundly criticized at the design hearing a month later, with state officials promising to revisit the issue, according to the Arlington Advocate.
  • The latest plan, unveiled at Town Day this year, would move the parking around the corner to Swan Place.
  • There will be a design hearing on this version on 7 pm Wednesday, November 6, at the Senior Center on Maple Street.

The proposed lease agreement would have the Town rent the new spaces from the property owner for ten years in exchange for redesigning and repaving the lot and $1,000 per year.

Other changes to the design since last March, indicated in the Town Day drawings, include the following:

New: Bike lane at far right of right-turn lane

New: Bike lane at far right of right-turn lane

CLAMP lane spring 13

Previous: Bike lane at right of through lane

  • The new design would shift the westbound bike lane from the right through lane to the far right of the right-turn lane.
  • All six motor-vehicle lanes would be 11 feet wide.
  • Bike-lane markings inside the intersection would direct cyclists to ride outside of pedestrian crosswalks.
  • Cyclists crossing the intersection from the northwest would be invited to cross most of the way south on the traffic signal and then wait for the eastbound signal inside the intersection.

Those drawings are not technically perfect and there may be other changes in store.

The design would not appreciably change anything on Mass. Ave west of the intersection.

Update October 22: the Town has added information about the design and the hearing to its web page about the project. However, the drawing provided shows only a blank area where the new parking spaces (and reconfigured lot) would be.

Also, Town Planner Laura Weiner told that the proposed head-in parking will be discussed at the hearing, although “Swan Place parking is not in the scope” of the hearing. See the story there for more.

I hope the above is useful to anyone wondering what is going on with this project. Here is my opinion about the proposed parking.

The purpose of this project is to improve mobility through the intersection for everyone, but the most dramatic changes involve bicycling facilities.

Because the “audience” for these changes is Minuteman path cyclists, many inexperienced, these facilities have to meet the highest safety standard.

The alternative of shoehorning in bike lanes next to too-narrow parking would lure children and inexperienced cyclists from the sidewalks onto bike lanes that are unsafe by design.

The Town deserves a great deal of credit for trying to come up with a design that responds to all concerns. Thanks also to the property owner for offering to help when asked.

However, sometimes there is no win-win; if so, safety needs to come first. This latest design suggests we may have reached that point, everyone’s best efforts notwithstanding.

It’s starting to come down to this: Is the parking worth more than the project? Not just the cycling part, but all of the improvements, paid for by Uncle Sam.

If so, then let’s pass and keep things exactly the way they are. Let’s not fool ourselves and build an inherently unsafe facility.

But I doubt that would be right. Thousands of drivers, cyclists and pedestrians daily  would benefit from the mobility improvements.

Let’s keep our eyes on that prize.

Update: Several people expressed legitimate confusion about exactly which plan I was criticizing when I warned against a design that would “lure children and inexperienced cyclists from the sidewalks onto bike lanes that are unsafe.” I was referring to the March 2013 proposal that would have crammed the bike lanes next to parking that was too narrow. I have revised that paragraph.

39 comments so far

  1. bobsprague1943Bob Sprague on

    I find this post — its news and its opinion — highly informative and will be happy to link this from YourArlington. Thank you, Adam.

    Bob Sprague

  2. Charlie on

    It’s really disappointing to me that this design keeps getting revised, yet the changes haven’t really made for a better project overall.

    Like you, I am disappointed that bike lanes were the preferred solution rather than two one-way or one two-way traffic-separate cycle tracks. You’re right that bike lanes are not the right facility to connected a multi-use path used by people of all ages and abilities.

    Moving the parking from curbside to Swan Pl actually makes the hazard to bicyclists even worse. With the parking in front of Cambridge Savings Bank, it was only a hazard to eastbound bicyclists. Now cars pulling into and out of the parking spaces on Swan Pl would conflict with eastbound AND westbound bicyclists. Visibility for drivers using those spaces will be even worse than the ones on Mass Ave because bicyclists will be coming around corners and from multiple directions. Do we even know if the spaces on the inside of the Swan Pl lot are fully utilized? If they are not, the City should just make an agreement to use some of those.

    In addition, I expect that the City wants Mass Ave to better accommodate bicyclists continuing along Mass Ave without using the Minuteman paths. That means whatever facilities are installed here need to be designed in such a way to be able to connect to the bike lanes being installed in the East Arlington Mass Ave project. As it is now, if through traveling bicyclists were to use the bike lanes here as designed, they would be guided straight into a line of parked cars in either direction. This is a tricky problem to solve, but with a little creativity, it can be done.

    I hate to be so negative, but sometimes doing it right means making some trade-offs that are not necessarily easy politically. But as we’ve seen in many other places, removing a few parking spaces does not result in armageddon.

    • Adam Auster on

      Charlie, I was impressed by the boldness of some of the plans that the Town entertained in early 2012, but I was never 100% sold on them.

      In fact I am a pretty stodgy traditionalist. My biggest criticism of the entire effort, apart from this parking business, is that it never at any point tried to help cyclists get to and from the Minuteman trail head off of Water Street.

      I view that as the “correct” way to ride the path without conflicting with pedestrians. (Okay, my own bias is showing—everyone seems to have one!)

      At the same time, I recognize this as a generally positive improvement, and I’m especially glad that there is something concrete in it for folks on foot.

      Within the current design, beside the parking thing, I’d like to see the westbound bike lane put back to the through lane. Drivers run that right-turn lane all the time.

      I also think that if the idea is to create these virtual “bike boxes” where cyclists can wait for the signal, they should be clearly marked. Subtlety is likely to be lost on some people.

      • Charlie on

        The problem I see with the “virtual” bike boxes is that some bicyclists will inevitably wait in front of the right turn only lanes, which have their own phase separate from the through lanes. They could easily end up blocking traffic without realizing it.

  3. Karin on

    Wait a second – so those parking spaces at the JnJ spot are not actually contained in the parking lot, but instead are where drivers could back directly into path users on Swan Place? This is so dangerous it’s not funny. Who can I contact about this? I’m a daily path user with a bike trailer and I would not feel safe riding through Swan Place with people potentially backing into my kid!
    -Karin T

  4. Chris on

    Are you sure the Swan Place parking will be considered at this MassDOT hearing? Those spaces are not required by MassDOT and will not be funded by the state. The DOT wanted the spaces in front of the bank removed. It has not said they have to be replaced elsewhere.

    The linkage between the spaces is being made by the town. Those who object to the Swan Place parking plan should contact the Arlington Town Manager and Planning Department directly, and not wait for this state agency hearing.

    • Adam Auster on

      Good question. I don’t know about the scope of the hearing.

      I did not actually say anything about that, but I admit I assume that Swan Place is included. However, there’s no absolute assurance that it is!

      Since the hearing is coming up soon, I am watching the Town’s web page for this project for the kind of information we have gotten in advance of similar hearings, including the one last spring.

    • Mark Kaepplein on

      Interesting question. MassDOT Should reject the idea if asked – too dangerous and breaking design guidelines. They nixed the idea to make the lanes and pedestrian refuge median narrower due to safety, hence going back to removing parking on M.A. If the idea to make the new parking spots survive, Swan Place would need widening to 24 feet to violate one less zoning bylaw.

  5. Mark Kaepplein on

    The ONLY good thing in this plan is giving cyclists a place to ride in front of Uncle Sam Park. All else fails to solve any problems.

    Traffic congestion mitigation gets a fail because the traffic study is completely unrealistic during three-quarters of the year that are not summer. This results in an inadequate mitigation design – using buckets to bail out the Titanic is likewise inadequate to do the job. Level Of Service on Pleasant/Mystic will remain an F rating, with drivers thus continuing to use Jason Street, Highland Ave, and others to avoid the waste of time and fuel. Project gets a Fail and thus, is a waste of money.

    The plan never considered was restoring the traffic pattern to how it was from 1959 until about 1990, which is allowing traffic to go straight and right with a green light. That way, right turn lanes are no longer needed on Mass Ave and that space can be used for cyclists. Prior to 1990, the right turn lane in front of Whittemore Park was used for more (needed) parking. I think the curb in front of the Unitarian Church might have also had more parking spaces.

    Allowing simultaneous through and right turning traffic is done at Mass Ave. and Rt. 16, an intersection with far more vehicular traffic than at Rt. 60. There are no right turn lanes at that intersection due to the more efficient traffic light configuration of combining through and right green light phases.

    Bike lanes on Mass Ave is pointless when people already demonstrate the desire to ride on sidewalks. No bike lanes are proposed for Mystic Street, so the excuse that street cyclists need greater accommodation doesn’t hold water when the claim is not demonstrated on Mystic Street

    A actual solution would be to alter the sidewalk widths on the problematic section of Mass Ave to provide some sort of protected cycling area, and/or get the width from removed right turn lanes. Realign the roadway as necessary. Parking on Mass Ave and putting cyclists on the sidewalk side of parked cars is a safety enhancement to buffer pedestrians and cyclists from moving traffic. The drawing looks to not just remove parking on the south-east side of Mass Ave, but also on the north-east side across from the intersection with Swan Place.

    This project started as projected to cost about $400,000. Then, the claim was that $750,000 was needed. Last I checked, the budget was $1.6 million. Figure out a plan that actually solves the two problems: Cyclists riding on sidewalks endangering pedestrians, and the 1 mile backups of traffic on Pleasant Street to Rt. 2, with growing problems on Mystic and Summer as new housing gets occupied. After having a plan that actually works, decide what can be trimmed and/or extra money found.

    Plowing over green space to recover lost parking space violates about a half dozen town zoning bylaws, including ones where exceptions are not allowed. The town ignores its own rules when parking in the cemetery, so what the redevelopment board says should be interesting.

  6. bobsprague1943Bob Sprague on

    I have published a story that addresses the scope of the hearing. See

    • Adam Auster on

      And I’ve revised my story with a link to yours, among other things.

      I thought your interview with Laura Wiener was ambiguous, and could be interpreted as, “Discussing the parking issue is allowed at the hearing, but it is outside of the scope and MassDOT won’t be making any decisions about it.”

      It’s not clear to me that MassDOT has anything to say about it, actually.

      Nonetheless the Town has been responsive to all comers so far, so I think it is a good idea to think of this hearing as an opportunity to weigh in and discuss problems.

    • Chris on

      Bob, your information is not consistent with what the MassDOT project manager told me–and remember this is the DOT’s meeting. Here is what he said in an email he sent me this morning:

      “We will not be discussing the location of the new parking at this meeting. The construction of the parking will be a “Standalone Project” that will be designed and permitted by the Town. Any inquiries about this should be directed to the Town after the hearing.”

      • Bob Sprague on

        I will check further. What is the name of the person at MassDOT you sent you the email?

      • Adam Auster on

        That’s consistent with some of the things from the Town yesterday, such as Laura Wiener’s statement (that Bob quotes) that the parking is “not in the scope” and the redaction of the head-in parking from the most recent drawings.

  7. bobsprague1943 on

    The state and town appear to have worked out how they are going to handle what is discussed at the Nov. 6 hearing — and what is discussed afterward. See

  8. bobsprague1943 on

    I have updated my story — at — by including a full quote from Chris Loreti, which I had left out of an earlier version.

    • Adam Auster on

      Bob, doesn’t it seem as though this issue about what is or isn’t on the table at the hearing has taken on a life of its own? Which is legitimate, but I hope it does not obscure the more fundamental question.

      The Town has very talented planning and engineering staff, but traffic engineering and transit planning are specialized disciplines and the Town frankly lacks expertise in related safety and design issues.

      It would be valuable were MassDOT to review the parking issues whether or not that is required.

      • bobsprague1943 on

        Yes, quite right about the focus. I’m sorry that it took on this separate life in part because of my mistakes.

        • Adam Auster on

          Bob, I didn’t mean it was anyone’s “fault,” let alone yours. It’s a legit issue, just one that might make it harder for people to engage substantively.

      • Mark Kaepplein on

        The Redevelopment Board is scheduled to meet Monday, Nov. 4, yet the agenda lists no item on Swan Place parking. Discussion of it by them and issues for them prior to the public meeting could have added clarity on all the zoning violations.

  9. John S. Allen on

    The design shown is seriously flawed. What were these people
    thinking? The westbound bike lane on Massachusetts Avenue:should be
    between the right-turn lane and the next lane, not to the right of
    all of the lanes. Placing the westbound bike lane to the right of the
    right-turn lane manufactures two unnecessary conflicts:

    1) Unless the parking spaces opposite Swan place are occupied,
    bicyclists turning left from Swan Place must cross an additional lane
    of traffic to get to the bike lane — where westbound vehicles
    approaching in the right-turn lane may be concealed by those in the
    through lane, If the spaces are occupied on the other hand, the bike
    lane is in the door zone of parked vehicles.

    2) and then bicyclists are placed to the right of a right-turn lane,
    to be right-hooked by right-turning motorists at Mystic Street.
    Right-hook collisions have become the most common cause of bicyclist
    fatalities in the Boston area as designs of this type have become
    more widespread. A bike lane to the right of a right-run lane is
    prohibited in the AASHTO guide, which is referenced in the
    Massadchusetts design guide.

    And eastbound, the crossing would only really be improved with a
    signal phase allowing bicyclists to cross the intersection of
    Massachusetts Avenue and Mystic street diagonally. This would be
    compatible with simultaneous right turns from Massachusetts Avenue in
    both directions, though with no other movements in the intersection.

    • David Markun on

      John, I personally liked the 25% plan’s westbound treatment better, which routed traffic there to the left of the right-turn lane. However, I can see some logic to providing, for the street-unwise users of the Minuteman Trail, something as close to a trail experience as possible. Being between two lanes of moving cars is not that trail experience.

      I believe that your objection 1) is met by the use of a signalized crossing of Mass Ave for traffic coming out of Swan Place.

      I wonder if perhaps there is a plan to meet your objection 2) about right-hook by creative signalization of the intersection. That could at least ensure that right hooks would only happen when one party or both were violating their signal.

    • Mark Kaepplein on

      John, In normal, efficient, intersections, your objection 2 is very valid. The current light phasing makes it safe because right turns are not allowed on red or when through traffic has a green light. The idea of putting the westbound bike lane to the extreme right is mainly to prevent a desperately needed change to signal phasing to increase intersection capacity. Phasing should become similar to that at Mass Ave and Rt. 16 (Alewife Brook Pkwy) to increase traffic flow particularly on Rt. 60. The current, inefficient signal phasing allows diagonal crossing, though it is unmarked.

  10. John S. Allen on

    I’ve now posted a video of a ride through the intersection, avoiding the right-hook risk. . More comments will follow…

    • Mark Kaepplein on

      You also demonstrate that added bike accommodation is unnecessary! There isn’t any data to support claims of safety problems, other than for motor vehicles, and for them, reports are not examined to look for causes and solutions. There is no data on pedestrian-cyclist crashes on sidewalks to justify that part of the project! Pedestrians and cyclists coexist on the other 11 miles of the Minuteman, so naturally no data shows they need segregation for 2 blocks! BTW, your vehicular road use style is just like motorists, including rolling through stop signs! If a traffic light was put at Swan Place and Mass Ave, cyclists would fuel animosity with motorists by crossing when red – a traffic light added mostly just for them! They like a new light when its green, but will ignore when red.

      • John S. Allen on

        On-road bicycling is important, but many of the rail-trail users are novice bicyclists and children, and it is also important to provide them with an option consistent with the rest of the trail. I disagree with the proposed bicycle accommodations, which are a bizarre and hazardous pillar-to-post affair, and I suggest alternatives. Please read my blog post for an extended discussion of all of this. .

        • Mark Kaepplein on

          John, what is consistent with the other 11 miles of the trail is that cyclists and pedestrians share a common space, much like the sidewalk riding that goes on now by novices and children! Is there an actual problem needing fixing by a project, after 20+ years? Is there data in the 20+ years showing more accidents between pedestrians and cyclists in Arlington center than the rest of the Minuteman they share?

          • Adam Auster on

            One difference is that pedestrians on the trail are supposed to, and generally do, behave differently than pedestrians on a sidewalk. They are supposed to share the space, moving predictably.

            (Cyclists have a reciprocal obligation of different behavior on busy sidewalks, namely, do not ride there.)

            On sidewalks pedestrians generally have, and are entitled to, different assumptions about vehicular traffic and different comfort levels about sharing with vehicles.

            Pedestrians must navigate many things on sidewalks that are not present on the trail, including doorways, curb cuts, and obstructions such as utility poles and street furniture.

            • Mark Kaepplein on

              Characterizing how groups generally share a common space differently is getting into minutiae. The sidewalks in Arlington Center between the bike path segments are relatively free of street furniture, merchant clutter, and store window distractions. Where obstacles do exist on the east side of the intersection, the plan still doesn’t get young cyclists off the sidewalks, and wider bike lanes still doesn’t fix it.

      • John S. Allen on

        This blog rejected a message with the link to my blog but there is one in the description with the video which in turn is linked in my earlier comment.

        As to my rolling through a stop sign: yes: at 5 mph. where the stop sign was at a crosswalk with no pedestrians crossing (in fact, blocked by a car at the time), and to pull far enough forward to see approaching traffic and to be able to cross the roadway without having to restart. Just like a motorist? pretty much so, yes. And, please notice, motorists were cooperating with me — especially the one who hung back and the other who let me into line — because I was being predictable and cooperative.

  11. Karin on

    I just heard from the Town Manager that the Swan Place head-in parking idea is now “off the table” – they are investigating other ways of handling parking. Yay! She said you can see the ideas at the meeting tonight. I probably can’t make it, but there you go.

    • Adam Auster on

      Which is exactly what happened, though the Town is still pursuing 3 parallel-parking spaces at that location.

      And, I first heard of it here from you, Karin! Thanks!

  12. David Markun on

    Further on the question of where to locate a bike lane relative to a right turn lane: The solution depicted at was not invented here but offers persuasive arguments about improved sight lines and improved timing. And actually, this Dutch solution looks not too much unlike the draft plan that was posted in this blog entry.

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