Redesigning roads to put people first

A bus lane on Massachusetts Avenue in North Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge is in the midst of a generational shift in how we think about transport and how people move through our streets. Currently, Massachusetts Avenue via Porter Square takes center stage for this change. While some of the loudest debates currently center on parking and bike lanes, the outcome is equally critical for the more than 10,000 people a day who take buses along this part of the avenue every day but rarely have a voice in the current approach to public engagement processes.

A transformed Massachusetts Avenue must allocate space that prioritizes people over vehicles, as Governor Charlie Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation said. Just as important as the infrastructure changes visible on the street will be the behind-the-scenes operational preparations for new, high-frequency and more reliable bus service thanks to the revamp of the bus network recently launched by the MBTA. Decisions made and actions taken today will determine how people travel on Massachusetts Avenue for decades to come, and how successfully the new bus system can provide that level of bus service.

The MBTA has proposed Redesign of the bus network is the culmination of a years-long process to make bus service better, faster and more reliable. This is a unique opportunity to transform the MBTA bus network to meet the needs of people who ride the bus today – not 50 years ago – and to encourage more people to ride the bus in the future. It designates Massachusetts Avenue as a key corridor for high-frequency bus routes, running every 15 minutes or better for 20 hours a day, seven days a week.

The improved routes will connect people to and through Porter Square, from Arlington and Malden, with direct connections to destinations throughout the region. Around Porter Square this includes the proposed T77 and T96 high frequency routes. The 83 will also run every 30 minutes or better.

The MBTA plan alone only gets us halfway to that vision and to what the people who ride the bus deserve. We need municipalities and other road owners to do their part by making room for bus priority lanes and improving bus stops. This means difficult conversations about how to allocate limited space on the street – conversations that are already taking place in Cambridge, but have largely focused on space for bicycles and on-street parking. It’s time for buses and the people who depend on them to be part of those conversations.

Cambridge is already a leader in bus priority, multi-modal streets for walking and cycling, and creating creative places. The city also has some of the most ambitious goals in the region — and the nation — for climate resilience and sustainability. The redesign of Massachusetts Avenue, not just at Porter Square, but along the entire corridor from Alewife Brook Parkway to the Arlington Line to the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge over the Charles River, is a regional opportunity to demonstrate how a community can put its equity, safety and sustainability goals into action by transforming its most iconic street.

Municipalities, planners and policy makers are realizing that to combat congestion, reduce climate pollution, improve public health, unlock economic opportunity and close racial equity gaps, we must design streets that prioritize to the movement of people. Sometimes that means making tough decisions and big diversions from “what has always been.” But with Greater Boston suffering from some of the worst vehicular traffic jams in the nation and our ever-escalating climate crisis, leaving the status quo in place will only exacerbate our problems.

The sad truth is that so far, despite a decade of talk, Massachusetts has fallen short of its goals of reducing vehicle pollution, reducing road deaths and improving transportation fairness. . We cannot pass up opportunities for transformative change.

To truly fix transportation, it takes not just a fresh coat of paint, but a visionary, people-centric transformation. Providing real mobility solutions is key to achieving goals set by the city, such as the Reduced Vehicle Journey Ordinance, Cambridge Transit Strategic Plan, Envision Cambridge and the Action Plan for Cambridge Climate, and by the state through the Global Warming Solutions and Net Zero Emissions Act. Goals.

Making roads safe, comfortable and accessible to users of all ages, abilities, incomes and modes of travel leads to healthier and stronger communities. The transformation of Massachusetts Avenue is an important step toward building the modern, reliable transportation network that Greater Boston truly needs and deserves.


Adi Nochur is Senior Transport Planner at Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Julia Wallerce is the Boston Program Manager for the Institute for Transport and Development Policy.

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