Mass. Ave observations

On Wednesday the Livable Streets Advisory Committee held its first field trip with a two mile walk down Massachusetts Avenue from Hynes to the Dorchester Brewing Company near Edward Everett Square. Here are some observations of that walk:

  • The blocks are very long. At virtually all the stretches of Massachusetts Avenue people were trying to cross in the middle of the block. It’s strongest at Hynes and the Susan Bailis Assisted Living Community.
  • Pedestrian activity drops off past Boylston Street and ends almost completely acrtoss from the Mary Baker Eddy Library and Christian Science Plaza. It picks up again around the Massachusetts Avenue Orange Line Station, but drops off after that until Methadone Mile. This is despite the arcade across from Christian Science Plaza having ample space for pedestrians and active storefronts.
  • Starting around the Massachusetts Avenue Station, the streets begins to feel more like a stroad or highway. The street gets wider, the sidewalks get narrower, the blocks get longer, street trees disappear and street signs get bigger and move up from the side of the street to the traffic light gantries — so they can be seen at higher speeds.
  • Crossing and cycle times for pedestrian signals varey wildly across the route. Sometimes the times are adequate and sometimes you get 15 seconds or so to cross five lanes with traffic turning. A leading pedestrian interval would be very helpful.
  • Chester Square is very sad. It’s like a garden square in Belgravia, but a highway has been run through it. Not only that, but the street was widended and sidewalks narrowed as recently as 2012, leaving a median with dying shrubs — no one could tell if they were dying from the drought or exhaust fumes. It should be restored.
  • Bicycle facilities are atrocious the whole way. People double park in bike lanes, the paint indicating lanes is worn to nothing and the lanes are sometimes only a foot wide. They end entirely at the Boston Medical Center. Access to the Southwest Corridor Park is also poorly signed and difficult — and with the poor facilities on Mass Ave, a massive opportunity is being missed to provide cyclists convenient and safe access to jobs and businesses in the Back Bay and South End.
  • Past the Boston Medical Center one feels as though one were descending the circles of Hell. The human misery of Methadone Mile, the wreakage of 1950s highway policy where Mass Ave meets Melnea Cass Blvd, Southampton Street and the Mass Ave Connector and lastlty, the end of all pretence of pedestrian accomodations in Newmarket. This is problematic, not only because people who work in Newmarket should be able to get there by transit, walking and cycling, but also because there are residential buildings on the side streets. There’s a brand new tot lot right across from Newmarket Station, which felt very incongruous.
  • There’s a lot of bunching of the 1 bus. Nothing new there, but it’s fairly consistant. Transit signal priority would be a big help.
  • The lack of trees and the stroad-like design of much of ther street make the walk from Hynes feel longer than it actually is.
  • Melnea Cass is the saddest part. Originally slated to be part of the Inner Belt, the state tore down hundreds, if not thousands, of homes and businesses and replaced them with a surface highway with wide lanes and sweeping, high speed curves.

Roxbury 1931

Roxbury in 1931, showing the alignment of Merlnea Cass Blvd and Madison Park.

Roxbury post 695

Roxbury after the takings and clearances for the Inner Belt.

Melnea Cass Blvd has a 155 foot right of way and carries no buses. Essentially all it does is make it possible for drivers to go very fast on their way to the Interstate. A much better use would be to narrow it to 55 feet and have one lane in each direction with parking on one side and a protected bike lane on the other and sell or lease what’s left to developers and community development corporations to build housing.


One thought on “Mass. Ave observations

  1. Excellent observations. There are so many things on Mass Ave that were done not that long ago that really leave me scratching my head. The Mass Ave South End reconstruction project made the street look a bit nicer, but from a usability perspective, it had so many failures:
    * Sidewalks were narrowed along the entire corridor.
    * Bike lanes were added, but at the bare minimum widths, and not even for the entire length.
    * Apex curb ramps were used, despite being against City of Boston policy. Instead of having a curb ramp in each direction (two per corner) lining up with the pedestrian desire line, a single ramp per corner was used, making pedestrians zig-zag to cross the street. It also resulted in the crosswalks being directly in conflict with the bike lanes.
    * Permissive left turns were allowed at all intersections, meaning that drivers are allowed to cross two lanes of oncoming traffic plus a bike lane plus pedestrians legally crossing provided there is a gap for them to do so. (There often isn’t a gap, but drivers try to do it anyway.)
    * Medians were installed at the request of the community, who wanted beautiful trees and plantings similar to Comm Ave. What they ended up getting were very narrow medians that for the most part can’t support any plantings. They instead just eat up space that could have been used for wider sidewalks and/or wider bike lanes, and create a speedway effect where drivers can go fast since there is no friction with oncoming traffic.
    * Bike lanes on Columbus Ave across Mass Ave were replaced with additional traffic lanes.

    Why the City spent millions of dollars on a project that got so much wrong, I have no idea. What could have been such an opportunity to make a more people-oriented street ended up doing the exact opposite. (An important lesson: Designing a pleasant street is more the just putting in brick sidewalks and “historic” light fixtures.)

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