Building a safer, climate-ready Mass. Ave.
How should we allocate space on our streets in a way that allows the most people to get around safely and conveniently, while meeting our critical climate goals? That’s the question at the heart of the city’s ongoing conversation about how best to redesign Massachusetts Avenue through the Porter Square area.
As environmental advocates, we approach this topic from the perspective of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which makes clear that the need for action is more urgent than ever as our oceans continue to rise, storms become more severe and heat waves become more deadly. The more quickly and boldly we act, the better our chances of avoiding the worst harms.
Our roads are part of the public right of way, a public good held in common for the benefit of all residents. They occupy an immense amount of land in our city, and equitable and sustainable public land use is central to a more climate-resilient future. We believe this big picture is important to remember as we discuss details on a block-by-block level. Let’s review why getting road design right is so critical.
Pollution from fossil-fueled vehicles is Massachusetts’ top contributor to global warming – and these emissions are still rising. Crashes involving people in vehicles, on bicycles, on foot and traveling by other modes remain stubbornly high. And at a time of sky-high gas prices, we need to give people more options for how to get where they need to go affordably.
We need to engage a wide range of voices in how best to serve the entire Cambridge community, but we also need action. The longer we wait to redesign our roads, the more we’re delaying the benefits for everyone and the further we remain from our climate and clean-air goals.
Two ways to help people get around safely and reliably with a low (or no) carbon footprint is by building bus lanes and protected bike lanes. They’re incredibly effective and popular. Bus lanes across the region, including in Cambridge, have effectively delivered faster, more reliable service that also leads to more people choosing to ride the bus. Two-thirds of Cambridge residents want more protected bike lanes, according to the 2018 citywide survey, and already this piece of Massachusetts Avenue is used by nearly 1,800 cyclists daily. Recent polling indicates that nearly 70 percent of Boston-area voters would like to see more street space dedicated to buses and bikes, even if it means reducing space for cars. Plus, streets that are narrower lead to slower vehicle speeds, making it safer and more comfortable for people walking and crossing the street.
The climate crisis brings an urgency to this work, and these changes can be done quickly if the city moves decisively. These changes specifically need to reduce the use of gas-powered vehicles and instead prioritize green modes of travel through the addition of bus lanes and protected bike lanes through Porter Square this year, and transitioning to center-running dedicated bus lanes and extending the bike lanes along the entirety of Massachusetts Avenue in the next few years. These changes will provide faster, more reliable service for bus riders, safer and more comfortable street crossings and bicycle travel, all while creating more space at the curb for deliveries, parking or even parklets and outdoor dining.
There has been a lot of confusion about what road redesigns might look like along Massachusetts Avenue, and for ordinary people following the debate, the amount of information has felt overwhelming. It’s important to note that those who need to use cars will still be able to use Massachusetts Avenue and there will still be parking within a short distance of local businesses – there are no plans to remove all the parking along the corridor. We believe that reducing street parking is a fair compromise considering the environmental and public health benefits everyone will experience from more people feeling safe and confident walking, cycling and taking transit to destinations along Massachusetts Avenue, which in effect reduces the demand on parking spaces so they are available to those who need them most.
The challenge we face is that, right now, even though one in three Cambridge households doesn’t own a car, virtually all of the public street space along Massachusetts Avenue is dedicated to moving and storing cars. If we were starting from scratch today – looking to create a road that is sustainable, accessible, economically vibrant and safe – we’d never design it that way. It’s long past time that we take a close look at how to correct status quo designs that no longer meet the needs of people and our planet.
If we get this right, we can redesign Massachusetts Avenue in a way that works for everyone – parents and children going to school, people going to work, shopping at small businesses, or just enjoying being out and about on a beautiful spring day.
And in doing so, we can build a street that’s more sustainable, equitable, enjoyable and safe for generations to come.
Veena Dharmaraj is director of transportation for the Massachusetts Sierra Club. John MacDougall is a Porter Square resident, a member of the 350 Mass Cambridge-Somerville node and co-chair of the 350 Mass Transportation Working Group. Steven Nutter is executive director of Green Cambridge.