Monday, March 4, 2013

Against the proposed widening of Melnea Cass Boulevard

The Friends and Neighbors of Melnea Cass Boulevard have put out an excellent op-ed piece: Widening Melnea Cass a bad idea.
As concerned members of Friends and Neighbors of Melnea Cass Boulevard, we write to highlight an urgent situation that many Roxbury residents may not be aware of. On Wednesday March 6, 2013 [at the Boston Water & Sewer Headquarters] an important public meeting will be held by the Boston Transportation Department to discuss its plan to widen Melnea Cass Boulevard (MCB), an ill-conceived project that will be detrimental to Lower Roxbury. The project would widen MCB by about 40 feet to add bus lanes, providing little public benefit because there are currently no plans to augment existing MBTA bus routes. The proposed project is at best a knee-jerk response to the availability of federal monies designated for such planning, which might be withdrawn if not used in the near future.
A little history: the land through which MCB now runs was once a neighborhood, but it was bulldozed and cleared as part of "urban renewal" and in preparation for the never-built Inner Belt expressway.

Comparison of the urban fabric in 1955 and the desolation found in 1995 (thanks to HistoricAerials)
The Inner Belt was stopped, but not in time to save this portion of Roxbury. Since then, for whatever reason, the land has lain underused. You can see in the pictures that a crosstown boulevard was established where none was before. The land around this boulevard is largely vacant or some sort of truck or car parking lot. For an area which is just over 2 miles away from downtown Boston, this seems strange and unnatural. The nearby Dudley Square has also suffered since the Orange Line was relocated to the Southwest Corridor about half a mile west. The question weighing on everyone is: what can be done about this situation?

Here are BTD's primary talking points for this project:
Transportation should work well for all modes:
  • Safe, efficient, calmed traffic
  • Lower speeds
  • Good bicycle and pedestrian connections
  • Effective transit
And one of the proposed cross-sectional designs:
And here's a sample of a proposed intersection:
I'm having a great deal of trouble reconciling these pictures with the notion of "safe, efficient, calmed traffic", "lower speeds" and "good pedestrian connections."

You're looking at 7 lanes of traffic just to get across the street. That's on the order of 80 feet of pavement. If you want to know how that will feel, just go to the corner of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Tremont Street currently. MCB widens out to about 77 feet at this point, and to make matters worse, Tremont is also really wide. It's not pleasant to be a pedestrian there. This plan looks a lot like Commonwealth Avenue just east of the Mass Pike bridge. That was rebuilt not too long ago. It used to be even more dangerous. It's been improved, but it's still pretty nasty. And that's with a much wider transit reservation.

Also, just in case you didn't have enough pavement, there's actually 9 lanes with parking. Those sidewalks are looking awfully tiny. Unfortunately, tiny sidewalks are a widespread problem in Boston, but why perpetuate that on what is supposed to be a "Complete Streets" design?

Where did those tall buildings come from in the rendering? Always fun to see what the artists imagine. But let's think about it. Suppose that kind of investment was attracted and allowed to flourish along MCB? What are the possibilities?

  1. Large parking lots are built under, around or behind those buildings; as current zoning dictates. The street environment stays car-oriented. Therefore everyone drives, all lanes of traffic are jammed, and the bus ridership is anemic. Nobody is happy, but drivers stare hungrily at those bus lanes and commence the "empty lanes attack" through political channels. Eventually, the bus lanes get turned over to general traffic, just like so many trolley lanes before them. The greenspaces become neglected and dangerous.
  2. A thriving transit-oriented development corridor is created. The bus lines function smoothly and efficiently so people use them and don't feel the need to use their car for every trip. Heck, suppose it even gets used for the Urban Ring! But still plenty of traffic is attracted to those lanes. Either they're uncongested and traffic flows at dangerously high speeds, or enough through-traffic is induced to jam them anyway. Either way, the majority of people making use of the corridor are on foot and yet they are squeezed into a small amount of the space, and put at risk.
BTD's plan is to take the existing 120' right-of-way and re-arrange it in such a way that it adds an extra 24' of pavement in the center for the bus lanes. This implies shifting the north side of the road further north onto the current bike path and line of trees. If they intend to keep MCB as a car-oriented corridor while adding a set of dedicated bus lanes, this is probably the best way to go about it, although it does sacrifice a lot of trees.

Is there a better way? I think so. If the neighborhood wants to become more walkable, more bike-friendly, and more transit-friendly, then I think the best solution is not to widen the pavement at all. Instead, if BTD really wants to show its dedication to "Complete Streets" then they will take two of the existing travel lanes, and convert them into dedicated bus lanes.

Some might argue the old trope that this will cause "gridlock" and traffic jams as drivers senselessly pile into one another without thought. That's nonsense. If the corridor is going to be reimagined and reinvented, then it will also change the way people travel along the corridor just as radically. People respond to their environment. If you want to have a highway, then by all means, keep the road wide. But if you want it to be a walkable place to build a neighborhood around, then you'll want to keep the lane count down.

My plan also saves the trees and costs a whole lot less money. It can be implemented with paint. Then, the city needs to allow the development of the vacant lots and the parking lots. Lower or outright remove any minimum parking requirements in the zoning code to help ease traffic. This area has been neglected by the city for far too long. It's time to clean up the mistakes of the 1960s, not repeat them.


  1. What would be even more amazing is if we could restore the historic street grid and get rid of Melnea Cass Blvd altogether. Right now it acts as a feeder to I-93, which is one of the main reasons why it has so much traffic! The street grid would distribute that traffic instead of funneling it all in one place.

  2. Why are we putting in bus lanes and not something that is over the long term much less expensive such as a light rail line?

    1. The bus lanes would be used for existing MBTA bus service and presumably more could be added.

      I don't think the bus lanes are a bad idea. The Urban Ring is still pie-in-the-sky and getting segments done as buses is far more likely for the immediate future. And even if the project is completed it is likely to be segmented, and some segments may continue to be buses even if others are converted to light rail. It's a complex project and worth a whole other discussion about costs and benefits.