Pearl Street redesign is chance to perfect the future of urban transportation in city
The MBTA is going through a rough time, but solutions to delays and breakdowns seem elusive. One obvious (albeit small) opportunity for improvement is redesigning Pearl Street. So far, the conversation about the reconstruction has erroneously been framed as a showdown between bikes and parking. In reality, the redesign is an opportunity to exemplify the future of urban transportation: more efficient public transportation, more bicyclists and pedestrians, and fewer cars, which means fewer emissions.
The “complete streets” redesign by Cambridge’s Community Development Department proposes eliminating parking on one side of the street during the day to create a bike lane and widening the street to allow enough room for bus lanes to be “generous and clear.” However, the plan, while a great step forward, is missing some key elements to ensure efficiency and safety.
The 47 bus has five stops on Pearl Street and carries an average of 5,036 passengers every weekday. All of these stops occur in about a half-mile area. The redesign needs to readjust bus stop frequency, a proposition that has been discussed by Joe Poirier and Dylan Russell, two life-long Cambridgeporters. They also note that buses are unable to completely pull to the curb of Pearl Street, and advocate for bumped-out curbs and lengthened stop areas. This would quicken passenger exchanges, reduce travel times, and lessen emissions and noise pollution. And, upon relocating stops, the city should install sheltered waiting areas with travel information, a measure that has been shown to attract riders, direct travel and support an integrated pedestrian network.
The plan should also better address the street’s walking infrastructure. It should repair the uneven surfaces and widen the walking area. Doing so would accommodate students walking to two nearby schools: Prospect Hill Academy and Morse Elementary School.
It is important that the redesign addresses biking. Studies have shown that having a designated lane for bikes increases route ridership among cyclists, and also among those who don’t typically ride bikes on the street, such as children and the elderly. In addition, a designated lane may encourage more Hubway users and make their travels safer; these riders often don’t wear helmets, and face riskier rides than other cyclists who have already admitted to feeling unsafe on Pearl Street.
These transportation improvements don’t need to exist as a tradeoff for convenient parking. Data provided by the city show that citywide, the demand for parking permits is declining. In 2010, the average number of permits per household in Cambridge dropped below one, and this number is continuing to fall. Plus, a study of Pearl Street concluded that side streets are able to absorb the proposed lost daytime parking. Still, there will inevitably be times when it is difficult for residents to find nearby daytime parking on a side street. Here’s where the city should step in to help. During the snow emergency just last week, the city procured free off-street parking at the First Street and Cambridgeside Galleria parking garages for area residents. The city should explore similar options for Pearl Street, making permanent passes available for residents to use in nearby parking garages and lots during the daytime only. Perhaps the city can also allow residents to park their cars to unload bulky items in the biking lane for up to five minutes.
Reducing on-street parking can be done in a way that isn’t unnecessarily burdensome to residents, while still improving transportation for the thousands of bus riders, pedestrians and cyclists that travel the street every day. The City Council must think of the transportation needs of Cambridge residents at large and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It should oppose efforts of city councillor Tim Toomey to kill the complete streets proposal, and instead consider calls to take the complete streets beyond its current plans to best accommodate all travelers.
Quinton Zondervan, president of Green Cambridge
There are many places in Cambridge that could use the “complete streets” treatment, but Pearl Street isn’t the best choice. The wonderful thing about Cambridgeport is that nearly every street is perfect for biking. I often go out of my way to bike in the neighborhood, even when I don’t need to ride through it.
I think we should spend transportation money where we can dramatically improve bicycle and pedestrian access, like on Massachusetts Ave. and other major thoroughfares. Spent in such locations, the money would make a significant improvement for alternative transportation where it is critically needed. Making an already “bikeable” part of the city a little better isn’t worth the cost of losing big opportunities elsewhere.
Honestly, I’m surprised that alternative transportation advocates would push for spending precious alternative transportation money where the impact would be so low. It seems short-sighted to me, and that’s even before taking into consideration the political capital lost by fighting residents. Think smart, think big!
I agree with AnotherConcernedCitizen. Also, there is a very simple way to dramatically improve Pearl Street without major reconfiguration. Use the available money to put as many utility lines underground and eliminate all the poles.
I think Quinton raises a good point that AnotherConcernedCitizen seems to have missed – this is not about biking. Biking is a desired side-effect of an improved streetscape, but this project should really be a carrot/stick approach to getting more people on buses, foot, bikes, and out of cars, which cause a tremendous amount of pollution. This is mostly a public transit-first redesign, which is why I’m confused that some councillors are opposed to it, as public transit is a great tool for achieving social and economic equity.
Also, Pearl Street is a pretty major street that connects Central Square with the BU Bridge and Boston/Brookline. It is certainly a primary candidate for biking/walking infrastructure improvement, as noted on Cambridge CDD’s Draft Bike Network Plan.
Long story short, climate change is coming and it is coming fast. Reconstructing the street exactly as we have built it (for cars) is not doing the neighborhood or the world at large any favors. The study is pretty clear…parking will become more difficult but not impossible. It will be a little bit more inconvenient.
If we aren’t willing to give up convenience to fight climate change, what are we willing to let go?
Cambridge02139, neither of these posts are really about biking. We have a limited number of dollars available for environmentally friendly transportation infrastructure. We should spend it in a way to produce the biggest outcome. The problem with proposals like the one defended by you and Zondervan is that it puts the cart before the proverbial horse.
As we’re seeing right now, the alternative transportation infrastructure in entire region is woefully underdeveloped. The train system doesn’t function in the snow, busses are slow, and there are few good ways to bike and walk long distances to work. The main way we can convince people to bike, walk, and ride public transportation to work and play is to make it work: have solid public transportation and thoroughfares. This changes the cost-benefit ratio and causes people to use alternative transportation.
For example, research demonstrates that many people would love to cycle to work, but in most cities, the main concern keeping them from riding is safety. As a result, where cities put in good cycling infrastructure, ridership increases. But, taking this example as the basis for a conversation, here’s the reason the Pearl Street proposal isn’t sound policy: Potential cyclists are not afraid of riding on Cambridgeport streets (which are already very bikeable), they’re worried about riding on high-traffic streets like Mass Ave or Hampshire, where there are many collisions.
If our main concern is getting people to use something other than cars, we have to develop the right infrastructure: in other words, prioritize fixing major thoroughfares. There are really good examples of this kind of transportation infrastructure, like the Milwaukee-Kinsie corridor in Chicago or the in-process reworking of South Central LA. Major thoroughfare redevelopment projects get results, minor ones can actually hurt environmental efforts.
To that end, while I agree that there are many times where using the “stick” can help (in this case, removing parking), this isn’t one of them. If people are worried about bicycling or taking public transportation, it doesn’t matter how inconvenient driving is, they’re going to do it anyway. You can’t remove parking without have a system in place that is a reasonable substitute. That’s why research demonstrates that removing parking for projects like this doesn’t work. It’s using a big stick and only offering a very small carrot. This ratio just tightens parking supply without a real alternative, causing people to spend more time driving around the neighborhood simply to find parking — actually increasing local automotive traffic. That’s one of the many reasons why proposals like this won’t meaningfully address environmental problems.
Fix the real problem — transportation infrastructure in the worst places — and then there will be good causes (and maybe even public support) for reworking Pearl — and actually protecting the environment.
@AnotherConcernedCitizen, you make some great points.
The truth is, if we can’t set the minor precedent of adding protected bike lanes to thoroughfares like Pearl (and it is a major connector from Central Sq. to BU/Brookline), it will be much harder to use that as a jumping-off point to change the most major of our streets (Mass. Ave., Concord Ave., Cambridge St., etc.) We need to make these meaningful changes on Pearl Street to show the opposition (which is almost entirely residents concerned about inconvenience) that changes are not as dramatic and apocalyptic as they might believe.
To your point regarding the cart and the horse: we are absolutely putting the cart before the horse. Right now, the MBTA is a shambles and our protected bike infrastructure is an incomplete network. If we wait for the MBTA to fix itself and for major thoroughfares to include protected bike infrastructure before we build out side streets, we will be waiting for fifty, sixty, or seventy years.
Climate change can’t wait decades. This is an emergency. Let’s put the cart before the horse and get all our neighbors behind it pushing. Pearl Street is important. Oxford Street is important. Harvard Street is important. We can’t delay progress on these streets and set a complete bike network back decades because we are waiting for the MBTA or a Mass. Ave. reconstruction.
Data shows us that people are extremely uncomfortable riding bikes on Pearl Street. Only 5.4% of people who bike on Pearl feel very comfortable using it: bit.ly/1DKMtjT
The only real dichotomy presented by the Pearl Street reconstruction project is this: will we change the street to encourage environmentally-friendly transportation, or we will we leave it exactly the same. Let’s do something – anything – to improve the street for public transit and bikes. If we rebuild it with no change (which some residents and two councillors are demanding), we’ve failed to make any forward progress. That would be a shame.
In conclusion, I agree with you and believe that you are right in that we should be prioritizing major thoroughfares. That being said, there are no major thouroughfares up for reconstruction. Pearl Street is happening now. Saying “Let’s leave Pearl Street until after Mass. Ave. and Cambridge St. are done” is a losing attitude. Let’s fix every street, every time they come up for reconstruction, to the best of our abilities.
I suppose we have to just agree to disagree here. “Something,” “anything” isn’t always better than “nothing” — although to be fair, what’s being proposed isn’t “nothing.” At least my read of the evidence is the above kind of perspective damages the environmental and alternative transportation movements. We need to be strategic and thoughtful. “Something,” “anything” won’t cut it. And, unfortunately, because this potential redesign was handled with this vague approach, neighbors aren’t pushing the cart, a good number of them seem to be standing in front of it.
As for the survey, I appreciate the effort the survey makers and takers made, but I compared the identification items to those on the Census and American Community Survey, and I’m afraid that because it’s not demographically representative of the neighborhood, it’s not very useful. In fact, not only is it not useful, it could be worse than no information. In the future, I recommend the survey producers hire a social scientist so that it’s useable. If we want to make the right decisions, we need to make them with accurate data.