Alewife traffic issues

A recently released study offers a depressing finding about cut-through traffic in the neighborhoods near Alewife in Arlington, Belmont and Cambridge:  The traffic does not flow east and west; it flows from everywhere to everywhere.

So, even if we could streamline the east-west corridor — by improving the
Alewife intersections or extending the Red Line towards 128 — it probably
wouldn’t mean noticeably fewer cars in our neighborhoods.

We need to focus not on radical transit or highway solutions for Alewife,
but on changes that will make local traffic more bearable (including changes
in vehicles to reduce emissions) and on improvements to pedestrian, bicycle
and transit access for our neighborhoods.

The Alewife Brook Parkway by the Fresh Pond Shopping Center is one of the
most congested road segments in the state, one of a very few road segments
running at or above capacity over 10 hours per day.

Cars leave the eastbound lanes of Route 2 in the morning at a number of
points in Belmont — Winter Street, Park Avenue, Pleasant Street and Lake
Street.  Many of us tend to assume that these cars are cutting through
Belmont to get to Storrow Drive inbound without passing through the
congestion at Alewife.

 The Central Transportation Planning Staff is the group of traffic and
planning professionals charged with studying traffic in the Boston
metropolitan area.   At the request of the City of Cambridge, the CTPS
conducted a license plate study of the cars cutting into Belmont from Route
2 (or over Route 2) between 7 and 9AM on November 15, 2006.

The study found that only about 10% of the cars made their way towards
Storrow Drive over the Eliot Bridge.  Even among cars headed eastbound on
the Alewife Brook Parkway by the shopping center, only 38% were later seen
at the Eliot Bridge.

In addition to matching license plates coming through different locations on
that study morning, the CTPS analyzed where the cars were registered and
compared the results to previously gathered traffic survey data.  This
analysis confirmed the finding that most of the traffic cutting through
Alewife neighborhoods was not headed downtown.

Over all, it appeared that 61% of the traffic coming into the Alewife
area was travelling from North to South (for example from Arlington to
Watertown) and only 21% was headed downtown and only 18% into Cambridge.
Thus a transit or highway improvement that eased east and west traffic would
only address a minority portion of the flow.  This is particularly true of
the cars cutting off in Belmont — it appears that the overwhelming
majority, perhaps 90%, have destinations that would not be served by an west
to east improvement.

And of course, there is no real transit or highway solution to east-west
congestion in the Alewife area anyway.

The Alewife congestion isn’t about just one intersection, but a whole string
of intersections — to significantly streamline the Fresh Pond traffic would
require a local big dig that is farfetched, both financially and

To extend the Red Line through Arlington and Lexington (or by express buses
to along Route 2 out to 128) is an idea that is appealing on first glance,
but not one that looks promising on further scrutiny.

First, even if an extension were heavily used, the benefits are likely to be
limited as a percentage of east-west volume (and of course negligible for
North-South traffic).  It’s hard to imagine a new western terminus capturing
much more traffic than the existing garage does.  The Alewife garage holds
2500 cars, while traffic along the Rt 2 corridor is approximately 40,000
cars per day in each direction.

Further, the context for an extension has become even less favorable than
when the extension was last rejected in the 80s. The logical rail route for
extension in Arlington is now a popular bikepath.  The T is struggling
simply to operate its existing system, pay the debt on prior improvements
and meet legal commitments for improvements going back to the Big Dig.  The
state is gun shy about big projects as a result of the Big Dig and many
basic highway maintenance projects were deferred during the Big Dig years.

Finally, the Governor has committed (in his recent draft transportation bond
bill) to improving the existing service on the Fitchburg line, which, for
locations in Concord and further west, would compete with a Red Line

Consistent with a conclusion that radical transit and highway improvements
seem neither very helpful nor very viable at this time, in a second phase of
their Alewife study, the CTPS is focused primarily on identifying
possibilities for improving bus access to Alewife.

Additionally, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council is scoping a study on
bicycle and pedestrian improvements in the Alewife area.  One of the most
promising bicycle improvements is already well along in the design process
— paving of a path linking Brighton Street to Alewife.

I’m interested to hear from people with concerns and suggestions on Alewife
transportation issues — I do hope to contribute to the process in the
ongoing studies.

From a big picture standpoint, I will continue to advocate for stronger
emissions controls and stronger incentives to use smaller, lower-emissions
vehicles.  This is not only a climate change issue.  It is a local health
issue, given that heavy traffic seems like it is here to stay for a long
while in many neighborhoods.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

7 replies on “Alewife traffic issues”

  1. How is improving the efficiency of any congested intersection a bad thing? Adding a merge lane for Rt. 16 south turning on 2 West without stopping would help. Rt. 16 at I-93 must also be one of the most congested stretches and seems to be for 12+ hours a day. Restoring Rt. 16 to its previous 4 lanes could again help and certainly reduce the number of drivers diverting through West Medford center. Its not like there are ever pedestrians in Veterans park, only ball players in fair, warm months when the field isn’t swampy. “Build it and they will come” never happened there. It was just a hallucination.

    Other intersection changes needing undoing are at roads intersecting Rt. 2, like Rt. 60 and Park Street. An extra lane going through the intersection gets more cars across every light cycle. That’s more appealing to residents than median greenery and unused extra sidewalk width to take up the extra width originally engineered to make efficient intersections with storage areas to merge back down.

    1. Hi Mark,

      I’ve actually been part of a group meeting on the Rt 2/16 intersection that is proposing exactly what you recommend — to add the slip lane from Rt 16 to 2 West. The design changes in that intersection will also use some of the median area to add a lane from the jug handle going west. Mass DOT should be ready some time in the next few months to hold a public hearing on the proposal.

      The hope is to streamline that congested intersection, which is one of the worst in the state.

      Can’t speak to Medford and not sure what you have in mind for the other intersections.

      Mark, our only rule on this website is that everyone use their full true name. Your comment will stay up if you adjust your username promptly.

      Best regards,

      Will B.

  2. Dear Will,

    Although the central issue here is traffic at the Alewife rotary, I must seize the opportunity to mention a related and real problem. On Pleasant Street, rush hour traffic backs up from the traffic light at Brighton St. for various distances toward Belmont Center every business day from 3PM until 7PM. If you live on the east side of Pleasant St., as I do, it becomes almost impossible to get your car out of your driveway during those hours. If I know that I will need my auto during that time, then I must park in the 3-car parking bay on the west side of the road, just south of Prospect St. Worse, yet, there is no pedestrian crosswalk nearby, and If I step between two stopped cars stuck waiting for the Brighton St. light, the curve in Pleasant St. makes it extremely difficult for a fast moving southbound driver to see a pedestrian trying to cross over. I suggest, Will, that a pedestrian crossing (white lines painted in the roadway, and a couple of signs) might be a rather inexpensive way to improve a really dangerous and scary situation. My apologies, again, for raising a tiny subset of the truly horrendous traffic issues that are apparently here to stay.

    Best wishes,
    James S. Nicolson

      1. Thank you for asking, Will. Like many things in life, easier said than done. I suggest the intersection with Prospect Street, which begins (or ends) at Pleasant St. Both of the Prospect St. corners are connected with a painted, striped walkway, and there exist the standard sloped cuts in both of the curbs for wheelchairs, strollers etc. These cuts were made right at the rounded apex of each curb, and they could, I think, serve without any change to give access to walkways crossing Pleasant St., as well. On the east side of Pleasant St. are two adjacent residential driveways almost directly opposite the Prospect St. curb cuts, one for my neighbor Sam James at #388, and mine at #400. These driveways of course provide huge ramped access to the sidewalk, and there is a newly rehabilitated storm drain just a few feet away from Dr. James’s driveway, which helps in keeping the area above the flood waters. If one of these driveway cuts could be shared with a crosswalk, then obviously a great expense could be spared. However, I cannot address the issue of safety and legality in having vehicles and walkers using the same patch of pavement. Please note that I have NOT yet discussed this issue with Dr James. The subject has only just now arisen for discussion, and I would certainly wish to have Sam weigh in, here.

        Your interest is very much appreciated.
        James S. Nicolson

  3. In that study (three years ago, I note), any estimate of the length of the north/south trips? I’m wondering if there is a prayer of getting some of those people onto bikes — for short enough trips with bad traffic, bikes win (Thursday and Friday afternoons, I often beat cars across Lexington on Lowell St.). Part of the problem is that most people aren’t happy bike commuting unless they have an end-to-end acceptable route.

    And I see that traffic too, and it’s gruesome. I hadn’t thought about getting out of a driveway through it.

    1. My recollection is that the study defined an Alewife zone (extending into Belmont and over to the Charles) and looked at license plates for cars entering and exiting that zone. They did not study the ultimate destinations of the cars.

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