Facts on the ground: Wyman St. bump-outs

The narrator of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way famously bites into a madeline cookie that triggers a cascade of memory.

Orange paint roughs out a curb bum-out for the relocated crosswalk at Wyman St. View is north.

Orange paint roughs out a curb bump-out for the relocated crosswalk at Wyman St. Looking north. Click for bigger.

Similarly (sort of) I experienced a wave of associations last week when I saw these marks on Mass. Ave by Wyman St. and realized I was looking at the remains of a once-impressive response to tragedy there.

The new design is an improvement, but the original plan had been even better. And the way the design changed here is the blackest mark on an otherwise impressive record of openness and transparency by the Town during the design phase.

Today, the dotted orange line shows the general shape of the bump-out at the pedestrian crossing that will be shifted there from the other side of Wyman St. as part of the new street design.

Other markings indicate the relocation of a drain and utility-access hole.

Wyman St. detail (north side)

Wyman St. detail from construction plans. Click for bigger.

Bump-outs have become standard features of urban and suburban streets over the last 20 years, with good reason.

They reduce crossing distances for pedestrians, prevent cars from parking in the crosswalks and (when at corners) too close to side streets. They make pedestrians more visible to motorists, and (by reducing crossing times) cut times while vehicles wait for pedestrians to cross.

There is evidence that bump-outs slow traffic, especially fast traffic. (This bump-out may not do that.) This one will gently discourage motorists from taking the right turn onto Wyman too fast.

Bump-outs are one of 3 design features that will make nearly all the unsignalized pedestrian crosswalks on Mass. Ave. in East Arlington safer. (The other 2 features are the bike lanes, which shrink the distance through which pedestrians are exposed to vehicular traffic, and the removal of a westbound travel lane and its associated multi-lane threat.)

These are meaningful fixes, in my view the best things about the new design. But the original plan for the Wyman St. crossing had been so much better that my Proustian response to these markings was mixed.

Public clamor to make Mass. Ave. safer began in November of 1996 when Margaret Macdonald, 77, died of injuries suffered in the Wyman St. crosswalk. A month later, another woman was struck and killed crossing Mass. Ave. near Lafayette St.

Wyman Before: Safer crossing

As if to acknowledge this, the design for Wyman St. was to be the most-improved crosswalk of the entire project.

Instead of 4 lanes, there would be 2 (and thus no multi-lane threat at all). In addition to bump-outs, there would be a pedestrian island.

Traffic counts showed that 2 single lanes would be sufficient to meet peak traffic on that stretch of road.

These elements were included from the beginning of the project’s design phase. Although many other amendments were made as a result of that process, the design of the Wyman St. crossing remained unchanged.

The two-lane plan for this crossing received the blessing of the traffic engineers, who included it in the Functional Design Report, and of state and federal regulators at MassDOT and the Federal Highway Administration.

And then, without public notice or explanation, it changed.

Wyman Before: Safer crossing

After: No island, extra lane to cross

The island disappeared, the crossing distance lengthened, and the third lane, which engineers had called unnecessary, reappeared along with its multi-lane threat.

There has never been an official explanation for this alteration, and I find the unofficial explanation unconvincing. (Granted, it is complicated, and the new design began as a response to, apparently, a real problem.)

The best way I can put it is that apparently somebody of influence in town sincerely does not like merges, where two lanes of traffic become one.

That idea prevailed behind the scenes to eliminate a traffic merge, taking the safety improvements with it.

That may not be complete or even fair, but it’s all I’ve got. In any case, the change had the following consequences.

  • It contributed to the Federal Highway Administration’s decision to revisit its approval of the design, ultimately forcing a second 25% design hearing last year.
  • It delayed the project by a year, at one point putting a sure thing at risk and creating more work for everyone.
  • It made the Wyman St. crossing less safe, removing the crossing island and adding a multi-lane threat.

I would also add that during the public-participation phase the Town was a model of openness. Local officials bent over backwards to give even mean-spirited opponents the opportunity to participate in hearings and substantial representation on the project review committee.

Seventh design meeting, Town Hall, July 22 2010

Seventh design meeting, Town Hall, July 22 2010

There were something like 30 public meetings, hearings, and workshops about Mass. Ave. during this phase.

This response to early controversy about the project led to many design changes and ultimately built support for the plan. The Town trumped ignorance and vitriol with openness.

It cannot have been easy for the town employees involved but that is how things are supposed to work.

The behind-the-scenes change to the crosswalk design is thus an especially black eye for the process and the Town of Arlington.

Ironically, the Town insisted (rightly) that the design should be based on evidence, data, and best practices. Policy makers resisted for 3 long years efforts by opponents to substitute esthetic preferences and notions for expertise.

Then they indulged in that very substitution themselves.

That’s quite a cookie in those orange marks, at least for me!

The corresponding bump-out on the other side of the street is not roughed in yet. So far the work plan for every task or phase seems to be west-to-east on the north side of Mass. Ave. followed by west-to-east on the south.

(Update: Some marks appeared on the south side of the street the week of June 30.)

Workers last week also laid down some less-fraught paint at Allen St. and an elaborate set of marks for the curb extensions at Foster St.

Click here for recent construction news.


8 comments so far

  1. Mark Kaepplein on

    Hey Adam, where was all this public input last week when Selectmen decided how many lanes to mark and where on Mass Ave west of Pleasant Street?

    • Adam Auster on

      It took me a while to figure out what Mark Kaepplein is talking about, but I think he means that a recent decision to repaint another stretch of Mass. Ave. (not in East Arlington) did not seek the same level of public comment as the redesign here.

      I haven’t been following that (and it has nothing to do with the Mass. Ave. Project.)

      Arguably the Town may have missed an opportunity to lay the road out differently (the paint job is largely status quo).

      However, as far as I know there are no traffic or engineering studies that would support a change there, as there were for the original Wyman St.–crossing plan.

      Note: I welcome comments from readers, but would prefer to keep the discussion on topic.

  2. Adam, you might want to double-check your HTML coding. Are you missing an illustration of the “before” plan, or did you mean to repeat one of your labels?

    FYI: I looked on Apple Maps, which often offers darn good closeup detail. In this case, the photo adds little to the map you already have and a fractilized tree looms right over the spot where the bump out will be. (I could send you a photo of Wyman at Broadway just for old times’ sake. Or not. I think not!)

    • Um, never mind. When I reloaded, all the illustrations showed up, very clearly as you intended them.

      • Adam Auster on

        Doug, I nonetheless appreciate corrections and news of potential issues with different browsers. So thanks!

  3. Charlie on

    It seems like the third lane appeared as a “compromise” to those who have been clamoring for four lanes. Unfortunately, quite the compromise it is, as it compromises safety for unneeded traffic capacity. It’s really a shame the town didn’t stand their ground for the much safer design. But I suppose that’s politics for you.

    • Adam Auster on

      But, a compromise with who? It certainly didn’t appease anyone, or build support for the project (which was considerable already). What did the Town gain from this maneuver?

      What it did do, politically, was add a year to the process and put the whole thing at hazard. So politically not very astute.

      I’m not saying I know, so you could be right that this was someone’s idea of a compromise. But I’m inclined to take the unofficial explanation at face value, though I find it unconvincing.

      • Charlie on

        It was a compromise to those who feared that traffic would get royally screwed up with anything less than four lanes. So they gave those folks a third lane to try to appease them. That’s my take on it at least.

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