Recommendation: Mass. Ave. Bus Lane Should Be Permanent

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

A 79 bus takes advantage of the temporary bus lane at about 7:15 AM on October 9, the first day of the pilot program. At Thorndike Street facing Arlington Center.

Paint, not traffic cones, would mark a permanent version of last fall’s temporary bus lane on Mass. Ave. under a proposal from the Town’s planning department made public earlier this week.

The morning bus lane tested for one month last fall was highly successful and should return permanently “as early as next spring” according to a recommendation this week by Daniel Amstutz, the Town’s senior transportation planner.

The Select Board will discuss the proposal at its February 25 meeting.

The proposal is silent on safety issues related to the crosswalk at Lafayette Street, where the Town removed a bump-out last fall to accommodate the bus-lane pilot.

Under the proposal, the bus-and-bike-only lane would operate at the same time and place as in the pilot. The lane

  • would use signage and paint, not traffic cones, to designate the area affected
  • would operate on Mass. Ave. Cambridge-bound starting just after the Varnum Street crosswalk
  • would be in effect  6 – 9 AM on weekdays

As it did last fall, the lane would displace 19 parking spaces and a bicycle lane, leaving the current two motor-vehicle lanes intact.

The parking spaces are little used in before 9 AM and the bus lane was also designated for cyclists.

From Pilot to Permanent

The current recommendation is not unexpected. Town planners reported last November that the pilot, which included other measures in addition to the bus lane, had meaningfully reduced trip time for buses.

They also reported that preliminary survey results suggested a high level of satisfaction with the bus lane.

At that time Jennifer Raitt, the director of the Town’s department of community development, said her staff intended to explore making the bus lane a permanent feature.

Two other pilot changes were made permanent during the pilot. These are a new signal and lane configuration at Route 16, and relocation of the Lake Street (Cambridge-bound) MBTA bus stop.

Effects of the Changes

The memo that includes the recommendations provides further information about the effects of last fall’s dedicated bus lane, including the following points:

  • On average, the lane saved five minutes in commute time for all routes. The effect was even greater at times of peak congestion.
  • The lane also increased the reliability of buses, as measured by the intervals between buses.
  • The bus stop relocation shaved about a minute off of a bus ride during peak hours.

The memo also notes that even after the pilot, “all bus routes are traveling faster than before,” at least in part because the other changes (such as those at Lake St. and Route 16) “are continuing to have a positive impact.”

However, these effects “are not as significant” as when “the dedicated bus lane was in place.”

A survey found a high degree of satisfaction with the pilot program and the bus lane among all groups, including motorists. Only 13% of all respondents opposed bringing the bus lane back, the memo says.

The memo reports that data from the traffic app Waze suggest that traffic congestion for motorists in their own vehicles worsened during the first week of the pilot.

However, the memo said, traffic returned “to its usual condition” in week two and afterwards, possibly as drivers became used to the changes being piloted.

Pedestrian Safety

The memo declined to recommend extending the bus lane towards Lake Street at this time, noting that doing so would require the removal of crosswalk bump-outs.

The Town installed these safety features in 2015 as part of a redesign of Mass. Ave. in East Arlington.

During the design and construction period, two people died after being struck in Mass. Ave crosswalks in East Arlington.

The memo, however, makes no mention of safety issues at the Lafayette Street crosswalk, where a bump-out was removed to make way for the pilot. The crosswalk was the scene of another fatality in 1996.

Flanked by orange and white safety barrels, men in yellow safety vests dig up the sidewalk as subervisor and police officer look on

A work crew, with police detail, removing the curb extension on Mass. Ave, by Lafayette St., on October 1.

Other Issues

The memo, which is addressed to the Select Board and the Town Manager, also provides a brief history of the pilot program, including a description of the measures tested.

It discusses, but does not recommend, changes to the length and duration of the bus lane, and describes signage and street-markings that might be used to designate the lane.

The memo discusses snow removal, traffic enforcement, and a possible strategy for reintroducing the bus lane.

Update: The Board voted to go ahead with the plan, with unspecified mitigation for the lost bump-out



3 comments so far

  1. Mark Kaepplein on

    How about improving the traffic lights at Rt. 16? Mass Ave. should get right turn arrows when Rt. 16 gets left turn arrows. This would help #350, #79 buses and other vehicles headed towards Alewife even more. The cost is replacing some 3 light signal heads with 4 light heads and some re-programming.

    Once again, the data shows how wrong Mass Ave. traffic estimates made 10 years ago were. Traffic is far greater then even predicted for 10 years from now. Some of us had no faith in the traffic study and we have been proved to be right and plan promoters very wrong.

    • Adam Auster on

      On its face it sounds as though the signal change you advocate at Route 16 would be beneficial, though probably not by a lot. Still, every little bit helps.

      The signal and lane changes that were put in place there as part of the pilot have made a significant difference, I think.

      • Mark Kaepplein on

        Until the better solution of replacing intersections with overpasses along rt. 16, the best we can do is try to make better intersections like these which are greatly over capacity.

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