Mount Auburn Project Update

This post is jointly authored by Senator Pat Jehlen, Representative Jon Hecht, Representative David Rogers and me.

Relief for bus commuters and other users of Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge may be on its way. A consulting report studying the corridor between the Belmont/Watertown line and Mount Auburn Hospital has proposed creation of a dedicated bus lane as well as a number of other changes to ease traffic bottlenecks, enhance bike and pedestrian safety, and benefit abutting neighborhoods.

Three years ago, we convened a meeting of state and municipal engineers to discuss streamlining traffic flow and improving safety at the huge intersection of Mount Auburn and Fresh Pond Parkway. It was an exciting meeting because everyone had ideas for possible improvements.

After a lot of legislative effort to put funding in place for some real analysis, the Department of Conservation and Recreation issued a request for proposals and selected a consultant to conduct the review.

Last May, the chosen firm, Howard Stein Hudson, began a process of community consultation. From the beginning, they recognized that there are many stakeholders — drivers, bus riders, cyclists, pedestrians, local merchants, schools and institutions, and residents of several abutting neighborhoods.

After many community meetings and a lot of data collection and modeling, the consultants presented conceptual recommendations at a community meeting last week.

One of the more innovative recommendations is to create a dedicated bus lane along parts of Mount Auburn Street eastbound near Mount Auburn Cemetery. They estimate this would save an average of over 2 minutes per inbound bus trip at the AM peak (even more when conditions are highly congested). By shortening the round trip time for buses, the changes would also permit more frequent service and reduce bus bunching.

At the same time, they recommend a number of changes to the light timing along the corridor that they believe would help drivers as well, so that drivers on Mount Auburn would, net of all changes, see only a few seconds per trip loss as a result of the dedicated lane.

They would tighten up the foot print of the huge primary intersection at Fresh Pond Parkway. This will allow quicker light cycles there — currently, because the intersection is so wide, the light cycle has to include extra yellow and dead time to allow vehicles to clear the intersection. It would also greatly enhance safety for cyclists and pedestrians. They are also working on measures to reduce speeding and other dangerous conditions on Fresh Pond Parkway up to Huron Avenue.

The proposal will continue to be fine-tuned to respond to community concerns. For example, residents of the Strawberry Hill neighborhood (in Cambridge West of Star Market) identified an set of concerns at the recent meeting as to how it might affect their ability to exit their tight neighborhood. Merchants have also raised concerns about parking in that area.

The next steps in vetting include doing more detailed design work and also field testing some of the ideas. There are a set of short-run measures that could be implemented using light-timing, road paint and traffic markers at the main intersection. Essentially, DCR could tighten up that intersection and create the bus priority lane just in that area and make signal adjustments to support those changes.

This would yield some of the intended improvement in bus throughput and would allow confirmation that there would be only minimal throughput loss for Route 2 commuters and vehicular Mount Auburn users.

We are very grateful to DCR for moving this project forward. They have facilitated a very creative design process and are clearly committed to assuring that all stakeholders have a voice in the possible changes. We are also grateful to the City of Cambridge and the towns of Belmont and Watertown for their constructive and necessary partnership in the process.

We look forward to doing everything we can to support continued forward progress on this important project.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

35 replies on “Mount Auburn Project Update”

  1. Glad you are looking into this. That intersection has been a disgrace for decades.

    I do wonder about the wisdom of a dedicated bus lane.

    That lane would be empty when a bus is not in it? That would force traffic into other lanes and slow down automobile traffic, would it not?

    I am against bike lanes there, or just about anywhere. Bikes are a menace to cars and pedestrians. Sorry, but they are. I know they cut down on carbon footprints but they’re a menace. Let the bikers walk their bikes in that area.

    1. For cyclist and pedestrian safety, only separate cycle tracks work.

      But I don’t understand how bikes are a menace to cars.

    2. Dee’s comment is important. There is limited width on these roadways, so if one lane each way is for buses, what is the impact on other vehicles. You mentioned a 2 minute improvement in bus transit times during rush hour. Is there a corresponding estimate for the impact on car traffic? What is the change in the number of non-bus vehicles that would be able to clear the intersection per light cycle?

    3. Dee/Doug,

      Yes, absolutely — the analysis extends to the impact on automobile traffic that is excluded from the bus lane.

      The finding is that, as a result of all the other improvements, the net impact for motorists would be 10 or 20 seconds.

      For sure, that is something that needs to verifed, preferably with some low cost field experimentation in a first phase.

  2. Bus lane sounds like a great idea. As bicycle rider and driver also appreciate narrowing of this wide, ambiguous intersection

  3. As a regular 73 commuter I am really excited about the possibilities outlined here. I also appreciate what description of that crazy intersection as ambiguous. I understand it after living here for 25 years. But introducing unfamiliar people to it – and god forbid describing it from afar are nightmareish. I also know people who have followed GPS directions there and ended up in the wrong place because the right direction seeeme so unlikely to be correct to the driver.

    And I want to say THANK YOU to all of you legislators who have been working so many angles of this thorny question!!

  4. Thank you to all of the State Legislators and the DCR that are working on this. The intersection of Mt. Auburn St. and Fresh Pond Pkwy is indeed both very dangerous and very aggravating. A friend of ours named Glen was severely injured in a motor cycle accident in this intersection 21 years ago and we have referred to it as “Glen’s Memorial Intersection” ever since.

  5. That intersection needs an overhaul my only concern would be that any plans also take into account changes on the rest of Mt Auburn street in Watertown. This may be put down to 1 lane so that data should include the impacts on Buses/Cars/Pedestrians and bikes to make a fully informed decision.

  6. i would like to be involved in follow up with Strawberry Hill/West Cambridge residents, particularly related to Cushing St and beyond

  7. Shocked at how timid the proposal is. What the intersection needs is an overpass carrying Fresh Pond. The topography seems to make it easy, with Fresh Pond already elevated over Mt Auburn and extra space available in that ridiculous park.

    1. That idea has come up. Not an easy sell to the neighborhood! And not obviously cost-justified — it could end up as a very big dig. There is not a lot of room for access ramps.

      Let’s start a little smaller: There is room for huge improvement without a huge project.

  8. Timing light signals to a certain speed would help the flow of vehicles (not buses, however). Once I vehicle leaves any light and travels that speed, it should not have to stop for a good long stretch. It worked for a 10 mile stretch of RT15/5 in Conn. back in the 50’s with no computer help. This could also be done on long stretches, eg, Arsenal St., Watertown St., etc.
    Also – Buses should make one stop–at a light, not have to stop at a light and stop again after passing the light to board passengers. Two stops slows the flow, wears brakes, consumes fuel and adds to polution.

  9. These are brilliant solutions to longstanding problems. I hope a dedicated bike lane is also somehow included. This corridor is so unsafe for bike riders that they are virtually obliged to ride the sidewalks. Thank you so much Will,

    1. Will,

      Thank YOU and your compadres for the work done thus far. How exciting that there is the possibility of more efficient T busing and road use along this particular area. I second Deb Theodore’s comment about sidewalks and bike lanes. Are walking and cycling paths included in the study? This would be my most pressing area of concern as someone who lives in the effected area.

  10. Wow! This is effectively a 10% increase in bus capacity — if each additional bus trip takes, say, 50 cars off the road at rush hour, this is a huge win for ALL users.

    The bike and pedestrian infrastructure looks to make some of the scariest spots in town safe and even pleasant to ride and walk; when this is completed, we may see people on casual errands outnumbering the lycra warriors. And even more cars off the roads.

    Plus greenspace and pleasant, carbon-sequestering trees.

        1. Yes –I was estimating: 2 minutes faster per trip on a 20-to-25 minute trip is about a 10% gain. However, I forgot the gain is only on the with-the-rush trip, so as you say, 5% savings per round trip, not 10%.

          On the other hand, I may be underestimating the capacity of a really full bus; couldn’t find figures for that, so guestimated conservatively while riding a not-very-full 73 bus.

  11. Thank you for your work on this. One more suggestion: with no offense meant to BB&N: the use of 1 lane for their buses makes westbound traffic back up which in turn backs up the left turners onto Soldiers Field. Please make some other arrangements for these buses. I want the kids to be able to safely access the buses but hundreds of cars idling as the attempt to change lanes to negotiate the split is bad for air pollution, results in fender benders or worse as well as general stress all round.
    Thank you.

  12. I live on Cushing st and return from work each day driving Mt Auburn past Star market and turn onto Hollworthy.
    I am concerned about how to make turns into Star and onto Hollworthy.
    Also, will the bus lanes be usable by drivers when no busses are in sight?

    1. Got it.

      The concerns of the Strawberry Hill area are very much on the radar screen now and will be addressed.

      Not sure how the bus lanes will work when buses are not present, but they don’t work if they aren’t clear. For sure though, we have to prove that cars are not going to see a big degradation in travel time.

      There is much more planning and evaluation work to be done.

  13. Would this dedicated bus lane include the other idea I’ve heard, that of some sort of signal generated by the buses to tell traffic lights to let them through on approach?

  14. This is a great start. Now, can someone tell the MBTA that there has been a population surge in Watertown and more 71 buses are needed in rush hour?

    Eager to hear more about local commuter services to tie into MBTA. I believe there is discussion of Pleasant St and Arsenal Street shuttles to relieve congestion on those corridors and tie into the #71?

    I applaud current cyclists but that is not the priority, IMHO. As we age, fewer people can viably commute by bike. We must focus on bus, T and van shuttles to tie into both.

    1. Thanks, Jean.

      Getting more buses is very hard — it’s not like the T has extra buses, much less extra drivers. Every day at rush hour, they have all hands on deck.

      More buses have to come from some place else and that means that there are voices who will clamor against a shift in resources.

      But I am a perennial advocate for more resources for the T.

      Also, the Watertown City Council is giving the issue a lot of attention and I hope to support their efforts in every possible way.They are working hard on Transit Demand Management (which can mean shuttles) as well making the case for more service.

      1. Hi, there. Will is right that while cyclists are getting plenty of attention lately, we’re working on TDM and that includes public shuttles while we wait for the MBTA to react to what is happening in Watertown. The proposed first routes for the town shuttle program are,
        1. Pleasant Street to Watertown Square;
        2. Arsenal Street to Coolidge Ave to Harvard Square to Soldiers Field Road and back down Arsenal to Watertown Square.

        The town is working with the developers who have already committed to this project and an MOU is forthcoming for their membership in the Watertown Transportation Management Association (TMA) which will govern this service that will be open to the public. We expect it to hit the road in next 6 months after more than a year of planning already.

        As for a wider approach to TDM, that, too, is on the horizon. An ordinance and regulations have passed through committee and will come before the council in the next month we hope. This is an effort to count SOV tips generated by certain sites and monitor commitments to reduce those numbers and levy penalties for non-attainment. The Watertown Public Transit Task Force (WPTTF) has been instrumental in pushing this forward and the ordinance goal is to reduce the town-wide SOV mode-share from the census down by 20%.

        Naturally, we are also working with the T. Several proposed efficiencies will be under discussion when representatives come to Watertown on March 29th. Transit advocates, please join us. Here’s the agenda:
        http://ma-watertown2.civicplus.com/DocumentCenter/View/21486

        The Arsenal Corridor MassDOT study will also soon be making public some data-based analyses about the need for more service on the 70/70A route and possibly a BRT line to Boston via North Beacon Street. Separately, the planning for the Mt. Auburn Street reconstruction project will undoubtedly include transit signal prioritization wherever possible. All of this is not to say that we haven’t lost site of the need for more buses and having Will and Jon advocating for that all the time is something we all appreciate deeply.

  15. My wife reports that 73 service has recently become less frequent, occasioning large crowds in the Harvard tunnel. She also finds the ride often takes more time than in the past, and wonders if drivers are recent trainees who tend to proceed timidly. Has anyone else noticed these slowdowns?

  16. Why are there so many bus 73 and not enough 71? I wait and see 3 to 5 to 7 bus 73 last night at Harvard. I waited a long time for 71 and it was filled and had to wait for another. 2-14-17 from 7pm tto 7:30 pm. There are never enough 71 buses. 73 buses are empty sometimes. I ttravel from Watertown almost every day. YThis is the norm. Senator Brownsberger, iis there anything you can do about this?

    1. Hi Paula,

      The buses are balanced.

      The problem is bus bunching (not necessarily all together but not properly spaced). Bus bunching happens on both routes due to traffic congestion.

      So, if you miss the bunch, then you sit and watch the bunch from the other route go by and you think that all the buses are on the other route. But it looks the same to riders on the other route if they miss their bunch.

      Make sense?

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