Thursday, May 23, 2024

Catenary lines for electric buses are overhead along much of Massachusetts Avenue in North Cambridge, including its MBTA bus yard. (Photo: Mike Gajda)

Cambridge will push the MBTA to remove trolley wires over Massachusetts Avenue as quickly as possible, making more room for bike lanes to be added below without pain to businesses, Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department director Joseph Barr told city councillors Monday.

Transportation planners will also look at making more room for bikes, buses and parked and moving cars through removal of medians along Massachusetts Avenue, Barr said. His question-and-answer period with councillors tempered expectations while suggesting there was more that would be done to support businesses on the avenue either feeling or already dealing with the loss of customer parking.

“We’ll continue to make tweaks. One of the benefits of the quick-build approach is that we can continue to make changes,” Barr said. “We’re learning along the way [though] I wish that we had learned some of these lessons earlier.”

The lesson of the past six to nine months “is really that it’s the wires and the median that create a constraint. And so we really need to figure out both getting the wires removed, but also the process for the construction needed to remove portions of the median,” Barr said.

When bike and bus lanes were installed in November on Massachusetts Avenue between Dudley Street and Alewife Brook Parkway in North Cambridge, there were no overhead “catenary wires” constraining work, but the concrete median was kept. There was an outcry over lost parking from drivers and business owners that continued into Monday, with Fast Phil’s barbershop owner Cynthia Hughes calling in to ask for relief from inadequate 15-minute limits on parking spaces near her.

Hurting businesses

Councillors Dennis Carlone, Patty Nolan and Paul Toner urged Barr to not just keep adjusting parking to help small retailers and doctor’s offices, but to look ahead to avoid the damage.

“I think we can help those businesses figure some solutions out. I am very concerned about [closer] to Harvard Square, where there is more businesses and less parking,” Toner said. “We have to figure out, as councillor Carlone mentioned, some sort of mitigation plan for those businesses going forward.”

The planners “try to identify as many locations for mitigation” as possible, Barr said. North Massachusetts Avenue had more challenges than many from a linear path used by runners and bikes and being near a border with Somerville, where streets go from being one way to two ways.

The relief should begin before the changes, such as by installing parking meters on side streets to create more parking before meters are taken off Massachusetts Avenue to take it away, Carlone said, while Nolan hoped to see a block-by-block approach to parking as the road changes moved south. “There’s a section that doesn’t have the overhead wires but does have a median, but some of those blocks may not have a median – which means we actually could, without compromising public safety, have not 15-minute parking, but maybe an hour or two hours,” Nolan said. “That’s the kind of deep analysis that I think we owe our residents.”

Wires and medians

There are segments without a median, Barr agreed, but not consistently enough to make parking feasible. But where medians are used to stop drivers from making dangerous turns, there may be ways to do that without needing 6 feet of concrete in the road, Barr said. Transportation planners will be looking to the Department of Public Works to provide more information about the challenges of removing it, just as it relies on the MBTA to act on the overheard wires.

“My hope is that once the wires are down, we would be able to reestablish parking even if we can’t do any further median removal. We are absolutely trying to look for those opportunities,” Barr said.

The catenary wire system powers MBTA buses. These high-voltage wires limit possible designs because firetrucks need ample space to navigate their ladders around the overhead wires. The city said last month that plans for wire removal are not far enough along to affect the Porter Square bike lane project.

Power to those overhead lines could be shut off as of mid-March, Barr said, and state transportation officials have signaled that they will be removed. Councillor Quinton Zondervan raised the possibility of that coming within the next two years. “Perhaps we can put some parking back as soon as that occurs,” Barr said.

“We’re hoping to push them to remove them as quickly as possible,” Barr said.

Advisory group, crash reporting

Also at the Monday meeting, a response was received from the city manager about creating a Cycling Safety Ordinance Advisory Group to add to the conversation around bike-lane planning without taking away from existing ways the city gets feedback; it will be made up mostly from existing groups such as the city’s bicycle and pedestrian committees, but seek out voices “to help ensure that the group is diverse and representative of the full Cambridge community.” Councillors urged city staff to improve their outreach efforts so residents aren’t taken by surprise by changes happening around them. “It’s not a postcard, that’s not enough. An email is not enough. It’s really about in-person contact,” councillor E. Denise Simmons said.

A councillors’ call for real-time reporting on bike and pedestrian crashes was answered by city staff – after a fashion. The city responded to the request by vice mayor Alanna Mallon with a report showing that data on crashes could now be found daily on the city’s open data portal. “Anyone on the community can use this information,” city spokesman Lee Gianetti told her. “People can build websites to display this information,” and it may eventually show up on the city’s Vision Zero website.

Mallon and others tried repeatedly to remind staff that their request had been to send out the information to the public at the same time it was sent to councillors, to highlight the dangers faced on city streets. “I’m really struggling with why this is that difficult,” Mallon said, before sending it back to the City Manager’s Office to try again.