Comments on the Arlington Improvements to the Minuteman Bikeway

MassDOT and the Town of Arlington are moving ahead with the Arlington Center Safe Travel Project, which would redesign the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue, Pleasant Street, and Mystic Street in Arlington. The aim of the project, which has been in the works since spring 2011, is to develop a connection for the Minuteman Bikeway at this busy and often hectic intersection, while improving safety and mobility for all users but particularly bicyclists and pedestrians.


On April 23, MassDOT held a public hearing for comments on the 25% design. At the hearing, MassBike Executive Director David Watson praised the project's aim to further the mobility and safety of all users of the intersection. In the spirit of discussion and given MassBike's expertise in promoting safe cycling across the Commonwealth, David also offered specific suggestions that would drastically improve the design's functionality. His comments center around the  particular needs of the less experienced, vulnerable bicyclists who frequent the Minuteman Bikeway.

Below is the letter MassBike sent to MassDOT Chief Engineer Thomas Broderick, summarizing David's thoughts on pursuing a design that promotes safety above all while keeping an eye to the convenience of motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians alike.

 

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Subject: Comments on Arlington Intersection Improvements, Project #606885

 

Dear Mr. Broderick:

I am writing both on behalf of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (MassBike) and myself as an Arlington resident. MassBike is the statewide bicyclist advocacy group, promoting a bicycle-friendly environment and encouraging bicycling for fun, fitness and transportation. This letter summarizes the comments I made at the public hearing on April 23, 2013.

First, I would like to thank MassDOT and the Town of Arlington for pursuing this project to improve this extraordinarily busy and complicated intersection. Everyone who has observed the operation of this intersection knows that it presents significant safety and mobility issues for all users - motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians alike, but most especially users of the Minuteman Bikeway. Both MassDOT and Arlington have demonstrated their ongoing support for biking and walking.

The proposed design includes 5-foot bikes lanes adjacent to 7-foot parking lanes on both sides of Massachusetts Avenue, a signalized bicycle crossing at Swan Place, and extension of the bikeway through Uncle Sam Park adjacent to the sidewalk. All of these improvements are within acceptable design standards, but my concern is that they do not go far enough to significantly improve bicyclist safety and mobility.

People riding bicycles on the Minuteman Bikeway have already made the important choice that they do not want to ride in the roadway with traffic. While some ride the Minuteman for convenience (e.g., to access Alewife Station), many more use it because they do not feel safe or comfortable riding in traffic. The Minuteman is a destination unto itself, one of the most-used rail trails in the United States, even drawing people who drive to Arlington or the other communities along the path for the sole purpose of riding their bikes on the Minuteman. It is a popular destination for families bicycling with their children, often very young children just learning how to ride. All of these people have chosen not to ride on the road, yet these are the very people the proposed design directs into on-road bicycle facilities that meet only the bare minimum standards for the safety of even experienced bicyclists.

In order to attract bicyclists on the Minuteman to use the new facilities, they must both very safe and very convenient. The proposed design is neither, requiring bicyclists to ride in traffic and make two-stage crossings.

While minimum-width facilities are certainly acceptable from a design perspective, particularly in constrained spaces, and adequately serve bicyclists who have chosen to ride in the roadway, such facilities do not adequately serve bicyclists who do not want to ride in traffic. These are the least experienced, most vulnerable bicyclists. Yet the proposed design would have them cross busy streets, enter the traffic flow, and ride in minimum-width bike lanes adjacent to parking where they are at risk for being doored.

When working to enhance the safety and mobility of all users in constrained space, it is essential to find the right balance between the safety and needs of all user groups. As currently proposed, the design does not find that balance. Instead, it squeezes all roadway dimensions down to bare minimums in order to shoehorn bike lanes without impacting motor vehicle capacity or parking at all. That is not balance - that is continuing the historic prioritization of motor vehicles over all other users, with bicyclists and pedestrians left on the margins. This is inconsistent with the context-sensitive approach of the MassDOT Project Development and Design Guide, with Complete Streets requirements of the Healthy Transportation Compact, with current federal policy on bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and with the Mode Shift goals of the GreenDOT policy.

While minimum bicycle facilities are acceptable in many contexts, here, in the unique situation created by the discontinuous Minuteman Bikeway, more is required to actually meet the project's safety and mobility goals. During the design process, alternatives were discussed that would have provided for greater separation from traffic for bicyclists making the Minuteman connection. Among these alternatives were a two-way cycletrack on the south side of Massachusetts Avenue and a "cross bike" or diagonal crossing through the Route 60 intersection, which together would create an almost continuous protected connection between the two sections of the bikeway. I urge MassDOT and the Town to reexamine these and other concepts to provide greater protection for bicyclists.

The primary reason that more-protected bicycle facilities cannot fit in the current design is the retention of on-street parking between Swan Place and Route 60. I completely understand the concerns of the business community and nearby residents about these parking spaces. But we are weighing the convenience of motorists against the safety of bicyclists, and it seems clear that known, significant safety concerns outweigh a handful of parking spaces in this context. With the extra seven feet available if those spaces are removed, many better options for bicyclists become possible, such as the two-cycletrack, buffered bike lanes, or simply wider bike lanes.

I also appreciate the safety concerns and complexity of the cross bike idea. But there is a strong desire line for bicyclists (and pedestrians) to make this movement, and many people do so today during the left turn signal phase from Route 60 to Massachusetts Avenue. The proposed design does nothing to protect or legitimize this movement, instead continuing the current situation requiring bicyclists to cross twice, in two signal phases, to make the Minuteman connection or simply continue onto Massachusetts Avenue. This inherently creates conflicts between bicyclists and pedestrians in the crosswalks, and those conflicts need to be addressed, perhaps with separate bicycle and pedestrians zones at the crossings, regardless of whether a cross bike is implemented.

I support MassDOT and Arlington in their efforts to make this difficult intersection safer for everyone, but I think we need to do better for bicyclists than the proposed design. Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this project, and I look forward to working with the project team to meet the project goals.

 

Very truly yours,

David Watson
Executive Director
MassBike

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