The Long View Of The Longfellow Bridge

MassDOT recently released the long-awaited Environmental Assessment for the Longfellow Bridge reconstruction project, which reveals the design MassDOT has chosen for the bridge. To its credit, MassDOT clearly listened to much of the input from the Longfellow Bridge Task Force (on which I served):

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As seen above, the outbound (Boston-to-Cambridge) side of the bridge as proposed will be truly multimodal, with a single travel lane for motor vehicles, a wide buffered bike lane, and a wide sidewalk. While we can (and will) push to further narrow the remaining travel lane to provide even more space for bicyclists and pedestrians – and to slow down the traffic that speeds over the bridge – MassDOT has the right idea for the outbound side.

Throughout the process, the design for the inbound side has been the focus of discussion and disagreement. The alternative chosen by MassDOT does not represent an improvement over current conditions for bicyclists; at most, the bike lane is six inches wider than the current shoulder/bike lane. So bicyclists who are not comfortable riding across the bridge today will not feel any safer riding across the reconstructed bridge. And the sidewalk, while wider than what exists today, is still narrow – too narrow to be comfortably shared by pedestrians, wheelchairs, strollers, and the inevitable less-confident bicyclists drawn by the wider-but-still-inadequate sidewalk.

Another option proposed by the Task Force would configure the inbound side much like the outbound side: wide sidewalk, wide buffered bike lane, and a single travel lane (see below). While there is disagreement over whether this configuration would provide an acceptable level of service for cars, one thing is certain: the decision we make now will determine whether or not we will ever be able to realize the Task Force’s vision of maximized space for bicyclists and pedestrians, if and when future traffic volumes support doing so.

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At the recent public hearing on the Longfellow Bridge reconstruction project, MassBike joined with other advocates to speak out in support of this longer-term vision for the bridge. Click here for our full joint statement.

There are tradeoffs for bicyclists and pedestrians in these design choices. The MassDOT plan would mean losing the opportunity for a wider sidewalk until the next time the bridge is rebuilt (50-75 years), because the crash barrier cannot easily be moved once built. Faster cyclists would be in the same narrow bike lane we have today, while slower, less confident cyclists would probably be jockeying for space on a narrow sidewalk (if they felt safe enough to use the bridge at all). On the other hand, the advocates’ plan would move the crash barrier inward, creating a much wider space for bicyclists and pedestrians to share on the sidewalk, but eliminating the on-street bike lane. Neither proposed solution is optimal from either the bicyclist or pedestrian perspective.

Advocates for bicyclists, pedestrians, transit, the disabled, and the Charles River parkland all agree that the longer-term vision is the one we want and this is the only way to preserve that option. In the short-term, less confident bicyclists will feel more protected being physically separated from cars, and many more people may choose to bike over the bridge to Boston or the Esplanade. Some may view it as bikers and walkers sacrificing separate space for the possibility of a better deal in the future, but I don’t see it as a sacrifice. Instead of separate but inadequate space for bicyclists and pedestrians, we’ll get a much wider more flexible space that will be safer and more inviting for more people. It can work, and is already working on bridges elsewhere, like the busy Hawthorne Bridge in Portland, Oregon.

So let’s thank MassDOT for demonstrating some real multimodal thinking on this project, and push them to think just a little further into the future we all want to see.

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9 Responses to The Long View Of The Longfellow Bridge

  1. William Furr March 8, 2012 at 10:57 am #

    I consider myself a fast, confident cyclist and have ridden the existing lanes on the Longfellow bridge several times. Even I am disappointed to see the crash barrier in its current location.

    In fact, I’d rather have the crash barrier *between* the bike lane and the cars, with a much lower, gentler curb (half-height, perhaps) between the pedestrian and bicycle portions of the sidewalk.

    The outbound side is much more reasonable, but I would still prefer a physical barrier over the 2′ buffer zone. Making the bike portion 8.5′ wide could encourage some of more aggressive, impatient drivers to treat that as just another traffic lane, without sufficient bike traffic to make that impossible.

    • William Furr March 8, 2012 at 10:59 am #

      Oh, and so I’m not seeming completely ingrateful, thank you so much to Massbike for your hard work on this project!

  2. Paul Schimek March 8, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

    The Hawthorne bridge is hardly a model in my opinion. It may be the best that can be done with a bad situation, including its metal deck bridge. But there is a nasty drop of from the sidewalk to the roadway (not quite as bad as the Cape Cod canal bridges, though). Also, the sidewalk dumps you out to the right of high-speed right turning traffic. That’s an issue Cambridge-bound on the Mem Drive side of the Longfellow. What happens with the bike lane there? And what happens on the Boston end? I hope the BL does not continue all the way to the stop line.
    Drivers tend to way exceed the 30 mph posted speed limits on these bridges, so some (automated?) enforcement would be nice. At least a “your speed is . . .” display.
    Also note that resurfacing the roadway would, I hope, eliminate the nasty bumps and sand that accumulates behind them, especially in the existing bike lanes.

  3. Rebecca Albrecht March 8, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    This is an observation I made while I have been crossing the BU bridge multiple times on the new bike lanes. They are okay but are a bit tricky to negotiate in the North bound direction at the end of the bridge heading into Cambridge. The other day I rode on the sidewalk. I easily stopped at the middle and enjoyed the view & took photographs. Riding in the bike lanes does not lend itself to stopping to admire the view. Especially if you have a heavy Dutch bike, which I do or are pulling a trailer. There is a barrier between the sidewalk and the bike lane the whole length of the bridge. I see that in the design for the Longfellow bridge there is also a barrier between the sidewalk & the bike lane. So bicyclists that want to stop and enjoy the beautiful view will have to ride up onto the side walk at the beginning of the bridge. On a comment on some one’s blog I was told that the barrier was needed on the BU bridge because of the design of the bridge. I find that hard to believe. Why is there a barrier on the Longfellow bridge? Unfortunately bicycle & auto infrastructure are lumped together though pedestrian & bike infrastructure are a better fit since they are vulnerable road users unlike automobiles. And people who imagine that cars & bikes are a better fit should see what they are doing in the Netherlands where they build bike infrastructure that avoids conflict with cars and allows faster cyclists to pass slower cyclists and is separate from pedestrians.

  4. Sarah March 9, 2012 at 9:22 am #

    Bravo, these plans represent enormous positive change, both in terms of the physical bridge and also in MassDOT’s project process!

  5. Luke March 9, 2012 at 10:48 pm #

    What is a “buffered” bike lane?

    Longfellow invites speeding. Less confident bicyclists would be encouraged by a robust physical barrier between them and automobiles.

    • David March 12, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

      You can read a great explanation of buffered bike lanes here. For the Longfellow project, MassDOT has proposed a buffered bike lane to provide dedicated space for bicyclists while not precluding the use of the full roadway width by cars in the event of an emergency (like pulling over for an ambulance or providing an additional lane for evacuation). We will continue to advocate for a narrower travel lane and other measures to slow down the cars – they should not be going faster than 30mph even now.

      • Luke March 15, 2012 at 7:48 pm #

        30 mph is fast!

        I think that we need a physical barrier between the bikes and the pedestrians. I think in this current design cars will continue to go quite fast, notwithstanding the posted speed limit we eventually settle on, and bikers, with nothing physical to separate them from the speeding cars, will continue to feel uncomfortable.

        I like the idea of creating a path where bikers can get off on their bike and look around. And for that reason too, I think we need to move the crash barrier to between bikes and cars.

  6. John March 19, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    I agree with Luke … I prefer the barrier between the bikes and pedestrians than between the bikes and cars. I really don’t want to see barriers on both sides of the BL. With the widened walkway, pedestrians will be more apt to be taking in the view and therefore more likely to wander in their space. It will also stop joggers or walkers from stepping into the bike lane to pass others on the walk.

    I also love Rebecca’s suggestion to have some sort of ‘on ramp’ so I could move onto the sidewalk and sightsee!!

    Cars do zoom along here. As others have said, I don’t think that will change much regardless of the design. I don’t feel there’s a whole lot of traffic on the inbound side in my morning commute, so I think the roomier bike lane is enough