By Bob Dizon,
In the next two months, public input will sway and shape the decisions made on the Casey Overpass replacement project so this update is meant to get you motivated to get involved. Your best opportunity is tonight (Tuesday Sept. 13), where four possible alternatives for the Casey’s replacement will be presented at English High School, starting at 6:30pm.
The Boston Cyclists Union worked hard to get me on the Working Advisory Group (WAG) for this project back in April, and I’m representing the Boston Cyclists Union, JP Bikes, and other nearby neighborhood cycling groups. Since then there have been eight WAG meetings and three public meetings.
The four alternatives on the table are essentially variations on two designs, one with a new overpass and one with a roadway at grade level. After months of discussion in the WAG, these designs enable a pretty accurate look at the tradeoffs, so it’s appropriate for the bridge/no-bridge debate to begin. However, there are also some simple changes around the edges of the project cyclists and pedestrians to pay attention to.
A few details and opinions the design alternatives so far
First of all, let me say up front that I’ve become a fan of the at-grade options. It took quite a bit of information, discussion and thought before I arrived at this because I live in JP and care deeply about all aspects of the neighborhood—not just cycling in it— but you should consider my points below and more that come up at tonight’s meeting and decide for yourselves. This is one of the most important changes our neighborhood will face this decade, so please try to make this important meeting.
The socio-economic health of the neighborhood
At the risk of oversimplification, I would say the bridge advocates are very worried about congestion and spillover into the neighborhoods. Some have said they are confident that a new overpass will not discourage the kind of lively street environment that feeds economic development. But at-grade supporters think that even a nicer, lower, shorter bridge will still look and feel like a highway, and that pedestrians and others will stay away from it, as they do now, stalling any real development in the area.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m in the at-grade camp. I’ve been riding around the city looking at parks, neighborhoods and mixed-use districts that are near bridges, and comparing them to those that are near multi-lane intersections similar to what the at-grade option would create here. I cannot seem to find an under-bridge or even a near-bridge environment that has a lively pedestrian and shopping district.
As a cyclist that just traded a long car commute for a reasonable bike commute, I value the efficiency and self sufficiency of local economies where people live, shop, work, and take transit. A livelier business district in Forest Hills would create that. There’s a trend in this country to not replace the oversized bridges that were built in so many urban areas 50 years ago. The team presented numerous comparable highway-removal projects throughout the country (see the Aug. 17 presentation), and its clear that highway removal has either revitalized areas or left them in a better position to attract development.
It’s not surprising that many think that moving the bridge traffic to the surface will not adversely impact drivers. However, the current under-bridge network is overly complicated, and a better-designed simpler interchange may be equal or better in terms of “level of service” (a term used to describe throughput, convenience, and wait times at traffic lights). The team has not presented all the data at this point, mainly because the effort required to get accurate predictions can only be justified if the road designs are fairly mature. However, you can expect some preliminary traffic data at this public meeting and the state’s consultants have said that the bridge and at-grade alternatives handle traffic equally well. According to them, an increase in cut-through traffic is unlikely.
However, to step back a bit from the details of this project, the larger questions about traffic revolve around what volumes we want to design for in the first place. Should we design for current volumes? for projected volumes? for peak rush-hour users only? It should also be noted that, like it or not, the demolition and construction will take time, and many drivers will alter their long-term commuting patterns simply because of the inconveniences caused by construction. Depending on what we design, the roads might be overbuilt for the traffic demand that exists by the time the project is complete.
Both at-grade alternatives feature the so-called “bow-tie” design that moves left turns for east/west bound car traffic away from the main intersections and into u-turns to the far east and west sides of the area (Aug. 17 presentation starting at page 27). Thus, cyclists on the roadway making these lefts would be expected to either use the bow-ties, or make the so called “Copenhagen left”, which is to stay to the right and stop on the far corner, and then wait for the light to turn green to finish the left turn. There is some talk of this restriction only being in place during the peak rush hours. The bridge options both have dedicated left turns and fewer lanes to cross when merging to those left turn lanes (Aug. 17, page 14).
Both options feature off-street bike paths that merge with the pedestrian sidewalks into extra wide crosswalks (Aug. 17 page 78), so the slightly inconvenient left turn would really only be a nuisance for the more experienced cyclists among us who are comfortable riding in heavy traffic. For families and other path users it would likely go unnoticed. It’s also important to note that for all of the designs there are no turn restrictions for cars or bikes when going in the north or south direction at either South/Washington streets, or Washington St./Hyde Park Ave.
No safe riding and walking on the bridge
For the bridge designs, wider shadows have so far trumped bicycle and pedestrian accommodation. Many prefer a narrower bridge to one that cyclists could safely use. And safe access to the bridge would be complicated, requiring the bridge to split at either end (Aug. 31 presentation, page 19) or for its whole length (July 27 presentation, page 8), both of which increase complexity and cost.
Most members of the WAG prefer to accommodate cyclists only within the shoulders of the bridge, with no sidewalk at all. These WAG members, including a few who are also parks people and pedestrian advocates, believe that the surface-level paths and lanes are adequate, and value the reduced shadows. However, bicycle advocate and businessman Jeffrey Ferris is a strong advocate for enabling cyclists to ride on the bridge and strongly prefers at least a split bridge on the west side. The formal Boston Cyclists Union position is that all new road infrastructure must accommodate cyclists and pedestrians equally, because at least some cyclists will certainly use it and their safety should be considered. Thus the union holds that there should be a separated cycletrack or shared side path on the bridge. I agree with this on principle but I’m a bit torn on the application here. I’d rather we had no bridge at all so hopefully the point will be moot.
North/South approaches to Forest Hills
I took a survey of cyclists a few months ago asking what cyclists didn’t like about the area and the biggest complaint was not the bridge, but Washington St. and Hyde Park Ave on either side of the Forest Hills Station. The lack of bike lanes, combined with the general aggressiveness of the buses, taxis, and cars dropping off transit riders is a nightmare, many said. A close second was the intersections with New Washington, which are very wide and have no lane markings, making left turns sketchy.
One might think that a bridge replacement project wouldn’t include improvements to roads that approach the bridge area, but the team has assured us that they are included in the scope. One of our focus areas has been Washington St. on the Roslindale side (near the Asticou neighborhood). One idea proposed for this section is to widen the corridor, allowing for bike lanes and/or shared paths on either side, and additional drop-off areas and taxi stands (Aug. 17, page 41). This would be a huge improvement for cyclists that should attract many more cyclists from the South. However, to widen the corridor, a redesign of that side of the T-station would be required, moving the bus platforms from where they are to further south where there is currently a parking lot. There is some fear from transit advocates that this will impact bus operations in a negative way.
My big fear is that these fantastic Washington St. improvements won’t happen if a bridge option is chosen. The thinking, I believe, is that redesigning the surface streets in conjunction with the bridge should alleviate some of the traffic on Washington. They don’t want us talking about money, but as the designs indicate (only at-grade options show a re-configured Washington St.), it’s likely that the cost of the bridge would preclude these surface improvements.
Regrettably, no similar improvements for the Hyde Park Avenue side are in any of the designs so far.
Shea Circle becomes Shea Square
There is almost unanimous approval for turning the circle nearest Franklin Park into a more conventional intersection with pedestrian and bike paths surrounding it, and bike lanes through it as well (Aug. 17, page 76). It would improve pedestrian and bicycle access, organize traffic better, and open up a fair amount of greenspace. I’m a big believer that whatever great stuff you do in the rest of the corridor is somewhat wasted if you don’t also improve the approaches to the area, so I’m in favor of this as well.
One thing to feel good about is that no matter what design gets chosen, it will be an improvement. It can only get better. The huge swaths of new greenspace that will be created near Forest Hills Station and along the entire stretch in both designs is a very good thing. One thing to not feel so great about is that it will get worse before it gets better — even on the accelerated schedule for this project, this is a huge and messy and will take years! As for the bridge question, in a survey earlier this summer the WAG was evenly split on preference for bridge or at-grade. I have the sense that people are coming around to prefer the at-grade option now that we’re seeing visuals on what the different designs will look like from ground level (also to be shown on Tuesday). However, if you agree (or disagree), you need to speak your mind. The WAG’s job is not to vote on a design, but to advise on the community’s concerns and desires. Input from large quantities of residents is what will influence the ultimate decision the most.
The questions to ask yourself are the questions they’ve been asking us: Ideally, what do you want Forest Hills to be? What activities should happen there? How should it look and feel? What will best serve the local community? What would it take for you to bike through here more, or even better, to stop and look around? Which alternative is most compatible with the development of the multitude of available parcels that has been so slow to develop? How important are those Washington St. and Shea Circle improvements? Think about what you love about JP, and then apply that to your thinking about what’s best.