PARKWAY DANGER ZONES: Can DCR Turn The Corner?

If the Legislature and Administration gives the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) the staffing and funds for implementation, the agency’s current Parkway Design Study could be a game-changer.  The new Urban Parkways and Path Advisory Committee (UPPC) has been providing the recently consolidated Planning & Engineer Departments with lists of particularly dangerous locations and has offered to help them prioritize future road projects.  (Readers – are there more places you’d add - see below?) While supporting efforts to increase DCR’s drastically inadequate levels of funding and staffing, Advocates are also pushing the agency to better coordinate with local (and state) Vision Zero efforts and begin making immediate, low-cost, visible changes in Parkway conditions to make them safer and more inviting for walkers, cyclists, bus riders, and neighbors. 

PARKWAYS IN PROCESS

After nearly a half-century of following our society’s general strategy of prioritizing car traffic over other road and land uses – and after years of badgering by environmental, open-space, and transportation advocates – the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) seems willing to return their Parkways to the multi-modal, park-like designs they were originally intended to have.   Managerial changes made by new Commissioner Leo Roy have removed some internal obstacles.  The state has put up millions of dollars for upgrading a number of off-road paths and beaches across the Commonwealth.   For the Parkways, the creation of an Urban Parkway and Path Advisory Committee (UPPC) and the hiring of Toole Design Group to conduct a Parkway Design Study raises hope that DCR will actually begin doing things differently.  A major impediment, unfortunately, is the Agency’s continued underfunding, compounded by extremely high numbers of early-retirement departures.  We’ve heard that a recent bottom-up analysis of what it would take to simply keep operating at a minimally functional level revealed a need for at least 200 more staff – and the Baker Administration has only given them permission to hire 25.  We’re all aware that lack of resources is the sewer into which all these good intentions may vanish!

DCR’s own 2007 manual, “Historic Parkway Preservation Treatment Guidelines”, laid a positive foundation for the agency’s work.  Building on that, DCR leaders now need to officially incorporate subsequently published state-of-the-art bicycle, pedestrian, and Complete Street road standards – explicitly naming those used by MassDOT (e.g. NACTO’s Guides, recent FHA Advisories, etc.) – as the basis for all future road and path work. Clarify that wherever standards vary, DCR will follow those that most increase pedestrian and bicycle safety and convenience.

The Parkway Design Study is intended to create a default template for how to stripe, sign, and structure these meandering roads.  Covering a large percentage of the extensive Metro-area Parkway system, the Study will include suggestions for short-term, inexpensive improvements as well as longer-term rebuilding to enhance safety, reduce speeding, improve the environmental and eco-system benefits, and increase public access.   These are essential changes needed for DCR to reclaim its legacy as steward of our state’s visionary land-use heritage as well as a key facilitator of future sustainable growth.

In addition, the UPPC – with members representing nearly every Parkway-containing municipality in Eastern Massachusetts – is starting to provide feedback about dangerous “hot spots” in the Parkway system (see below), suggestions around DCR path and Parkway maintenance, and help prioritizing which road segments should get worked on.  (After several years of refusing to tell anyone – including other departments within DCR! – about where future road work will occur, the Engineering Department’s field staff’s new management has promised to work with the UPPC to establish priorities.)   UPPC is also urging DCR to coordinate with Boston and other municipalities’ Vison Zero and Slow Streets/Neighborway programs – at a minimum, joining Boston in Rapid Response Site Visits anytime a serious crash or fatality occurs on a DCR Parkway or intersection. 

THE BACKSTORY

There was a time that the Metro Boston area was the national leader in creating multi-modal, nature-enhancing, transportation and conservation systems.   Building on Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace that combined watershed protection with public park creation, in the 1890s his son-in-law (and son of a Harvard President) Charles Eliot worked with equally high-born Arthur Shurcliff to create a visionary system of over 7,000 acres of forested hills, ocean-front beaches, and river shorelines within 10 miles of Boston – all connected by a winding road system designed as linear parks usable for walking, bicycling, and non-commercial car traffic.  The Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) was created to assemble the properties (sometimes by eminent domain) and run the program.

Like the village-swallowing Quabbin Reservoir, the MDC system exemplified the arrogant boldness of the old public-minded Brahmins who self-confidently made big plans and pushed them through, to our enormous contemporary benefit, no matter the cost to the lesser beings in their way.  But an unintended consequence was over time the semi-autonomous Commission turned into a patronage haven.   At the same time, the strategic location of the Parkways and the lure of federal highway construction money focused MDC leaders on big road projects like the Bowker Overpass and led them to treat the Parkways as high-volume arterial connectors

In 2003, former Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) Executive Director Doug Foy, acting as newly elected (and still “liberal”) Governor Mitt Romney’s Secretary of Commonwealth Development, led the effort to combine the dysfunctional and discredited MDC with the Department of Environmental Management to create the new Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

DCR’s sullied parentage combined with years of state leaders’ growing unwillingness to raise taxes led to static or even reduced budgets.  Despite efforts by many dedicated staff, maintenance deteriorated in many of DCR’s pools, parks, playgrounds, open spaces, roadways, and other facilities.   And the Bureau of Engineering staff remained focused on moving cars.

PARKWAY SYSTEM SAFETY OVERVIEW

While progress will be measured by specific improvements in particular locations, there are a number of policy changes that will help steer the ship.  For example, DCR could officially commit to the goal of eliminating fatalities on its roads and working in close coordination with cities, such as Boston, Cambridge, and others, that have adopted Vision Zero policies to conduct a rapid-response to any fatality and implement resulting short- and long-term safety improvement ideas.  In line with the Vision Zero principle that not all crashes are avoidable, but that lowering speeds can prevent avoidable fatalities and lessen severity of injury, DCR could officially commit itself to implementing traffic calming techniques whenever roadwork is done, and reduce the posted speed limits on parkways – a change repeatedly shown to increase the safety of all road users.

Working through the Urban Parkway and Path Advisory Committee’s email list Advocates compiled lists of projects that DCR has done well, missed a chance to do better, or hasn’t dealt with yet.  (To join the list, send me your email address.  Readers – look these over:  are there more places you’d add to any category?) The good news is that there are things to applaud.  The bad news is that that list isn’t long.  

Looking through the following lists quickly reveals several points:  

  1. Almost all of the major traffic circles (and “squares”) are dangerous to both pedestrians and bicyclists because of (a) the chaotic traffic flows, (b) the frequent lack or inadequacy of signage or street markings (crosswalks and bike lanes), (c) lack of or inadequate traffic signals resulting in short (or no) intervals of safety, and (d) the long distances and numerous crossings required for “continuing straight”. In the longer term – or maybe even sooner through smart use of barriers and flex posts – converting old rotaries and circles into modern roundabouts (with a smaller diameter, tighter entry corners, and a single lane) or even into protected “square” intersections will improve both circulation and safety for all users. (Particularly:  Charles Circle, Mattapan Square, Kosciuszko Circle, and Leverett Circle although that spot is now being redesiged)
  2. Bicyclists and pedestrians need protection between intersections as well, with the current street markings often inadequate even though some have been improved in recent years.  (Particularly: Riverway/Fenway/Brookline Ave, Land Blvd/McGrath Highway, Fellsway/Route 16, Rte. 28/Rte. 38/I-93 and Kensington Underpasses)
  3. The Charles River paths, which should be one of DCR’s jewels, has incredibly dangerous intersections that have been pointed out to DCR countless times and really need some quick attention.
  4. The smart installation of paint and signage would provide immediate short-term and low-cost improvement in many of these locations – the conceptual designs for some of these are supposed to be prepared as part of the Toole Parkway Study. 

EXAMPLES OF CURRENT PARKWAY OPPORTUNITIES

Some locations have obvious potential improvements just waiting to be done, hopefully before someone gets hurt.

  • Blue Hills Parkway intersections with Blue Hill Avenue, Brush Hill Road, Eliot Street and Mattapan Square, Boston/Milton - Connects Neponset River Greenway from Mattapan Square to west Milton;  Before going out to bid again, the design needs improvement: add a crosswalk in Mattapan Square and on-road bicycle accommodations linking north-south along Blue Hill Ave.  This should also be linked with improvements in Mattapan Square.
  • Blue Hills Bike Path:  A multi-use path beside the road would reduce the controversial pressure to create a bike trail across the east side of the Blue Hills Reservation.
  • Neponset River Greenway, Dorchester (Victory Road area) – One of the most dangerous areas along the harbor; Design and permitting to be completed by Fall 2016, but no currently identified construction funding.
  • Ocean Ave, Revere - A developer of residential units wants to make an adjoining street more bike friendly and connect to the existing bike lane on Revere Street, but has had difficulty getting DCR cooperation in creating a plan. 
  • Santilli Circle, Everett – Local leaders want a bike lane and better pedestrian crossings.

EXAMPLES OF MISSED (but hopefully not totally lost) OPPORTUNITIES

Unfortunately, some recent DCR work has not done what could have been to increase safety:

  • Quinobequin Road, Newton -- Road recently resurfaced & striped as a highway, despite regular speeding and heavy usage by pedestrians and cyclists--and a history of drivers hitting pedestrians on the road (no sidewalks).  Similarly, recent work around drainage problems was done without current input from abutters and the city who could have pointed out additional problems. 
  • Hemlock Gorge/Echo Bridge, Newton – Lack of coordination between MassDOT and DCR meant that sidewalks and curb cuts on Rt. 9 along DCR property and under the Rte. 9 overpass were left out of recent work.  Pedestrians have to walk on a 2' curb between 2 lanes of traffic and a guard rail, or inside the guard rail when the poison ivy is dormant.
  • Wompatuck Road, Quincy (Chickatawbut Road to Willard Street) - Resurfaced and restriped late 2015; Shoulders were striped wider in the Blue Hills Reservation, but not near residences.
  • Quincy Shore Drive, Quincy (Furnace Brook Parkway to Sea Street) - Resurfaced and restriped late 2015; But shoulders were made narrower despite there being a center lane that is mostly unused except for short turn lanes at two intersections.  Quincy Shore Drive in Wollaston often has no shoulder and 4 lanes of fast traffic: a road diet could help.
  • Revere Beach Parkway, Revere – Bike lanes were not included in recent DCR work despite city’s desire to have them. 
  • Centre Street, Jamaica Plain, Boston –DCR’s old-school consultant wants to fix gaps in the bike lanes by pushing cyclists into pedestrians on the sidewalk.  The proposed layout for Murray Circle is conflicts with the double-roundabout design that Toole came up with.  His idea of using flashing yellow lights instead of a standard (red/green) traffic light might be appropriate on two-lane or lightly-traveled streets but is problematic on a fast four-lane road next to a Hospital where elderly and visually impaired people cross.
  • Brush Hill Road, Milton – Bike lanes have been put on the Neponset River side of Brush Hill.  However, the residential side – particularly at the corner of Aberdeen Road – is still dangerous:  a serious pedestrian injury recently happened there.  Cars crossing the road, pulling out of driveways, or just getting into/out of parked cars have limited ability to see the often speeding traffic.

EXAMPLES OF WORK THAT IS GOING OR WAS DONE WELL!  (Thank you!)

And it’s a pleasure to also include these.  It gives one the feeling that the will is there – the agency just needs the resources, policies, and staffing needed to do it right the first time.

  • Morrissey Boulevard, Boston -- Ongoing Neponset River Greenway work is moving along reasonably well and we're optimistic that the new project will include Complete Streets elements.
  • Arborway, Boston – Design is very impressive (although funding is not yet available).  Pedestrians never have to cross more than one lane at a time, so even though there are no signals, it should be easy. Safety is increased by the raising crosswalks and the sharp turn cars make into the circle which forces drivers to slow. And with no signals, the roundabout functions better and delay for everyone is reduced dramatically.  See: http://www.mass.gov/eea/docs/dcr/news/public-meetings/materials/parklands/2015-03-10-arborway-addendum.pdf
  • Greenough Blvd, Watertown-Cambridge – a model of public-private partnership and a terrific improvement of the environment as well as for mobility.
  • Mattapan-Milton Extension – it was a long time coming, but it looks like it will be great.

>> And although this is beginning to feel like a “scope of work” for the Parkway Study, here are a few more of the most scary and dangerous spots on DCR roadways suggested via the UPPC list.

  • Memorial Drive Circle Adjacent to BU Bridge - Cambridge
  • Route 28 in front of the Museum of Science.  (Cyclists on this bridge frequently encounter harassment and unsafe conditions mixing with fast cars.  Cycle tracks or buffered bike lanes have been in the conversation for a while and should be implemented.  On the westbound side, there should be bike lanes at minimum due to the fast nature of cars when there is no traffic, and poor lighting conditions.  
  • VFW parkway in West Roxbury.  There is a bike lane from Centre Street for a few miles, to Route 109 near the Dedham line.  But at almost all of the traffic lights the bike lane disappears to make room for left turn lanes.  40-50 mph traffic suddenly crowding out the bike lane is certainly a safety issue. 
  • Quincy Shore Drive in Wollaston - there is often no shoulder, and 4 lanes of fast traffic.  A road diet could help.
  • Intersections:
    • Perkins Street and Francis Parkman Drive in JP
    • Centre and Walter in Roslindale
    • Disappearing bike lane on Centre and Allandale (Roslindale/JP)
  • West Roxbury Parkway.  From Washington Street to Belgrade Avenue it is partly striped with a shoulder but then the striping turns to a fog line with just a foot to the edge of the pavement.  Plenty of room for a shoulder/bike lane.  Also, between the Newton Street merge and the circle at Hammond Pond Parkway, there is a wide shoulder, but most of the paint is gone, and motor traffic is often using the entire width of the roadway, making it dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians. 
  • Neponset Valley Parkway east of Truman Parkway (road narrows without warning)
  • VFW Parkway - West Roxbury (There are bike lanes, but parts of it can be improved) 
  • Fresh Pond Parkway – Cambridge
  • Arborway between Jamaica Pond and the Arboretum
  • Truman Parkway between Fairmount Ave and Dana Ave (road is too narrow for four travel lanes and parking; we suggest a road diet to one travel lane each direction)

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Thanks to all the people who work with me on the UPPC, contributed to these lists, or reviewed previous drafts of this post – particularly David Loutzenheiser, Wendy Landman, Becca Wolfson, Doug Johnson, Andreae Downs, and Lee Toma.

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Related previous blog posts:

>PARKWAYS MOVING FORWARD:  DCR Is Not The Highway Department

>NON-MOTORIZED HIGHWAYS: A Regional Green Routes System To Connect Municipal Bike Networks, Sidewalks, and Parks

>SIGNS, PAINT, AND FLEXIBILITY: Creative No-Cost Ways To Improve Road Intelligibility

>PARKS, GREENWAYS, AND TRANSPORTATION: Increasing Usefulness By Combining Visions

 

 

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  • commented 2016-05-02 14:04:42 -0400
    From KEVIN CUDDEBACK:

    Steve — thanks for your piece on DCR.

    I would like to suggest the following dangerous places along the Mystic Valley Parkway in Medford & Arlington (all of which somebody in Medford has complained about since the City of Medford asked people to put their complaints in SeeClickFix). Time and again, we’re told “that’s a DCR issue”

    Medford: Fellsway is freaky wide
    Why hasn’t this extra asphalt been striped as a bike lane?

    Medford Elm Street (a Fellsway connector segment)
    - Traffic is too fast
    - Crosswalks are badly marked
    - Sidewalk segments are missing
    - Cars are permitted to park on the sidewalk by “longstanding agreement”

    Medford: Mystic Valley Parkway
    - Needs a side path on the drive-way-free “river side” for pretty much its entire length from I-93 to Winchester. Currently there is a beaten cowpath (and no crosswalks on the river side.)

    Mystic Valley Parkway @ High St (MA 60), Medford side
    Rotary missing crosswalks on 2 quadrants; needs splitter islands / refuge islands to slow traffic and get it going counterclockwise

    ​Arlington: Mystic Valley Parkway at Palmer St

  • commented 2016-04-30 09:18:17 -0400
    From Sarah Freeman:

    Hi Steve – Great article. In terms of the list of “things going well” —Your description of the Arborway Plan & the URL link go to the March 2015 starter idea presentation from one set of DCR’s consultants. The negative community reaction led DCR to reconsider and they held an additional public meeting on Oct. 14, 2015. Many of the changes were excellent (e.g. improving access from Moss Hill at at Kelley Circle) although there were worries about others (e.g. 2-lane rotaries, extra crossings, slip lane at Kelley Circle inbound). We need to continue to monitor and push!
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