The Long View Of The Longfellow Bridge

MassDOT recently released the long-awaited Environmental Assessment for the Longfellow Bridge reconstruction project, which reveals the design MassDOT has chosen for the bridge. To its credit, MassDOT clearly listened to much of the input from the Longfellow Bridge Task Force (on which I served):

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As seen above, the outbound (Boston-to-Cambridge) side of the bridge as proposed will be truly multimodal, with a single travel lane for motor vehicles, a wide buffered bike lane, and a wide sidewalk. While we can (and will) push to further narrow the remaining travel lane to provide even more space for bicyclists and pedestrians - and to slow down the traffic that speeds over the bridge - MassDOT has the right idea for the outbound side.

Throughout the process, the design for the inbound side has been the focus of discussion and disagreement. The alternative chosen by MassDOT does not represent an improvement over current conditions for bicyclists; at most, the bike lane is six inches wider than the current shoulder/bike lane. So bicyclists who are not comfortable riding across the bridge today will not feel any safer riding across the reconstructed bridge. And the sidewalk, while wider than what exists today, is still narrow - too narrow to be comfortably shared by pedestrians, wheelchairs, strollers, and the inevitable less-confident bicyclists drawn by the wider-but-still-inadequate sidewalk.

Another option proposed by the Task Force would configure the inbound side much like the outbound side: wide sidewalk, wide buffered bike lane, and a single travel lane (see below). While there is disagreement over whether this configuration would provide an acceptable level of service for cars, one thing is certain: the decision we make now will determine whether or not we will ever be able to realize the Task Force's vision of maximized space for bicyclists and pedestrians, if and when future traffic volumes support doing so.

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At the recent public hearing on the Longfellow Bridge reconstruction project, MassBike joined with other advocates to speak out in support of this longer-term vision for the bridge. Click here for our full joint statement.

There are tradeoffs for bicyclists and pedestrians in these design choices. The MassDOT plan would mean losing the opportunity for a wider sidewalk until the next time the bridge is rebuilt (50-75 years), because the crash barrier cannot easily be moved once built. Faster cyclists would be in the same narrow bike lane we have today, while slower, less confident cyclists would probably be jockeying for space on a narrow sidewalk (if they felt safe enough to use the bridge at all). On the other hand, the advocates' plan would move the crash barrier inward, creating a much wider space for bicyclists and pedestrians to share on the sidewalk, but eliminating the on-street bike lane. Neither proposed solution is optimal from either the bicyclist or pedestrian perspective.

Advocates for bicyclists, pedestrians, transit, the disabled, and the Charles River parkland all agree that the longer-term vision is the one we want and this is the only way to preserve that option. In the short-term, less confident bicyclists will feel more protected being physically separated from cars, and many more people may choose to bike over the bridge to Boston or the Esplanade. Some may view it as bikers and walkers sacrificing separate space for the possibility of a better deal in the future, but I don't see it as a sacrifice. Instead of separate but inadequate space for bicyclists and pedestrians, we'll get a much wider more flexible space that will be safer and more inviting for more people. It can work, and is already working on bridges elsewhere, like the busy Hawthorne Bridge in Portland, Oregon.

So let's thank MassDOT for demonstrating some real multimodal thinking on this project, and push them to think just a little further into the future we all want to see.

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