The following view of the Mass. Ave. Corridor project written by Aram Hollman was first published Jan. 29 on the Arlington email list. It was titled "Mass. Ave.: A Contrarian View" and an edited version is republished with the author's permission. Hollman participated in various committees and municipal processes in Cambridge and Arlington that dealt with complex community problems, including asbestos contamination, real estate development, zoning, sewage and flooding, and traffic and transportation.
The Mass. Ave. debate now occurs on two levels, the merits of the proposal and the process used to develop it. The latest charge, that the town and the state colluded, deals with the process. The ballot question is an issue of both process and merit. I will comment first on process, then on merit.
I do not know that the town and state colluded, but I find it quite plausible. Years ago, I went to some of the initial meetings on Mass. Ave. I found the “public input” process similar to an earlier one in which I became intensively involved, the permitting of the Mirak (a.k.a. “Legacy”) housing project in Arlington Center.
In the Mirak project, the Arlington Redevelopment Board (ARB) created the necessary facade of “public input”, but ignored public concerns and negotiated critical aspects of the project privately with the developer. The ARB approved some aspects of the project despite massive, sometimes unanimous public opposition. After the project was approved, the ARB met with the developer *privately* and approved additional, significant project changes to *without* any opportunity for public review.
I attended the initial Mass. Ave. meetings and found a similar tone and process. The concerns of residents “invited” to the meeting were dutifully recorded, creating a facade of public input. My perception was that the town (I do not remember precisely which department) would selectively attend to or ignore public concerns. That was confirmed when, over multiple meetings, people complained that notes summarizing the previous meeting omitted previously stated public concerns and that those concerns were not being addressed. Members of the town department running these meetings challenged residents as to the reasonableness of their concerns, recorded them in a manner which diminished their significance, or did not record them at all.
Since the Mass. Ave. process imitated the Mirak process, I stopped attending. I find merit to the charge that the Mass. Ave. process had only the facade of public input (as Selectman Greeley has noted over 30 public meetings), not the reality, and that the town and the state colluded to ignore significant resident opposition to some aspects of the plan during multiple state design reviews.
However, finding merit to this charge and proving that it occurred are not the same. Thus I hope that there will be an inquiry of the type that the East Arlington Concerned Citizens Committee (EACCC) has requested.
I also think that EACCC should make its lengthy (17 pages) request letter public, which it has thus far refused to do. It diminishes EACCC’s credibility to request an inquiry into a lack of government transparency when its own request is so opaque.
Some opposition to the Mass. Ave. project is entirely irrational. Some is rational but lacks merit. Opposition created an unqualified, one-issue candidate (Mario Romano). And some who oppose it have been labeled cranks. Regardless of actual fact or merit, the widespread perception that the process has been stacked justifies the upcoming ballot question and EACCC's requested inquiry.
Regarding the project’s merits:
I’m an experienced urban cyclist (I spent years cycling to work in downtown Boston via Porter, Inman and Kendall Squares), and understand the hazards. Nevertheless, I find a bike lane on this 1-mile stretch of Mass. Ave. to be a waste of limited road space, a device which gives cyclists a false sense of security, and confusing for *all* road users in that it’s intermittent, lasting only a mile and then vanishing. (The proximity of the bike path is entirely irrelevant here.)
Daily cyclist trips number fewer than one-tenth the number of daily car trips. Nothing physically prevents cars from using bike lanes; indeed cars *must* use them to enter or leave parking spaces. Reallocating road space where bike lanes start or end is confuses all road users and thus endangers cyclists.
I also find the proposed bike lane a distraction from other issues. Among the many stakeholders involved, the interests of pedestrians have been ignored in the catfight among drivers, cyclists, business interests (parking for customers), and town planners (creating “vibrant urban streetscapes”). I refer to the decision *not* to create a raised median, with a high curb, down the middle of Mass. Ave., as has been done in Cambridge. I understand that creating one would create public safety tradeoffs (e.g. harder for emergency vehicles to use the wrong side or make U-turns, harder to clear snow). But slightly raised and painted traffic islands (as opposed to a median with a real curb) are a sop. They create an even falser sense of security for pedestrians than do bike lanes for cyclists. *Nothing* physically prevents a vehicle from plowing into pedestrians in such a median. And unlike cyclists, pedestrians have nowhere else to go.
The issue of four lanes or fewer, to be dealt with by the ballot question, is a matter on which people can disagree. Among the arguments for reducing lanes is that crossing multiple lanes is more dangerous for pedestrians than crossing single lanes. That is true. But Mass. Ave. is the “spine” of Arlington. The solution is not to reduce the number of lanes, but to make crossing safer -- by adding traffic lights, by creating a raised median with a curb in the middle of the road, and by better enforcement of existing laws for all road users.
Finally, the lack of two striped lanes is ambiguous, and thus dangerous for all road users. Yes, we lack the width for 2 standard-width striped lanes. But, Mass. Ave. inbound will continue to be two lanes (and Mass. Ave. outbound *should* continue to be two lanes). The purpose of these standards is to enhance public safety. All rules (should) have exceptions. In the case of Mass. Ave., an exception is warranted; two striped lanes of less-than-standard width would be reasonable. It would reduce frequent, abrupt lane swapping that now occurs. Painting striped lanes solid near pedestrian crosswalks would make such lane swapping illegal and would probably reduce the chance that a driver who is passing a stopped car in the adjacent lane hits a pedestrian.
In my opinion, the most reasonable use of Mass. Ave. from Alewife to Lake Street would be like from Alewife to Harvard Square, one parking lane and two travel lanes in both directions, separated by a raised, curbed median for pedestrians. Rely on the median and on traffic lights, not reduced lanes, to slow traffic.
No solution will be perfect. Some stakeholders may have to lose something they now have. Perhaps some left turns out of side streets onto Mass. Ave. may become unsafe, and have to be prohibited, such that residents of those streets have to travel to an adjacent side street. Or vice versa, from Mass. Ave. onto side streets.
Along with more and safer pedestrian crosswalks on Mass. Ave., we need better law enforcement against jaywalkers who cross where they please. "Scofflaw cyclist" will have to stop being a redundancy. And it’s time for draconian moving violation fines on motorists who break the law; they pose the biggest risk to others.
Not only is the “vibrant urban streetscape” desired by Arlington town planners easily expendable, we already have it. There is no point taking road space from *any* group of road users. Arlington is densely populated. East Arlington business customers come by foot, bike, bus and car; the biggest constraint on further business is lack of parking. A few more benches would be nice, but not at the expense of taking away road space.
Mass. Ave. is Arlington’s spine. The portion from Lake St. to Alewife Brook Parkway is heavily used, as it connects to Rt. 2 and to Cambridge. For whatever historical reason - center streetcar or otherwise - it is unusually wide, enough to create a pedestrian danger. The solution is not to shrink it, leaving drivers to fume along with their cars, but to utilize it as efficiently as possible and make it safe for pedestrian by building a raised center median. Stripe the lanes and let cyclists ride with the traffic, occupying one lane and allowing vehicles to pass on their left.
This viewpoint was published Thuersday, Jan. 31, 2013.