WHEN BEING “COMPLETE” IS DANGEROUSLY UNFINISHED: From The Gutter To Victory on Causeway Street

Causeway Street sits on top of the colonial era Mill Pond Dam, which harnessed tidal flows to generate power — which is why it’s called a “causeway.”  For its time and location, the Dam was an audacious and creative effort.  Unfortunately, the current plans to restructure today’s Causeway Street into a truly multi-modal and multi-functional space exhibits neither.

Causeway Street and the adjoining misshapen intersections from Lowell Square to Keany Square is a complicated place.  It’s got North Station generating commuter crowds twice every day, and Boston Garden releasing post-event human flash floods nearly every third day.  It’s the passageway between the Kennedy Greenway and the Charles River parklands as well as between downtown and Charlestown’s expressway on-ramps and the new Rutherford Ave cycle tracks. It’s got family residences (including a huge future development on the Boston Garden property) and businesses.  It’s got social service agencies and state offices.  Meeting every need of every one of those constituencies is probably impossible.

MassDOT, BRA, and their consulting traffic engineering firms have tried.  For nearly six years they’ve been meeting with people, collecting data, modeling future traffic flows, and making plans.  They’ve discovered some interesting facts – for example, there are more people walking than vehicles driving through that area!  And they’ve had to adjust to major changes in transportation priorities – six years ago bicycles weren’t considered as important, now the Hubway (shared bike) Station in that area is the busiest in the entire city!  — Pedestrians were a problem to be controlled; now they are a priority to be safeguarded.  Transit was secondary; now it is supposed to be a major way for people to get into (and around) the city.  And traffic was simply assumed to keep growing; while we now know that overall vehicle trips are steadily falling.

The 25% design plans unveiled at a public meeting last week incorporate many useful attempts to adjust to the new realities such as wider sidewalks and shorter intersection crossings, narrower lanes and raised “intersection tables,” some sections of bike lanes, and the straightening and signalization of Endicott Street.  The street is being done under the banner of the “Cross Roads” program dealing with the Big Dig surface connections and, technically, it will be a “complete street.”  But that merely shows how inadequate such a label can be – the proposed design is insultingly inadequate.  In particular, neither pedestrian nor bicycle movement is fully enabled or protected. The current proposals use standard, off-the-shelf ideas in a situation that needs imaginative boldness and out-of-the-box creativity.   The design team seems unaware of many exciting, safety-improving and mobility-enhancing designs already proven to work in other parts of this country and the world.  Perhaps, part of the problem is that this project has been going on for such a long time that the official “purpose” no longer represents current transportation priorities.  But the designers don’t seem to have incorporated enough of the suggestions they received (from LivableStreets Alliance as well as others) after previously presenting roughly similar plans two years ago. The current proposals are better than what exists, but not good enough; Boston needs better.

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PROTECTING PEOPLE

One step forward would be to accept that Garden event ending times are unique.  Rather than using media strips or planters to try to “channelize” the hordes of people into narrow crosswalks, why not accept that for a half-hour or so after an event, the street belongs to pedestrians – at least the section of Causeway near the Garden.  (In fact, this is close to what actually happens – but it is treated as a problem rather than as a perfectly acceptable situation.)  Suspend the concept of “jaywalking” – a relatively recent invention designed to make streets safe for cars.  Cars, bikes, trucks – all would still be allowed, but only if moving no faster than 5 mph and held to a “strict liability standard” where the larger vehicle in any interaction has full default responsibility for any problems they’re involved in.  (There is a rich body of literature about these kinds of temporal “shared space” designs that the traffic engineers seem to have never heard about.) Taxi, kiss and drop, company buses, and limo pickup would be moved to the Lomasney Way entrance or perhaps over to Haverhill and Canal Streets to serve the Orange and Green lines as well.    For the specified period of post-event time (and perhaps on other occasions as well) programmable LED lights would announce the special rules allowing unrestricted walking.  Wouldn’t the area clear more quickly – and safely?

Another set of special situations arises because “crossing Causeway” is a component of three separate high-use (or potentially high use if conditions were improved) walking and bicycling routes:  from the Kennedy Greenway to the Charles River paths and eventually across the river to the Community Path heading north, from downtown to the future bicycle cycle-tracks along Rutherford Ave and around Charlestown, and the Freedom Trail between the North End and the USS Constitution – which cuts across the crazily dangerous Keany Square intersection.   The current proposal says nothing about the special needs of these crossings.  In an improved Causeway Street, each of the crossings should have a raised path and zebra stripes across the street to make it clear to cars that they are entering a pedestrian/bicycle space rather than the reverse.  Perhaps there should be user-activated traffic lights & walk signals not only on the Freedom Trail but in each of the other crossings as well.

(Side note:  The North Washington Bridge, part of the Freedom Trail, is falling apart and will soon be replaced.  Car/truck/bus traffic is already confined to two lanes.  Wouldn’t it make sense to put traffic on the inner lanes and turn the outer lanes over to bikes so they don’t have to ride on the sidewalk and get in the way of the pedestrians?  And the closed-off walkway under the bridge needs to be repaired and re-opened – a job for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, DCR, that “owns” the area.)

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS

There are a lot of businesses on and along Causeway.  The current proposal doesn’t seem to provide enough flexibility to allow for deliveries and pick-ups.  At the least, if special space can’t be created for these functions, there should be a special time of day set during which various rules are suspended to facility their rapid accomplishment.  Given all the other people and purposes on Causeway, the set-aside would have to be at an “off hour” – maybe 5 to 6:30 AM, although noise controls would have to remain in force for the sake of the growing number of people who live in the area.

Causeway is also a through street.  Commuters, shoppers, residents, event-goers – all need to travel through the area.  While the proposed redesign makes some improvements, it has dangerous inadequacies.   The sidewalks will be widened, particularly at several corners, but much of the rest of the new off-road space will be used for planters and trees.  Causeway Street desperately needs more green, and planters do help to “channelize” pedestrian flow where that’s appropriate.  But narrower or more widely spaced planter beds – or even moving trees into the street to serve as spacers between parking spots or as vertical elements in the median – would achieve the same goal while not taking up desperately needed pedestrian space.

The intersections at either end of Causeway Street, Lowell and Keany Squares, are currently a disaster and the proposal will make some improvements – at least for pedestrian crossing. Given the speed at which cars head out of Boston to catch the light on to the North Washington Street Bridge, further investigation into a pedestrian-only signal period on Keany Square might be worthwhile despite the general best-practice of concurrent walk signals (allowing people to “walk on green”).   Still, the crosswalks need to be much wider and the “storage areas” larger than proposed to handle the over 1,000 people per hour who cross at Lomasney Way each day or even the lower numbers at other corners.   And all the walk signals should count down not only the time left to cross but the time people need to wait.

BUFFERING BICYCLISTS 

But the proposals for the intersections, in fact, for the entire Causeway Street are a disaster for bicyclists – the city’s fastest growing travel mode.   Hubway use, already high, will escalate as stations are added in Cambridge and Somerville.

The Lowell and Keany Square intersections dump bicycles from every direction into a confusing whirlpool of cars rushing around the multiple and awkwardly positioned street corners.  There should be dotted or solid guide lines to show the way through.  Each corner should have a bike box – a spot in front of the pedestrian crosswalk where bikes can gather during red light phases and then be able to start through the chaos a few seconds ahead of the cars – this is particularly needed for left turns out of Lomasney Way!   Perhaps there should also be special bike signals at the corners – preferably with count-down timers so cyclists could mount their bikes in anticipation of the coming green and be able to more quickly get through the intersection when allowed.  This type of bike signal is widely used in China and other counties.

(Side note: there should also be bike lanes on Commercial Street, Staniford Street and the entry ramp to the North Washington Bridge.)

The most basic problem is on Causeway Street itself.  The proposed design puts bicyclists on “naked” bike lanes crossed by taxis and u-turning cars, and even those disappear several hundred feet before Keany Square – where bikes are supposed to weave through the two left-turn lanes (heading towards the bridge to Charlestown) or the one straight-and-right-turn lane that is (during business hours) almost always blocked by a Ride vehicle letting off a disabled person at the veteran’s service office which will force both cars and bikes to swerve into the left-turn lanes.  What a mess — Causeway Street is so wide, and the numbers of cyclists using it can be reasonable expected to grow so much (note the Hubway station!), that there is absolutely no excuse for this!

Causeway Street should have a separated bike path running the entire length of the road, either along the sides or down the middle as is done on Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay and even more relevantly on the Sands St approach to the Manhattan Bridge in New York City.  The bike path can be at the same or a different height than the car lanes.  This can take the form of a curb-separated lane as is commonly done in many European cities (but perhaps using “mountable curbs” to allow vehicular access when necessary).  It can be done by “buffering” the bike lane with removable (during snow season) rubber bumpers or even painted stripes as is done in Chicago and other US cities.  The bike path can be placed between the taxi/parking lane and the sidewalk (along with a buffer space) as is done in New York City.  It can be raised and placed next to the sidewalk (using a different color pavement) like Vassar Street in Cambridge, to allow for increased pedestrian space during post-event periods (see above).

(Side note:  the entire North Station/Causeway area desperately needs a huge amount of additional bike parking facilities, including both covered and open sites, which should meet current best-practice standards for two-point stability.  Secure “park and roll” cages, similar to those the MBTA installed at South Station, should be part of the mix.)

WORLD CLASS

The traffic engineers seem to have never even considered any of these options.  Their proposed design is either an infuriating devaluation of cyclist safety in favor of car through-put, or an embarrassing ignorance of what has been done around the country and the world to solve exactly these kinds of problems.  Perhaps city and state officials should start including a provision in their RFPs that no firm can bid on a transportation project unless they have experience creating cycle tracks or large-scale bicycle networks – or else a provision requiring road design consultants to pay advocates to teach them about contemporary best practice!

The 25% designed unveiled at the recent public meeting is an improvement over the dangerous and dysfunctional current conditions.  But if Boston wants to be “world class,” it’s not creative, bold, or good enough.

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(LivableStreets Alliance has submitted a more detailed letter on the Causeway Street plans to MassDOT describing a larger range of concerns.)

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Thanks to Mark Tedrow for significant help with the content!

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UPDATE:  Since this was posted, I’ve received a couple of private messages pointing out (1) that nothing in the current plans seems to deal with the reality that the state will (eventually) have to build a rail connection between North and South stations which will require further redesign of the entire area; and (2) the owners of Boston Garden are currently planning to build a huge parking garage on the property and intend to use Causeway Street as the primary exit/entrance, which will totally congest the street with cars before/after events.   The Garden owns the most valuable and extensive property in the area, but they shouldn’t be allowed to destroy the safety and livability of the neighborhood through self-serving and unnecessary designs.  The city and state need to begin demanding that the entry/exit location be moved to Lomasney Way.

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Related previous posts:
> GREEN ROUTES TO THE FUTURE: Combining Regional Vision and Local Initiative 

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