The Secret Sauce of Kendall Square

How Cambridge Hosted Massive Development While Reducing Traffic

Typical 20th Century commercial developers in America operate with a formula that states one should build about three to four parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of office space. Given that the last decade has seen more than 5 million square feet of office space shoehorned into East Cambridge and Kendall Square, one would have to accommodate parking for nearly 20,000 cars.

With an estimated 17 of the world’s 20 largest biotech and pharmaceutical firms operating in this area, the construction of buildings went full-throttle in the five years. Recognizing this opportunity, city officials put several conditions on developers to bring bikes, pedestrians and transit user on the same plane as cars. The result? The parking ratio was set at just one parking space per thousand square feet of office.

That’s right, just one.

“We’ve been able to lower the parking ratios. It’s been completely confirmed by the market that it’s the right thing to do,” explained Brooke McKenna, Cambridge’s assistant director of street management, noting the cost of building underground parking is as much as $50,000 per space. “Some of the developers lobby to go even lower. They want to maximize the square footage of commercial space.”

The result?  

“The bike parking is full; car parking is not full,” said Patrick Baxter, engineering manager for Cambridge.  

With all of the development under way, city officials worked with the developers and the Department of Public Works to include protected bike lanes and even narrow travel lanes along Binney Street west of Third Street. With much of this done without any public outrage, fanfare or even reaction. This writer discovered this during a morning ride along Binney Street, which also hosts considerable truck traffic. Everything moved calmly.

“Honestly I don’t think people noticed anything had changed,” said Baxter, who worked with DPW to shrink the travel lanes and expand the bike lanes. “We’re talking paint...If it doesn’t work you can move it back.”

He noted the DPW was set to re-stripe regardless. The cost of this re-striping came in at about $4,000.  

Baxter notes that the latest research shows 10-foot travel lanes create the safest situation for local streets.  

He pointed to the Federal Highway Administration’s latest guidelines for achieving multi-modal networks  that stress the efficacy of 10-foot travel lanes. The link to that report is here, with pages 14 and 15 showcasing that research: FHWA Achieving Multi-modal Networks 

The lesson learned? Like a bridge, the construction of a commercial building is a once-in-a-50-year opportunity for communities to work with the developers according to their long term vision for their streetscape vision.

From casinos to colleges to hospitals, development in a city provides cities an opportunity for a long term overhaul. But it depends on that community’s cultural values. But those values - which may have been shaped in 1965 - have to be in line with such change. 

“We don’t value vehicular speed,” said McKenna. “A city or town has to decide that vehicular movement at high speed is not the end game.”

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