A step forward for commuters

2/11/2016 Update: Contract awarded.

On September 8, the state put out to bid a corridor study for Mount Auburn Street. This is the next step towards improving the permanent traffic snarl at the intersection of Mount Auburn Street and Fresh Pond Parkway. Reducing the long delays at this intersection is the biggest single thing we can do to improve bus service to Belmont and Watertown and it will help drivers as well.

The study scope includes all the signals along Mount Auburn Street from the Watertown line to Mount Auburn hospital and all the signals along Fresh Pond Parkway from Huron Avenue to the Eliot Bridge in Cambridge. The state Department of Conservation and Recreation is responsible for the maintenance of Fresh Pond Parkway and the river intersections and will be the lead agency in the study, but the study is a collaboration among the communities of Belmont, Watertown and Cambridge and several state agencies, including the MBTA.

The study goals are “to improve the safety, comfort and operations of all modes of transportation that use the areas included in the study.” Particular priorities within those broad goals include improving service on the 71 and 73 buses and making the wide main intersection safer for cyclists and pedestrians. The study will assess existing conditions — delays, hazards, etc. — and propose options for short and long term improvement.

The idea for the study goes back to a meeting convened by local legislators 18 months ago in Cambridge. The meeting included engineering representatives from all the communities and agencies involved. It was an exciting meeting because, although some of the engineers had been in place for many years, none of them could remember a conversation about how to address this intersection system. Typically in traffic conversations, appealing ideas get shot down quickly with “we looked at that before and it won’t work”. Instead, as the conversation moved around the room, many ideas surfaced that seemed to all merit further study.

The timing was good because a transportation bond bill was moving and local legislators working together — myself, Senator Jehlen, Representative Hecht and Representative Rogers — were able to earmark $500,000 to study the options. The Patrick administration supported the project and made the earmarked funds available to DCR. The Baker administration picked up the ball and developed the formal study scope — consulting with the municipalities and other agencies — and put it out to bid. The retirement of key DCR personnel created some delays, but the new DCR Commissioner, Carol Sanchez, promised to keep the process moving and has been true to her word.

The next steps in the process will be as follows: (1) There will be a pre-bidding conference for prospective bidders on September 23. (2) The bids must be submitted by October 16 at 5PM. (3) DCR will evaluate the bids (based not only on price but also qualifications, experience of the bid team and overall quality of the proposal) and award the contract near the end of October. (4) The study will begin in mid November and there will be kickoff meeting with key stakeholders. (5) It is expected that the study will take one to two years.

Representatives Hecht and Rogers and Senators Jehlen and I are committed to assuring that the study is conducted in a transparent way and brought to a useful conclusion and also that the Commonwealth moves forward to take action on the positive recommendations of the study.

The formal study process won’t start for a couple of months. But it’s not too early to start brainstorming in this space — your comments much appreciated.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

39 replies on “A step forward for commuters”

    1. I’m usually all for more bike lanes, but Rt16 from Huron to Mount Auburn is really far too narrow and busy for them to work IMHO. The road is a disaster at rush hour as traffic from Rt 2 squeezes onto what should be a residential road. I think it will take a radical redesign of the system to really solve the problem.

  1. I don’t see any substantial improvement without building an underpass for Fresh Pond Parkway, such as you have on Storrow Drive. Meanwhile, they can get rid of those stupid flashing yellow lights. Nobody knows what they’re for. They can paint some dashed lane lines across the intersection for traffic on Mt. Auburn to follow. They could also slightly straighten the crossing by cutting back the island on the north side of the intersection.

  2. An underpass for rt 2/Fresh Pond pkwy! Mt.Auburn would go over and maybe even slightly elevated such that east-bound bikers down Mt auburn can catch views of the river while busses and thru-traffic can stream over the intersection in inner lanes with next to no obstruction…same goes for rt 2 as commuters pass under and merge up to the Mem Drive, Storrow Dr. and Greenough access points.

  3. I have two main thoughts, one broad and one narrow (and probably more useful).

    1) In my experience, you can design a roadway for cars or for people – but not both. Fresh Pond Parkway is an excellent example of a roadway that is trying to accomplish smooth, free-flowing vehicular traffic while still maintaining access to the surrounding residences and businesses, and failing at both goals. I would argue that Fresh Pond Parkway would be far better served with a road diet (http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/road_diets/) than its current configuration – we could accommodate turning traffic, bicyclists, pedestrians, and probably decrease traffic accidents, all with minimal traffic impacts. If we are to think about how to better serve the residents of Belmont, Watertown and Cambridge – and especially those closest to the roadway – then we must prioritize the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists and local traffic over those just trying to get from Route 2 to Storrow Drive as quickly as possible.

    2) We could probably do a lot to improve travel times of the 73 and 71 bus inbound by having off-board fare collection. As this BRT study for Boston (http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/road_diets/) showed, in most cases the biggest time savings was just eliminating the queue of people tapping in or fumbling for change.

    As a final thought, we should take a hard look at the number of motorists traveling the corridor versus the number of transit users, at peak hours. I would bet that bus riders are roughly equivalent (though could be wrong) to motorists. Were that the case, it might make sense to provide a better balance of roadway space allocation – giving perhaps a flexible bus-only lane during peak-of-peak times. This would encourage more people to use the bus, and getting more people to use transit is ultimately the only solution to the traffic woes facing the area (unless flying cars are invented and widely adopted).

    1. Can estimate car counts at 0.5 per-lane second (i.e., 1800 cars per hour per lane, and requires a continuous speed of I think 30-35mph. A friend of mine who did traffic work for a while in Texas said their working number was 1500).

      MBTA Blue Book provides plan and crush capacities for buses; electric trolleys are plan=43, crush=68. #71 is 9 buses/hr 8am-9am, #73 is 11. I assume they are filled (seems to be common case for rush hour) 68 x 20 is 1360 people. That doesn’t quite make the case for a dedicated bus lane, or might for a bus+carpool lane. If 11 buses ran from Watertown, that would raise the count to just shy of 1500. That doesn’t count other buses — for example, Bentley runs one bus during those hours, and if the buses run faster, they can run slightly more often.

      Note that if traffic flow falls during the day below 1500 cars/hour, then there’s nothing particularly wrong with reserving that lane for buses because it isn’t required for the lower level of car flow. It’s a mistake to think that the default status of a road lane ought to be “for cars”.

  4. Consider putting route 2 underground from Brattle street to direct connect with memorial drive and storrow drive – no lights. Then Brattle and mount auburn streets can go back to normal local roads. Is this too simple of a solution to consider?

    1. Also, the intersection of Fresh Pond Parkway and Huron Street would be closed – inbound (Huron entering FPP from the west) during the morning rush (maybe 6-9 am) and outbound (Huron entering FPP from the east) during afternoon rush (maybe 4-7 pm). The FPP / Huron lights would be normal operation at all other times. This would allow traffic to flow continuously from the two rotaries through to Storrow / Memorial during rush hours.

    1. That traffic light is greatly needed for that area and was a long time coming. It was a nightmare for pedestrians and motorists beforehand.

      1. Right. There are couple of schools right there at Coolidge Avenue and the light is important. My impression is that it doesn’t cost any green time in the main cycle — the Walk light is on when Fresh Pond is green and Mount Auburn is stopped anyway.

    1. The underpass idea has a lot of appeal. It is, of course, expensive, and one has to ask how the entrances and exits to it fit in the roadway footprint.

      The neighborhood wouldn’t like an overpass — that’s a non-starter — but I hope an underpass is on the option list.

  5. Two (I hope only two) thoughts:

    About ten years ago at a supercomputing conference, someone from one of the national labs talked about new simulation methods for traffic (and human activities in general) that yielded far more realistic results than those that were standard at the time. I don’t know if these have made it out of the lab or not yet — road designers seem mighty fixed in their ways — but if they are available, we should try using them to evaluate different designs.
    (It was this work: https://www.nae.edu/Publications/Bridge/Cutting-EdgeResearchinEngineering/Agent-BasedModelingasaDecision-MakingTool.aspx
    and the software seems to be available here: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/planning/tmip/transims/background.cfm )

    Idea #2 is about bottlenecks, both for cars and for bicycles. For cars at least, removing one bottleneck can often have the effect of merely moving the jam down the road to the next tight spot, sometimes even intensifying it, sometimes impeding a new batch of till-then unimpeded commuters. Or, removing a blockage in one place might increase traffic on a stretch of road that had previously been calm enough for cycling. For many almost-cyclists, it seems to me that the worst safety/comfort-bottleneck determines whether a route is go or no-go. This can mean that improving this intersection for bicycles might turn out to not really make a difference by itself — doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t be done, but I want to get out in front of any possible failure to improve bike share by pointing out that another crappy spot up or down the route can be just as large an impediment.

    Also — I’ve seen numerous mention of highway studies that merely count number of motor vehicles moved along a road. That is just plain the wrong metric; we should optimize movement of people, and we should also decide how to weight rush hour versus non-rush hour. One rush-hour counts as much as 50 passenger cars. And on some roads at rush hour it appears that bicycles make up an easy 20-30% of the traffic in the rush direction (e.g. Hampshire in Cambridge). Those people should also be counted.

    How willing are we to consider something that is not road-building? Are congestion charges on the table? Are serious amounts of bicycle infrastructure on the table — not just paint, but something that would make the timider riders we know willing to not-drive all the way from Watertown, Belmont and Arlington to Harvard, Kendall Square, and perhaps even beyond? (I would describe Cambridge’s current efforts as “good intentions, half-assed execution”.)

    1. I second David’s comment about Cambridge’s bike routes’ poor execution (or even poor conception). One gets the impression that the person who decided where to place the bike routes and how to demarcate them has never attempted to commute on a bicycle west-to-east through Cambridge at the morning rush hour.

      1. Here are some non-standard ideas for diverting traffic to other modes, not that likely to be tried because they are too weird, but Will said brainstorming, so here goes:

        1) build enough parking garages to allow removal of parking on both sides of arteries and provide room for a bus lane (maybe shared with bikes, but I am not sure it would be safe or comfortable). Back-of-the-envelope estimate is $25M/mile (both sides of street), or about $50,000/space. That’s $5000 less than the value of the 8’x20′ land occupied by a parking space if land is valued at $15M/acre (which I think holds for Somerville, but not for Cambridge). This does nothing to help this intersection, unless improved traffic flow in other parts of Cambridge and Somerville diverts people away from it.

        2) build elevated routes for bicycles from the edge of Cambridge to Kendall Square or MIT. I think (based on figures from maadigroup.com) a 12′ wide aluminum bridge would cost about $8million/mile. This doesn’t include supports or installation, so it’s a serious underestimate (but much smaller than $25million/mile to remove parking to make lanes for a bus route). We might want a roof to keep snow off, and shelter from rain would be a bonus, and then we could install solar panels on the roof.

        A problem with anything that removes cars from the road is that induced demand says that new traffic would appear to fill the “vacuum”. This is especially true now that people use apps like Waze; if there is an improved route from A to B, Waze will send them to it. On the other hand, traffic jams outside Cambridge/Somerville can limit the cars able to reach improved flow within those cities if local traffic is diverted out of automobiles (i.e., better flow in Cambridge should create jams leading to Cambridge — not necessarily good for Watertown, Belmont and Arlington).

  6. My thoughts are that The lights from Route 2 and Alwife brook parkway through the lights after the Bridge on Storrow drive should be networked to permit traffic to flow at 25 mph through the congested route 2 corridor without hitting a red light if you are moving and making the first set of lights.

    The cross street traffic, at Mt Auburn street, Huron Ave, Concord Ave, and Route 2 should be tied into the network so that congestion on these major side roads will cause minimal delays through the intersections traffic crossing route 2. Using a congestion decision tree controlling the lights will shorten the timing of gap between the route 2 flow so that more traffic can cross the route 2 corridor when it is busy, without causing an impact of the 25mph flow rule. Lights that are within a short distance of route 2 that impact congestion, like at Coolidge Ave. and Mount Auburn st. will need to be tied into the Network to to minimize their congestion effect on this system. I think that a lab flow model could be developed try to optimize traffic flow at peak, normal and low using different sets of rules to control all the lights on the corridor.

    The intersection should be redesigned with this long run control system in mind for the future if the rebuild can not include it now.

  7. Hi Will,
    Mt Auburn [email protected] Fresh Pond Pky. has to be one of the worst intersections in the state. I handled many serious accidents there. If you think it is bad now, try directing traffic there during a power outage as I have!
    Good luck with a new design.
    David Benoit

  8. keep it out of the hands of politically connected and open to both union and non-union proven competent bids with transparency access to costs.

  9. With exponential population density increase of the past 2-4 years in Watertown alone, I don’t see too many options. Yet, more buses could reduce the total number of vehicles on roadways leading in to Mount Auburn. Each bus, of course, has the potential of taking 15+ cars off the road.

  10. I am glad this will finally be addressed!
    It would be better/safer to divert bicyclists and pedestrians around this intersection and focus on making this intersection work for buses and cars. There are pretty good bicycle and pedestrian routes around this intersection that should be marked and improved, e.g. through the much less trafficked streets northeast of the intersection. Brattle St. is particularly good for east-west bicycle traffic; a safe well-marked bike route from Brattle to the bikepath along the river would make this even more valuable. Similarly, better bicycle route signage starting from the intersection of Huron and Fresh Pond to Brattle (maybe via Huron and Lakeview) would improve safety and give bicyclists a more enjoyable ride than sitting in the traffic jams on Rte 2 breathing exhaust. To fix vehicular traffic: I strongly object to ideas of further restricting the car traffic e.g. by reducing the number of lanes on Fresh Pond Parkway. This congested stretch of Rte 2 and Trapelo is already causing backups west of Alewife and back to Star Market, the traffic jams block the public transit buses and pollute the air, and waste the time of thousands of citizens of the Commonwealth. And if you squeeze down this route, the traffic is going to be diverted onto local roads even more than it is currently. But how to fix the intersection is not so easy: fundamentally, at the morning rush hour one is taking essentially all the traffic from two roads, each with several lanes of traffic entering the intersection, and combining them into one road with an equal number of lanes exiting the intersection. This cannot work: twice as much traffic cannot flow into the same space. One might think widening Rte 2 south of the intersection and building an overpass would solve the problem, but it is not so easy do it in this location and surely there would be opposition by some abutters who already deal with a lot of aggravation living next to this intersection. Maybe one could move the lane divider to give the southbound traffic exiting the intersection one more lane (and maybe do the same thing on the Eliot Bridge)? This will increase the westbound traffic jam crossing Eliot Bridge in the evening rush hour, but maybe it is better to balance the traffic queue between the rush hours rather than having it so big in the morning? Definitely this needs a careful traffic engineering study, thanks, Will, for getting this study funded!

  11. I’ve noticed during my walks through this area that the Coolidge Ave. intersection is normally synchronized with the Fresh Pond Parkway one, but by using the walk button at Coolidge Ave., I can throw them out of sync (and fix the synchronization, as well). This can severely impact usability of the intersection for traffic coming inbound on Mt. Auburn, and really needs to be fixed even if nothing else is.

    1. Yes. That synch issue at Coolidge Avenue is very important. It’s gotten a lot of attention over the past year or two — when wrong it can really set Mt Auburn back. Cambridge engineering is very aware of it and usually on top of it.

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