Bus priority experiment in progress

Front of MBTA 79 bus as it moves past stalled traffic along the temporary bus lane demarcated with orange and white traffic cones.

The 79 bus takes advantage of the temporary bus lane at about 7:15 AM on October 9, the first day of the trial. At Thorndike Street looking back to Arlington Center.

Arlington’s bus priority experiment will end on November 9. There will be a community evaluation of the program on November 14.

Let’s inspect this work in progress by walking from Lake Street to Route 16.

The bus lane (above) is only in effect from 6 to 9 AM on weekdays.

Lake Street

two women and a child waiting at the bus stop near Christo's market. A new bust-stop sign is in the foreground.

The new bus stop is a permanent change.

To ease a bottleneck, the MBTA has moved the inbound bus stop here from in front of the Capitol Theater to the other side of the intersection, by Christo’s Market and the former Flora.

Sign announcing the bus stop is closed and relocated to the other side of Lake St.

At the old location

The change displaces three parking spaces that were at the new location.

In the course of writing this report I learned that the Town has decided to make this change permanent even before the pilot is over.

I think that is lousy process, but the idea makes a lot of sense on paper.

Entrance to the Capitol Theater, including theater marquis and a sign in foreground advising that the bus stop has been moved.

Bus riders can longer shelter under the marquee of the Capitol Theater in bad weather.

Perhaps on November 14 we will learn if it makes a significant difference in practice.

The north side of the street is not affected.

Varnum Street

Curb bump-out on the south side of the Varnum St. crosswalk. One pedestrian in the crosswalk.

The bus lane starts here.

Heading southeast, there is nothing more related to bus priority until we get to Varnum Street.

Here, the curb extension for the cross walk is a staging area for traffic cones that are deployed in the morning rush hour to create the temporary bus lane.

There is also an electronic sign warning of changing traffic patterns ahead, along with some Lime bikes and an “open house” sign.

The pedestrian in the cross walk is very near the spot where my neighbor William Dotson was struck and killed by a car in the spring of 2015.

The bus lane is not set up today (it’s Sunday afternoon, not Monday morning!) but it begins here, on the other side of the bump-out.

From this point to the end of the bus-bike lane around Boulevard Road, every available sign post seems to have one of these temporary signs on it.

Sign reading

The pilot begins, as far as I know, at 6 AM, not 5. I assume the extra hour is to allow for set-up and related contingencies, such as needing to tow a car parked in the lane.

Lafayette Street

Only one thing stood in the way of this bus lane: a curb extension at Lafayette Street.

A dark curve in the pavement where the bump-ut used to be. There is a car in its parking spot nearby.

Fresh asphalt shows the approximate footprint of the removed bump-out.

So, the Town removed it.

They say they are putting it back. But presumably not if the bus lane becomes permanent.

The bump-out was added as part of the Mass. Ave. project to address a real safety problem. Florence Crotin died in this cross walk in 1996.

Before the bump-out, drivers would park their cars right up against the cross walk, obscuring sight lines and creating a hazardous situation.

Front end of a parked car overlaps the edge of the pedestrian cross walk across Mass. Ave. with the CVS in the background.

This May, 2013, view of the Mass. Ave. cross walk from the Lafayette Street side shows a typical parking configuration. It was impossible to see around the vehicle.

That is once again physically possible now that the bump-out is removed. But, is it likely?

Note the location of the white car in the first Lafayette Street photo above.

The introduction of marked parking stalls since 2013 may control parking in most cases.

The new bike lanes also add a safety buffer for pedestrians, compared to the bad old days here.

If the Town wants to make the bus lane permanent, there may be other improvements it can make to this crosswalk—better lighting, for instance—that would mitigate the loss of the curb extension.

About the Bus Lane

I cannot linger in the morning, when the bus-bike lane is in effect. However, I do get a quick look on my way to work in Lowell. Here are my impressions.

  • When there is a traffic queue, the bus lane is tremendously effective. The buses just scoot by the line of idling cars.
  • The queue rarely extends as far back as Varnum Street, at least before 7:30. The benefit of extending it further back would be small, or at any rate, smaller.
  • The lane is usually completely empty. The buses do not run very often.
  • There are police officers at every street that enters Mass. Ave. They make sure that drivers can enter Mass. Ave. traffic without blocking the bus lane.

The north side of the street is not affected.

Route 16

Cross section of road with new markings and signage

The new lane configuration is painted on Mass. Ave. and on the sign at right. View is towards Cambridge.

The City of Cambridge got on board with a change to the signal phasing at Route 16. This allowed a new lane configuration to the approach to the intersection from Arlington.

These two changes have the potential to benefit everybody on wheels, not just bus riders, by using the intersection more efficiently.

The new setup is painted on the road and on the sign at left. There is a combined left/through (straight) lane at far left, a through-only lane in the middle, and a right-only lane at right (LT/T/R).

Sign showing new lane configuration

This is a mirror image of the old configuration, L/T/TR. It seems to be better in nearly every way, and not just for buses.

  • The lanes align better with their Cambridge counterparts.
  • Traffic bound for Alewife and Route 2 waits in a shorter queue.
  • Buses (and bikes) are allowed to use the right lane as a through lane (straight), so they can move directly from the bus lane through the intersection without having to merge left until they get to Cambridge
  • Yet through traffic loses nothing, since it still has two lanes.

Sign reading

The biggest advantage, shared by all users, is the potential for time-sensitive phasing, so that in the morning the heavier Cambridge-bound traffic gets more seconds in the cycle, and in the evening Arlington-bound traffic gets more.

I watched several cycles on one weekday evening and it looked as though Cambridge (heading towards Arlington) was getting about 50% more time than Arlington (heading towards Cambridge).

That is consistent with a variable signal phase based on time of day

The Route 16 changes seem to benefit everybody, not just bus riders. But for Cambridge-bound commuters, the actual result may be small if they run into bottlenecks in Cambridge.

The timing and phasing of north-south signals on Route 16 are unchanged.


Cyclists are explicitly allowed to use the right-only lane at Route 16 as a through lane.

I have not seen any cyclists using the bus lane in the morning (which is allowed), let alone any sharing the lane with buses (which are infrequent).

The Territory and the Map

All of these things ought to help bus traffic, and some all traffic. I have seen buses chugging along in their lane past stalled traffic, saving 5 or more minutes per trip.

But the proof will be in measurements of trip times and the perceptions of riders.

Then we will have the potentially difficult question of what to make permanent.

On that score, the bus lane imposes a clear cost in the removal of the Lafayette Street bump out.

A permanent bus lane would face a potential issue related to how drivers will behave if there is a bus lane but no police presence to enforce traffic rules.

Thanks for walking with me!



9 comments so far

  1. Bob Sprague on

    Thank you for your ongoing education about this project.

    • Adam Auster on

      Thanks, Bob. But not so much an education as an invitation to inquiry.

      I’d love to hear more from people who use Mass. Ave. as part of their regular commute.

  2. Susan Maltz on

    Thanks, Adam. I am not a commuter, but I live on Thorndike Street. Sorry to learn about your neighbor who died crossing Mass.Ave. near Varnum Street in 2015. Did this occur after the improvements and bump-outs to Mass. Ave. Have the bump-outs made things safer?

    • Adam Auster on

      Hi Susan. Bill was killed after the reconstruction of the street had begun, but before it reached Varnum Street.

      If you want more information about that horrible event, please click the link in the story above. It includes a photo of the bump-out-free curb there a few days after the crash.

      I do think the bump-outs work as expected, to improve sight lines and calm traffic, but there are not enough traffic data to be able to claim they have improved safety on Mass. Ave.

      The discussion of the Lafayette Street bump-out, above, goes into some of those issues a little, and also the link that is there.

      • Bob Sprague on

        YourArlington reported about the Dotson story throughout the case. If you want to know how it turned out, read https://www.yourarlington.com/arlington-archives/safety/court/12696-dotson-021517

        • Adam Auster on

          Bob, not at all a criticism of your coverage, but the community still lacks information about what caused the crash.

          The driver struck Bill at full speed in light traffic and broad daylight. He was in a marked crosswalk. What happened?

          Was she (the driver) on the phone or otherwise distracted? Was she impaired by a medical condition, drink, or drugs?

          It’s not morbid curiosity to want to know. Analysis of fatal and serious crashes can inform street design and lead to safer streets.

          • Bob Sprague on

            Thanks, Adam. I fully understand your concern. What you are asking is among those facts that I, too, want to know. News reporting always provides a limited view of any set of facts. In this case, I met great resistance learning details about this case. Indeed, a citizen filed a public-info request to try to learn why the case was delayed so long. Speculation: I think there were health issues involving the driver that officials could not disclose.

  3. Larry Slotnick on

    Unfortunately I think in-bound East Arlington Mass Ave commuters don’t have time to view your blog and provide commentary, Adam. They’re too busy sitting in traffic! Couple of questions:
    Is it a plainly-stated goal to reduce the inbound bus transit times in order to lure other commuters out of their single-occupancy vehicles?
    Is it also a plainly-stated goal to provide a safer path for in-bound cyclists (though there was already a bike lane) through East Arlington and through the Rt 16 intersection ?
    Perhaps the Town can persuade the MBTA to construct a bus shelter at the 190 Mass Ave stop?
    Also, your caption for the Capitol Theater photo requires a minor obvious edit.
    Good job, Adam . Thank you

    • Adam Auster on

      Thanks for the heads up, Larry. Mischief managed.

      As for the plainly stated goal, I hesitate. It was after all the plainly stated intent that the pilot be temporary, yet there’s at least one permanent change already.

      But I’ll do my best, subject to correction.

      It is the plainly stated goal to test ways to reduce bus trip times inbound in the morning.

      As for luring riders, that may be someone’s hope, but I can’t recall anyone from the Town or the consultants or the Barr foundation saying it was a goal. The metrics for success had entirely to do with bus trip time.

      As for improving bike safety: No, that was never a stated goal that I recall.

      I agree with you about the bus shelter and said as much at the end of this post.

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