Paradigm shift.  A fundamental change in one’s core understanding of a situation.  It’s hard to do.  It takes abandoning everything you’ve been taught and believed and that made sense, then adopting something totally new and perhaps both untried and unsettling.  It takes going from a belief that the sun goes around the earth to understanding that it’s exactly the opposite.  And, as Galileo found out, there is often a powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – an Inquisition – ready to attack you for questioning orthodoxy.

In transportation, shifting paradigm means switching from a belief that roads are primarily about carrying through traffic to prioritizing their power to facilitate local neighborhood livability.  It means switching the starting point for road design, even of busy roads, from a highway to a city street – understanding that softening the edges of a highway still results in something very different than a city street with peak-hour flexibility.

Paradigm shifts are often the necessary (even if not sufficient) foundation for a change in an organization’s strategic direction.  The car – and its attendant roads, parking spaces, garages, and dealerships – were once seen as the basis for economic growth and personal success.  We now know better.  We now know that we need a more balance transportation (and energy and land use) agenda.  MassDOT needs to play a central role in this transformation – a fact the state government and MassDOT itself understand as reflected in the Healthy Transportation Compact section of the Transportation Reform Act and in the Greenhouse Gas Emission reduction laws, as well as in MassDOT’s own GreenDOT program with its energy conservation and efficiency goals and its commitment to triple the number of trips made by bike and foot and transit.

But despite constant waving of the new multi-modal banners, MassDOT’s actual work is still a frustrating combination of new rhetoric and old practices. What’s happening around the McGrath/O’Brien Highway is a case in point.   MassDOT’s proposed short-term repair and long-term replacement designs are much, much better than what now exists or what MassDOT had originally planned to do.  But underneath the talk of “boulevards” and “accessibility” is still an 8-lane behemoth justified by faulty assumptions about the inevitability of future traffic growth and traffic engineer’s inability to give priority to anything besides car-movement level of service.

What Somerville needs is the replacement of the highway – no matter what it is called or how many trees are planted alongside – with a design that has as its deepest goal the knitting together of the city’s road-brutalized neighborhoods.   Commuters heading into or out from East Somerville, the Union Square area, and the Innerbelt zone will be as richly served by non-car transportation as any other place in the region.   MassDOT’s opportunity, and its possible paradigm shift, is to start by designing city streets and an over-abundant set of state-of-the-art facilities for non-motorized movement.  Transportation and land use are the twin determinants of much of our built environment.  MassDOT has been working very hard to re-invent itself as a transportation agency rather than as a highway department.  They’ve come a long way.  McGrath is a chance to push further, to show that their commitment to health and sustainability will be expressed not just in words but in concrete – and paint and grass and the revitalization of Somerville.  


The McGrath/O’Brien Highway used to have an important role for letting suburban drivers get back into the city for shopping and work.  Knocking down hundreds of homes and displacing thousands of working class families was seen as an unavoidable sacrifice.  But car access is no longer the driving force behind new jobs and increased tax revenues.  (Trucks are still important – but they constitute only 7.5% of AM peak traffic and 3.5% of PM peak traffic on the McGrath.)  And for those passing through, the creation of I-93 has provided a more direct route from the north – despite continuing Big Dig problems, McGrath traffic has declined nearly 25% since the Interstate opened.  Now, nearly 80% of the drivers on McGrath are coming from nearby.  And the new Green Line extension will provide non-car access for thousands of additional commuter from the entire metro area.

McGrath has turned into a local street.  Of the cars entering from the north, only 10% go all the way through to Lechmere.  The other 90%, along with those entering from within Somerville, are only on McGrath for the short distances needed to move between the adjacent neighborhoods that it ripped through.  McGrath now carries about the same amount of traffic as Commonwealth Avenue near BU or Massachusetts Avenue in the Back Bay.  Advocates point out that if it now primarily functions as a local street why not structure it as one?


Like so many of our old highways and bridges, the McGrath is crumbling:  sections of the overpass at its center are already unusable.   The former city streets and intersections lying underneath and alongside the highway are dark and dangerous – especially for anyone on foot or bike or trying to get across to/from the local stores or bus stops.

As with most of the other bridges around the state needing repair, MassDOT staff originally wanted to just fix the road.  However, LivableStreets Alliance was able to pull together a broad coalition of groups – there are nearly two dozen separate development projects underway in the same area – and, with the strong support of Somerville Mayor Curtatone, convinced MassDOT to divide the effort in two: a short-term fix and a longer-term planning process aimed at meeting 2035’s mobility needs.   Because of both the danger of further roadway deterioration and the time limits of the available funding, the two components are being done at the same time with very tight schedules.

In a major victory for the community, the short-term fix has been revised to include some multi-modal accommodations.  At first, MassDOT’s revised repair proposal simply fitted bicycle, pedestrian, and bus facilities around the edges of the still-prioritized car lanes – which, despite its window dressing limitations, is a huge advance over their original car-only intentions.  Even better, to their credit, MassDOT has incorporated a number of the advocates public comment suggestions, ending up with a 10-year plan that is quite good considering the constraints.  Is winning this battle the start of continued progress leading to a long-term transformation of the area, or not?


The long-term planning process has the promising title “Grounding McGrath” which suggests MassDOT’s willingness to take the radical step of replacing the overpass with a surface option – a choice made much easier by the enormously lower cost of an “at grade” construction project.   And MassDOT’s planners are totally accepting of the need to include better bus, bicycle, and pedestrian accommodations.

But the limitations of window dressing rather than reconceptualizing become more obvious in the possible alternatives that the MassDOT staff are willing to explore.   It is an understandably big step for people trained to consider the Interstate as the highest form of road design to propose replacing the highway with either of two versions of a tree-lined “boulevard” with wider sidewalks and an adjacent bike lane.   But at their core both options are still major arterials – highways – six and sometimes eight lanes wide.  MassDOT staff may repeatedly start their presentations by quoting GreenDOT and the new McGrath Health Impact Assessment, but they end up using the old planning tools and approaches that prioritize car traffic and treat everything else as an add-on.

Regionally, traffic volumes in the region and the McGrath area peaked in 2004 and have been declining ever since.  The same is happening on a national level.  It’s true that Somerville’s Inner Belt industrial area is poised for dramatic growth.  MassDOT’s formulas for estimating future traffic say this will lead to huge increases in cars on the road by 2035 – which they claim requires large amounts of road capacity — but that’s true only if the city and state encourage it.  Just across the border, Cambridge’s Kendal Square has added dozens of new businesses and almost 4 million square feet of office space, a 37% increase over only 10 years.   But, to comply with an EPA clean air mandate, the City has implemented an aggressive Transportation Demand Management (TDM) policy requiring firms to take effective steps to reduce the number of car trips they create.  And it’s worked.  Not only have Single Occupancy Vehicle (SOV) trips not increased, total traffic volumes have decreased:  Broadway, Binney Street, and Third Street have all seen a decrease in average daily traffic volumes by about 10%.  Instead, as a quick view of the rush hour street will confirm, the number of T-users, bike riders, and walkers has multiplied many times.

It is likely that many of the people who end up working in the future Inner Belt area will want to live nearby in East Somerville or even in the Belt district itself if the city includes residential development as part of the mix.  They will walk or bike to work.  It is likely that those coming from further away will be able to take the expanded Green Line.  It is likely that Somerville will see the wisdom of implementing its own TDM program, with firms setting up shuttle bus services and car pools.  Small amounts of mode change can have huge impacts.  Experience in Los Angeles shows that shifting only 3% of SOV drivers to other modes reduced congestion by nearly 15%.

If any of this occurs, then traffic will probably stay relatively the same or even decline!  So why does MassDOT assume that traffic volumes will increase?   A lot can happen between now and 2030 – much of which will lead to less rather than more traffic.  Cars are not the central cultural symbol they used to be.  People are moving back to the city rather than further out in the suburbs.  A lower percentage of people are getting drivers licenses.  It is likely that the models MassDOT and its associated agencies are using to predict the future are simply inadequate and are therefore predicting (as they have previously predicted) much higher traffic volumes than actually emerge.


Working with people from the more than 20 land development and road planning efforts already happening along the corridor, last year LivableStreets Alliance coordinated discussions that endorsed five core value/vision statements for what should happen in this area:

  • Reunite neighborhoods cut apart by the highway.
  • Humanize the space by lowering traffic speeds, reducing noise and pollution, narrowing lane width, and reducing the current six (or more) lanes to four.
  • Make traveling across and along the corridor safer and more inviting for pedestrians, bicyclists, and bus riders.
  • Add more trees, grass, storm-water drainage, and other green features.
  • Encourage local retail and job-creating businesses; including crafts-based and green-economy enterprises.

If MassDOT were to embrace the community’s starting point, instead of a “boulevard” that is really a highway with softer edges, they could take advantage of the relatively clean slate that the demolishing of the overpass will create.   They could start their planning process with designs based on the old city streets that once crisscrossed the area — Medford Street connecting with Somerville Avenue connecting with Cambridge Street with a lot of intersecting streets?   And most importantly, they would plan for a road with two lanes in each direction, perhaps with an extra turning lane at the major intersections.

And if we’re really changing the paradigm, why not use the Southwest Corridor as a starting point?  Maybe the four-lane road could be pushed to one side of the huge McGrath right-of-way allowing the rest of the space to be used for a park or for some new development which might be required to pay for improvements and maintenance of the public lands around them!

If all this is too bold, if it requires too much of a paradigm shift for MassDOT or the Federal Highway Administration associates,  if they simply can’t see through the uncertainties of their prediction formulas, if they are unable to actually treat car traffic as no more (or less!) important than buses and bikes and sidewalks, then what about acknowledging that current and short-term predicted traffic volumes don’t require three lanes in each direction (with additional turning lanes at the intersections)?  If they simply have to build the three lanes in each direction, what about using the outer ones for on-street parking?  Or even for a cycle track?  If car traffic actually does increase, the lanes can be re-converted to automobile use.  If not, let it be.


The speed of the two-track planning process unfortunately means that there isn’t time to use the short-term repairs to experiment with various alternative layouts to see what effect they might actually have.  Why not try temporarily narrowing the road to four lanes?   When the Craigie Bridges were temporarily shut down the much-feared regional traffic jam failed to happen – maybe drivers are smarter about avoiding problems than traffic catastrophists believe!

More importantly, once the “preferred” one or two long-term planning alternatives are selected, MassDOT has to develop them into real engineering plans and submit them to a variety of state and federal agencies for review.  Any alternative that is not included in the review process cannot be implemented – no matter how much sense they make as future conditions become clearer.  So if the “city street, four-lane” alternative is not included as a possible alternative now, it will be forever off the table.

It’s time that we replace this obsolete highway with something that better embodies the residents’ and city’s’ vision of neighborhood revitalization.  It’s time that our traffic planning process begins to embody the understanding that the universe does not revolve around the earth, that livability does not depend on car access, and that a sustainable and healthy future requires a new paradigm.


Thanks to Charlie Denison, Alex Espstein, Steven Nutter, Mark Chase, and Kara Oberg for facts and feedback.


Previous posts on similar topics include:


> FIX THE PROBLEM, NOT THE BRIDGE: How MassDOT Can Avoid Wasting $14 Million on the McGrath Highway

THE THREE SISTERS – CASEY OVERPASS, McGRATH HIGHWAY, RUTHERFORD AVE: MassDOT’s Credibility Crisis and the Need to Work Together

HOW ROADS SHAPE ECONOMIES: Why What Happens to the McGrath/O’Brien Highway, Sullivan Station, and Rutherford Ave. Will Make – or Break – Local Job Opportunities and Community Well-Being In The Entire Metro Area for Decades to Come



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