Can we trust government with our Roads? Beware Road “Improvements”

OK, I will admit it — as everyone probably guessed by now — I’m not a big fan of traffic calming or lane reduction, or anything else that further clogs the cow-paths we call “roads”. Lord knows, I’m not itching  itching for another “Car v. Bike” shouting match, but here’s the latest NMA post re “road improvements” — let the flames begin (sigh…)

Beware Road “Improvements”

Dear NMA Member,

There is a disturbing trend in the Boston Metro area: road “improvements” reducing the number of travel lanes.

The state, cities and towns are spending millions on road redesign projects that often remove automobile lanes. The rationale is usually the safety of pedestrians and pressure from vocal and sometimes militant bicyclist groups. But studies show these changes to be ineffective. Central Square Cambridge is now #1 in bike accidents and #2 in pedestrian accidents in the state following such changes!

The roads that recently got narrower for motorists are Nonantum Road in Newton and Central Street between Wellesley and Natick. They were reduced from four lanes to two, because too few spoke up in opposition.

There are plenty of other projects slated for these “improvements.” Here are just a few:

  • The City of Peabody just announced plans to spend $1.5 million on planters and trees to narrow Main Street from four travel lanes to two, because “there is just too much car traffic and not enough pedestrians.” Meanwhile, Main Street floods during heavy rains at least twice a year!
  • After consulting with bicyclist and pedestrian groups, the state will “rehabilitate” the Longfellow Bridge between Boston and Cambridge. The “improvements’” include taking away two car lanes. Few motorists spoke up at public hearings while cyclists following tweets and blogs spoke, wrote, and emailed officials.
  • Mark Kaepplein is fighting Arlington’s plans to replace shared lanes on Massachusetts Avenue for bicycle lanes. So what’s wrong with that plan? There is already a bike path through Arlington, but the bicyclists don’t like sharing the road with pedestrians.
  • Next spring the commute on Trapelo Road and Belmont Street through Belmont will be “improved” as was Concord Ave. in Cambridge — by making the road narrower.

If you don’t like these trends, if you think government should be accommodating instead of hindering its citizens, then speak up in your community as Mark Kaepplein is doing in his.

Thank you,

Ivan Sever
NMA Massachusetts State Chapter Coordinator


PS, Ivan fails to mention the Belmont plan to narrow Leonard St. which has only been held up due to lack of funds.


6 replies on “Can we trust government with our Roads? Beware Road “Improvements””

  1. There were similar complaints about the Prospect Park West redesign in NYC, and when someone took the trouble to measure before and after, there was essentially no change in the time it took, or in the car throughput at rush hour. On the other hand, all sorts of other metrics got better — less speeding, less very fast speeding, fewer bikes on the sidewalk, smaller percentage of bikes riding wrong-way, triple the number of bicycles (which means, either people who were previously riding on the sidewalk, or previously riding on other roads, or who were previously driving cars and adding to traffic). Crashes were down 15%, injury crashes down by half (too small a number to be sure), no pedestrian injuries since bike lane was installed, despite 3x bike traffic.

    So that’s what happened when someone ran an experiment, and it was not bad. My understanding of what’s going on here is that traffic jams come from two things — cars, and intersections, and if the intersection throughput is below the multi-lane intersection throughput, then the extra lanes don’t help. Essentially, they are wasted.

    From a networking-throughput and computer performance point-of-view (closer to what I do in real life and know more about), what we’re seeing is a skinniest-pipe/weakest-link sort of phenomenon; once you’ve done all you can to maximize the skinniest pipe and strengthen the weakest link, excess capacity elsewhere does you little good, and may hurt you. For example, in network routers, it is hypothesized that cheap memory has lead to overprovisioning and a phenomenon called “bufferbloat” ( ).

    None of this is especially intuitive, which is why people who are ever-vigilant in their pursuit of maximum freedom for drivers (Kaepplein, Sever) are sure that cars will lose. But in the one place where people looked hard and measured before and after, they didn’t.

    On the plus side, you have a chance of getting people to not drive in Boston. Maybe they’ll walk (fewer bikes on the sidewalk on Longfellow), maybe they’ll ride a bike. For each of those people, that’s one less car in your way, and one less car taking the parking space that you want. And honestly, if you don’t want to get stuck in a traffic jam in Cambridge or Boston, why do you drive there? Short of introducing congestion charges, I don’t see how we’ll ever be free of horrible traffic there. I bike to work some days, but I make a special effort to ride on Thursdays and Fridays because traffic jams are most common (for my commute) on those two days. I know that some people have no choice (Mark K has knee problems, I know that), but most people are physically able, if only they felt safe doing it. If we have lanes that aren’t really helping traffic move, why not reallocate them to other uses?

  2. PS – another example of wasted lanes, right here in Belmont. Consider Trapelo Road, and consider the pedestrian neck-downs installed in the last decade (when I was still taking kids to/from Butler, across Trapelo). There is only one lane in each direction there; if we had so much traffic that we needed two lanes to carry it, there would be massive jams at rush hour, backed up at the various neckdowns. And the jams are not there; back with kids in Butler I got to see the Sycamore/Hawthorne crossing at rush hour in the morning at rush hour in the evening, and there was practically never a jam.

    I would also suggest, given all the spending on the Big Dig, that we’ve done quite a lot to improve the lot of car drivers in and around Boston. Do you guys really think you’re getting the short end of the stick? I’d be happy to swap you those lanes on the Longfellow Bridge, for 15 Billion dollars in local infrastructure for bicycles. Our own private limited access tunnels for bike paths, that would be pretty neat.

  3. AH David… we meet again (evil laugh).

    Whilst I agree with bits of what you say, indeed, metrics are something this conversation always seems to be short on so I’m willing to concede many of those points.

    What troubles me is that the focus is always on “slowing things down” instead of “making things more efficient”. I comprehend your comments re bufferbloat, but your analogy does not hold up in a network with so many endpoints, sources and sinks. The goal should be to maximize efficiency for all users — Cars, bikes, people and to recognize that you cannot get rid of cars by making the roads undrivable – that just leads to congestion, frustration, and more accidents for everyone. I believe someone on a bike was actually killed by one of the bump-outs on Trapello (may be an urban myth, I cannot substantiate – it was told to me by one of my “serious biking friends” from cambridge (yes, I do actually have several friends who wear spandex)).

    Regardless, as much as I am in favor of roads for cars, I freely admit we need to design all modern urban roads with bikes in mind. What I don’t understand about your support for this is that valuable real-estate for bike lanes will be instead, turned into tree-farms. (Believe me, I am not anti-tree by any means, and if I were, the before/after renderings on PPT4 ( would convince me otherwise.

    I’m merely suffering from a lack of belief in the benign interest of a government that views most automobile drivers simply as a rich source of cash who can be bullied, brow beaten and told how evil they are for burning gasoline so they gotta cough up some more dough.

    Tell you what (here we go again… snarky remark coming…) you pay the same exise tax that I pay on my car for your bike, insure yourself to the tune of several grand per year and start paying $15 per quart for the water you consume while riding, $14.75 of which will go to tax….and you can have all the infrastructure you want!

    …..looks like a long week ahead….

    1. I didn’t say I liked the Trapelo redesign, but we can look at the bump outs to see that they don’t cause traffic jams, and the extra lanes are not necessary for traffic flow. The intent of the tree farms, as I understand it, is to enhance safety and speed for car drivers by putting a barrier between oncoming lanes of traffic. The bike lane in the new design is perfunctory and inadequate; for naive cyclists it is actually more dangerous because it mostly overlaps the parked-car door zone. At comment time, we were told that reallocation of space from travel lanes was not an option, though I did ask if the whole road could be shifted six inches in one section to put the skinnier bike lane on the side without the parked cars (this is what made it clear to me that cyclist safety was not a very high priority, else the designers would have gotten this right). I think I may have also asked if the signs could read “Door Lane”, and I seriously think that the bike lane should be painted in a way that indicates that the 3-4 feet adjacent to parking are not safe.

      The bumpouts are not especially safe for cyclists, either, unless they include “shortcuts” for bicycles, so they don’t need to share the single skinny lane with cars. I had not heard of any cyclist killed there, however, though a pedestrian was killed on Trapelo (I think) and that was what motivated the installation of the bumpouts. For many years, the Sycamore-Hawthorne crosswalk was deemed “too dangerous for a crossing guard”, which led some of the local dads to become rather aggressive pedestrians. One guy, NOT ME, threw snowballs at cars that did not stop.

      Do note, bicyclists pay property taxes, and many of us also pay for our cars. But the reason that bicycles don’t pay special extra road taxes is that they don’t wear the road out much at all. A 1-ton subcompact is about as bad for the roads as 128 bicycles; a 4-ton SUV is 64x worse than that (that is, the same damage as 8000 bicycles). And the reason that cyclists don’t have mandatory liability insurance is that they are not that dangerous to other people; US figures suggest that they are 15-30x less likely to kill a pedestrian (this is taking the raw numbers, and derating by a .5 to 1% trip share), and English figures put it at 10-15x. Cyclists are especially unlikely to have big-bad accidents where more than one person is killed or seriously injured; a driver has to carry insurance against that rare but horribly costly possibility.

      (Road wear estimates from Road Work, Brookings Institute; US mortality numbers from; English mortality numbers, I saw them somewhere, but can’t find the link now)

      Since excise taxes are based on the worth of the vehicle, and quite nice bicycles are worth quite a bit less than even a used car, if there were excise taxes on bicycles, they would not be that large.

      I really don’t think you guys are picked on nearly as much as you imagine. Gas taxes are effectively down because of inflation over the years, so you’re better off that way, and we spent most of the last decade fighting a war that was all about control of oil from Iraq, costing about $.70 per gallon of gasoline that we burned during those years, but that tax was never applied. There’s bizarro subsidies for ethanol production that I think helps cut the cost of gasoline; so that’s a cost to taxpayers, plus it appears to drive up food prices, and consumes excess fertilizer and farmland.

      And I must ask — if traffic and parking are such problems, and if you are that bothered by the mandatory insurance, registration, excise taxes, gas taxes, vehicle inspections, etc, etc — why on earth are you not riding a bicycle instead? I hear it’s a sweet deal, what with all the tax dodging. 🙂

  4. LOL!
    Lucky for you I’m waaaay to tired from working to pay my taxes this evening to respond!

    1. I could try to put a positive spin on losing the lane. Figure that if you are on the Longfellow Bridge, you also care about traffic in Boston. It’s not good, neither is parking. The only ways I know to free up road and parking space in Boston are:

      1) Make more. Not likely, there’s no more Boston to work with. Underground is a possibility, but $$$$.
      2) Charge more, to reduce demand. Would work, but not popular.
      3) Provide non-car alternatives.

      Biking is a non-car alternative that doesn’t take up too much space, but people from outside Boston won’t bike IN Boston unless they can get there. The T’s not that bike-friendly (max 2 bikes per car, not rush hour, opposite ends of car). So you’ve got to get your bike across a bridge, and the Longfellow Bridge is not that nice (as I recall). Another choice is to take the T into Boston, then rent a bike, though the rental bikes are tanks. But similarly, you could take the T into Boston, and use ZipCar (I point this out because I am pretty sure you would think of that as an inconvenient hassle compared to the car you already own, which is EXACTLY my point).

      Because you know, if I don’t feel comfortable biking into Boston, I’m likely to drive, and unlike my bike, my car really does take up the whole lane, and a whole parking space.

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