Friday, May 24, 2024

A bus-only lane on Massachusetts Avenue in North Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge is in the midst of a generational change in how we think about transportation and how people move on our streets. Currently, Massachusetts Avenue through Porter Square is taking center stage for that change. While some of the loudest debate right now focuses on parking and bike lanes, the outcome is just as critical to the more than 10,000 people per day who ride buses along this part of the avenue but rarely have a voice in the current approach to public engagement processes.

A transformed Massachusetts Avenue must allocate space that prioritizes people over vehicles, as declared in Gov. Charlie Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation. Just as important as visible infrastructure changes on the street will be behind-the-scenes operational preparations for new high-frequency, more reliable bus service through the MBTA’s recently launched Bus Network Redesign. The decisions made and the steps taken today will determine how people move on Massachusetts Avenue for decades to come, and how successfully the new bus network can deliver this level of bus service.

The MBTA’s proposed Bus Network Redesign is the culmination of a yearslong process to make bus service better, faster and more reliable. It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the MBTA’s bus network to meet the needs of people who ride the bus today – not 50 years ago – and to encourage more people to ride in the future. It designates Massachusetts Avenue as a key corridor for high-frequency bus routes, running every 15 minutes or better for 20 hours a day, seven days a week.

The improved routes will connect people to and through Porter Square, from Arlington and Malden, with direct connections to destinations throughout the region. Around Porter Square, this includes the proposed T77 and T96 high-frequency routes. The 83 will also run every 30 minutes or better.

The MBTA’s plan on its own gets us only partway to this vision and to what people who ride the bus deserve. We need municipalities and other roadway owners to do their part by making room for bus priority lanes and improved bus stops. That means hard conversations about how to allocate limited street space – conversations that are already happening in Cambridge, but that have been focused largely on space for bikes and street parking. It’s time for buses and the people who rely on them to become part of these conversations.

Cambridge has already been a leader on bus priority, multimodal streets for walking and biking, and creative placemaking. The city also has some of the region’s – and nation’ – most ambitious goals for climate resilience and sustainability. The redesign of Massachusetts Avenue not just at Porter Square but along the entire corridor, from Alewife Brook Parkway at the Arlington line to the Massachusetts Avenue bridge across the Charles River, is a regional opportunity to demonstrate how a community can put its equity, safety and sustainability goals into action by transforming its most iconic street.

Municipalities, planners and decision-makers are realizing that to tackle congestion, cut climate pollution, improve public health, unlock economic opportunities and bridge racial equity gaps, we need to design streets that prioritize the movement of people. Sometimes that means making hard decisions and big diversions from “how it’s always been.” But with Greater Boston suffering from some of the worst vehicle congestion in the country and our ever-intensifying climate crisis, leaving the status quo in place will only exacerbate our problems.

The sad truth is that so far, despite a decade of talk, Massachusetts is failing to meet its goals for cutting vehicle pollution, reducing road deaths and improving transportation equity. We can’t let opportunities for transformative change pass us by.

To truly fix transportation requires not just a new coat of paint but visionary, people-centered transformation. Delivering real mobility solutions are essential for meeting the goals established by the city, such as the Vehicle Trip Reduction Ordinance, Cambridge Transit Strategic Plan, Envision Cambridge and Cambridge Climate Action Plan, and by the state through the Global Warming Solutions Act and Net Zero Emissions goals.

Making roadways safe, comfortable and accessible for users of all ages, abilities, income and travel modes leads to healthier and stronger communities. Transforming Massachusetts Avenue is an important step toward delivering the modern, reliable transportation network that Greater Boston truly needs and deserves.

Adi Nochur is Senior Transportation Planner at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Julia Wallerce is Boston Program Manager for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.