Meeting on the Cambridge Street Overpass

Over 120 people packed the Jackson Mann Community Center in Allston Tuesday night for a public meeting on the reconstruction of the Cambridge Street overpass. This was the second public meeting on the project — the first had taken place on June 17 — although both meetings were scheduled after the project was at 100% design. I attended this meeting because I occasionally bike over the overpass to get from Jamaica Plain to Harvard Square, risking my life in the process.

The organizers appeared to have been caught off-guard by the attendance. Folding chairs were added to accomodate more people. A lack of microphones and speakers meant that each person had to speak loudly to be heard by all.

A packed hall for the meeting on the Cambridge Street Overpass.
A packed hall for the meeting on the Cambridge Street Overpass.

Mark Gravallese, one of the transportation engineers at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (Mass DOT), shared the design with the public. It is a huge improvement from the current configuration. Three car lanes in each direction have been reduced to two. Buffered bicycle lanes have been added where possible. And the sidewalks have been widened.

A few changes had been made since the last meeting (which I did not attend). Bike boxes have been added at a couple of intersections and a pedestrian sidewalk will now remain open on the north side of the overpass throughout construction.

These changes were well-received by the public and many of the commenters thanked Gravallese for listening. Still, the design did not satisfy. Speaker after speaker stood up to demand a pedestrian intersection, lower speed limits, and a physically-separated bicycle lane.

Many of the demands were emotional. A number of pedestrians and bicyclists have been hurt and killed on Cambridge Street in the last few years. In 2007, Kelly Wallace was struck by a car and killed while on her bike. Later that year, a skateboarder was sent to the hospital in critical condition after getting hit on the same street. Less than a month ago, a drunk driver hit two cyclists, once again on the very same Cambridge Street.

Twelve-year-old Barry Brinson was hit and killed by a van on Cambridge Street on May 9. His mother Lisa spoke at the meeting, unsatisfied with the current design. “You guys don’t live here,” she said to the engineers. “We live here. I walk down Cambridge Street every day.”

Scott Matalon, owner of Stingray Body Art at the intersection of Cambridge and Harvard, told of how he has repeatedly watched people die in the area. Recently, a car overshot a turn and hit his building, missing a woman with a baby carriage by a foot.

While well-intentioned, Mass DOT engineers think primarily in terms of cars and standards, not people. Yes, they reduced the number of lanes on the overpass. But the road remains dangerous, as the community noted over and over again.

Eric Herot of Jamaica Plain, who bicycles on the overpass, expressed his frustration with Mass DOT projects: “I feel like it’s up to the pedestrians and bicyclists to come to these meetings and make sure that some of the car privileges are taken away from these bridges.”

The Mass DOT engineers are too removed from the tragedies that repeatedly occur on the street. Pedestrians routinely run across the overpass, as the bridge currently does not have a marked crossing. Rather than put one in or deal with the speeding cars, they want to put a six-foot fence on the bridge median. As one resident said, “If the issue is the safety of the crossing, isn’t the problem that the road is too unsafe?”

Gravallese repeatedly said that “the speed limit is not something you just change.” Maybe, but should not Mass DOT design with such change in mind? Why is there such a large gap between the vision of the engineers and the residents? Why are residents asked to communicate with the Boston Transportation Department about traffic calming changes?

Gravallese gave two reasons for his rejection of a signalized intersection at Linden Street. First, the intersection would not meet MBTCD standards. Second, pedestrian counts taken on the street did not warrant such an intersection. “The overriding factor for non-installation,” he said, “was safety.”

Peter Furth, a professor of transportation engineering at Northeastern University specializing in traffic signals, pointed to the flaws in Gravallese’s reasoning. Furth rejected a median fence. “Fences are for private property, for freeways, and for prisons,” he said. He explained that the MBTCD standard is for developers in suburbs and not meant for existing city streets. The city of Boston probably has 40 traffic lights with spacing that small in denser parts of the city. As for the pedestrian count, Furth rejected as absurd the idea of counting pedestrians at an area not marked for crossing and dangerous to cross, to determine whether a crossing is needed: “You don’t test the demand for a bridge by counting how many people are swimming across the river.”

Furth said that synchronizing the traffic light at Linden Street with the one at Harvard Street will not mess up traffic flow. “Shame on the engineering profession,” he said. “[This design] is a disappointment.” His remarks were met with strong applause.

Paola Ferrer, an Allston resident, asked the engineers to keep all people in mind. She noted that a diverse group was in attendance at this meeting, but that the meeting was still not representative. The people most affected by the infrastructure, who have to cross Cambridge Street at night, are those who are “busing your tables, cleaning your offices.”

Gravallese claimed that communication between the city and DOT is “strong.” Residents disagreed. Chris Ditunno, founder of Allston-Brighton Bikes, has been injured on Cambridge Street as a cyclist and knows people who have died on it. “I used to work for the municipal government,” Ditunno said. “I get jurisdictional challenges. At the end of the day, people are dying on the street and it is your responsibility as public officials to figure out how to work with each other effectively.”

Gravallese claimed that the three-foot buffer between the bicycle lanes and cars travelling at 40-50 mph is “adequate.” Pete Stidman of the Boston Bicycle Union disagreed. Paint is not going to protect cyclists on this street, he said. He demanded physical separation such as movable planters. Gravallese had not heard of these planters and said he would consider them. Brett Miller said, “It’s really disappointing to think that you would spend ten million dollars re-surfacing this major artery and all you’re doing for cyclists is painting a bike lane. That was OK ten years ago but it’s really not OK now.”

In the two hours I spent at the meeting, everyone who spoke did so primarily out of concern for bicyclists and pedestrians. Hopefully, Gravallese and Mass DOT can return with a design that pays more attention to these vulnerable groups.

Mass DOT Powerpoint Presentation for this meeting.
Thoughts from The Walking Bostonian.
Cambridge Street Overpass advocacy group.


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