Will Our River Crossings Be Bridges or Barriers?

The Charles River is one of the defining features of our region.  From the time humans first arrived, we have used it for sustenance, pleasure, and travel.  While the basin feels like a refuge of nature in the midst of our urban lives, nearly every inch of the river – from the shore to the deepest channel – has been shaped by human activity.  The river and the structures around it need to be managed to preserve their value to the life cycle while maximizing their human functionality.

In particular, the bridges over the river can help connect our communities, provide access to the riverbank, and be an aesthetic asset.  Or they can make travel difficult, even dangerous, block us off from the river, and serve as walls preventing movement on or beside the water.  As the state begins a once-in-a-lifetime process of repairing and improving almost every bridge along the Charles, we need to make sure that it’s done right.

There are more than 8 miles of paths and parks along the river.  The Esplanade and the Hatch Shell are regional treasures serving not only the local population but as an important tourist attraction as well.  The park and wetlands help recycle water runoff and are home to fish, fowl, and animal life.

But for the past 50 years the river basin has primarily served as a transportation corridor to speed movement of a growing number of cars.  However, once constructed the bridges and river-side roads were allowed to slowly deteriorate until they are now in dangerous condition.  In fact, it not only the bridge structures that are unsafe but also the car-centric layout of the roads over and around the bridges have become perilous for pedestrians, bicyclists, people in wheelchairs, and even car drivers!

This is not solely a Massachusetts phenomenon, nor is it restricted to river basins.  Across the USA, car accidents are the leading cause of death for children and young adults from ages 4 through 24, killing 41,000 people annually overall – the highest rate in the developed world and the equivalent of two jumbo jets crashing every week killing everyone on board!  It is particular dangerous to pedestrians: each month, on average, more than 400 pedestrians are killed.  Over the past 15 years, up to 40% of these “accidents” happened on roadways that advocates describe as “dangerous by design” –

engineered for speeding traffic with little or no provision made for people on foot, in wheelchairs, or on a bicycle.

But, like airplane crashes, bridge incidents are particularly headline-provoking.  The shocking collapse of the Minneapolis bridge in 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145, precipitated a crisis.  Partly in response, Governor Patrick asked for nearly $3 billion of bond authorization to create an Accelerated Bridge Program (ABP) that will repair or preserve hundreds of bridges across the Commonwealth – including nearly every one along the lower Charles.  The collapsing national economy then prompted the passage of the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) program, commonly referred to as the “stimulus money,” that has made hundreds of millions more available.

At first, the state’s engineers treated the program as a straightforward repair job – use the ABP’s limited time frame and funds to fix the bridge’s structural deficiencies.  The Longfellow Bridge, for example, is falling apart.  But the flow of pedestrians, bicyclists, joggers, people on wheelchairs, and cars over, on to, and off of the bridge is just as dangerous.  Years of only caring about car traffic has left the bridge unable to adequately serve anything else.  The state originally planned to spend $350 million fixing the structure – but not fixing the dysfunctional traffic flow.

Fortunately, at least in the Charles River Basin, advocates bombarded the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) – agency originally in charge of the project – demanding that it would do the Commonwealth no good, and reflect no credit on state leaders, to have solid structures that do not improve transportation.  Ultimately, the issue is not the concrete and steel under the bridge but the functionality of the roadway on top of it.  Advocates successfully demanded that DCR’s vision of the ABP had to include improvements in the functionality of the bridges for all citizens no matter if they were traveling by subway, car, bike, foot, wheelchair, or whatever.

Furthermore, from a mobility perspective the ABP has to not only address the design of the bridge but also the configuration of the approaches on either side – which are typically more of a congestion and safety problem than the bridge itself.  A case in point is the entire area around the River Street and Western Ave bridges – from the Mass Pike exit on the Boston side to the turns on to Memorial Drive in Cambridge — as are both sides of the BU Bridge.  To its credit, DCR eventually agreed.

After the ABP was established, the Legislature passed a new Transportation Reform Act, turning control of the bridges (and some parkways) over to the new Department of Transportation (MassDOT).  To their credit, MassDOT leaders endorsed the wider scope of work and enlarged public input process that DCR had accepted.  However, the agency’s operational staff, constrained by the ABP’s time and money limits, has been less enthusiastic.  For example, they seem unwilling to include the full River Street and Western Ave. area in either design or lane stripping, much less any structural work – so public pressure still seems necessary.

Advocacy is vital because bridges only undergo major work every 75 to 100 years.  Anything not done through this program is unlikely to be done in our lifetimes – perhaps even within our children’s lifetimes.  So perhaps this is also a chance to remember that bridges are places in their own right, not merely a way to get from shore to shore.  So a good design might turn the sidewalk – perhaps on the Longfellow Bridge – into a 15 foot-wide promenade with benches, plantings, even cafes and space to sit and eat or read while you enjoy the river flowing underneath.  The view would be magnificent!

Similarly, bridges sometimes act as walls, preventing people from traveling along the river bank.  Currently, many of our bridges force walkers and bicyclists to detour away from the water into the busy road, further congesting the approach roads and intersections.  But they don’t have to – years after the Eliot Bridge was finished a tunnel was constructed under the embankment to allow the river-side path to continue without interruption.  In an era when encouraging physical activity is important not only to prevent obesity but also to protect the environment and reduce our dependence on oil, it seems logical to make the most of this valuable asset.

Access to the parklands is as important as movement along it.  Currently, there is no simple way to get from the BU Bridge to the Boston-side riverbank.  Even worse: the stairways from the bridge lead directly into Storrow Drive!

(Not only the bridges, but the approach roads can cut us off from the parklands — and from each other.  Frederick Law Olmstead’s magnificent Emerald Necklace used to curve through the Fens and move gracefully and greenly to the Charles.  But as part of the massive expansion of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, the Bowker Overpass was built over Commonwealth Ave and Beacon Street – cutting Kenmore Square and Allston-Brighton off from the rest of the city, removing several acres of still-remaining green space from public access, and making it impossible to walk to the river.  The Bowker area is so ugly and dysfunctional that some of us think it should be simply be torn downLess drastically, some Northeastern University students have come up with a plan that would weave a walking and bike path under the highway and over to the Mass Ave. bridge.)

And, of course, an appropriate design has to meet the needs of the subway line and the buses that use the river crossings – as well as the growing number of pedestrian, skaters, and bicycle users.

In fact, the nice thing about re-balancing our infrastructure to give more equal prominence to walking and bicycling is that — unlike the situation with cars, where the more there are the more the number of accidents – the more bicyclists and pedestrians there are the fewer the number of accidents: probably because the more people who are walking or cycling, the more drivers get used to their presence and act appropriately.  One driver adaptation is slowing down – which not only saves the lives of those hit by a car but also reduces the number of car accidents as well.

The amazing news is that designing our streets for increased safety and non-motorized use does not have to reduce car through-put.  As many cities have learned, letting cars move slowly but steadily creates just as much through-put as allowing them to repeatedly race to the next red light.  Central Square, in Cambridge, used to handle about 21,000 vehicles a day, with endless congestion.  Then Mass Ave was put on a “road diet,” cutting the 5 lanes down to 2, and adding a sidewalk plaza, more pedestrian crossings, bus pull outs, and bike lanes.  It’s not surprising that the accident rate has plummeted.  But here’s the amazing thing – the same 21,000 vehicles still go through there every day!

And, as Boston learned during the decades of Big Dig road obstructions, and New York has learned through the shut-down of the West Side Highway, the opposite of “it you build it, they will come” is “if you take it away, they go away!”   Both cities, and many others, found that the loss of major traffic capacity had nowhere near the disastrous consequences that traffic planners predicted.

Even more important from a long range perspective, the historic steady growth in car traffic is slowing and even reversing.  Almost every prediction of future traffic volume made around Boston over the past decade has turned out to be much higher than actual numbers.  Recent traffic counts on the Longfellow and other bridges have shown the number of cars to be way below former peaks – while the number of pedestrians and bicyclist are rapidly increasing:  in some cases already exceeding the car traffic!

What happens to the river basin over the next few years will shape transportation, recreation, and environmental patterns for the next fifty to one hundred years.  With the support of Obama’s federal transportation officials who are issuing new policies promoting multi-modal infrastructures, transportation leaders in Governor Patrick’s Administration seem to embrace the idea that 21st century mobility will happen in more ways that single occupancy cars.  But good will is not enough to overcome years of automotive inertia.  Citizens and advocates need to organize and make themselves heard.  We have to make sure that our bridges, as well as our entire road system, are turned into livable streets!

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