Wednesday, July 17, 2024

A pedestrian crosses Massachusetts Avenue at Porter Square on Sept. 11, 2022. (Photo: Marc Levy)

In envisioning how Massachusetts Avenue changes between now and 2040, the city’s Massachusetts Avenue Planning Study study is taking into account a less-heard-from group in Cambridge: pedestrians.

The study group is looking between Alewife Brook Parkway and Cambridge Common on a road that is the busiest in Cambridge, with 21,000 vehicles using it daily, 12,000 bus commuters and bicycle use that has risen 34 percent since 2018 – and one goal is “street design that minimizes the severity or reduces the number of crashes,” assistant transportation planner Andy Reker said at a Feb. 29 meeting.

He also wants to find better bus stop locations for the 77 with the MBTA, which is working on a bus network redesign that includes many Cambridge routes.

During a breakout session, though, a resident identified as Jessica expressed concern that pedestrians have been overlooked in past discussions about improvements. “There were a lot of really loud voices on the question of Mass. Ave., and maybe pedestrians are the quietest voice,” she said. “I just want to make sure that voice isn’t lost, because we all walk at some point.”

The lack was acknowledged by Drew Kane, senior city planner for Cambridge. “We hear a lot about the separated bike lanes, we hear a lot about the need for the provisions of parking and the provisions of separate loading areas, we hear a lot about transit, but we don’t hear a lot about pedestrians,” Kane said.

The focus is on land use and urban design, largely separate from a Massachusetts Avenue partial reconstruction project that is underway concerning bike lanes and other modes of transportation, though there will be some overlap, city councillors were told Jan. 22. Stacy Chen, principal at the design firm Interface Studio, described this project as “everything beyond the roadway” – including but not limited to sidewalks, housing and businesses and the sewers that run underneath.

Kane hopes to be able to improve sidewalks, particularly by adding more benches and trees, which will be essential as summers get warmer. Maintaining street trees is a difficult task, but the Department of Public Works has been working on finding hardier trees that can survive in a cramped urban environment. “This process really also does want to focus on the streetscape. While we can’t control the space between the two curbs, we can have influence on what it feels like otherwise, when you’re on the sidewalk,” Kane said.

The plan is hoped to also lead to more housing, since Massachusetts Avenue offers access to transit, employment and shopping, Kane said.

That may be difficult with current zoning, he said. Massachusetts Avenue was downzoned in the 1960s to restrict allowable building height around taller buildings that are grandfathered in.

More density leads to more traffic, Kane said, but a sweet spot can found. “There are always tradeoffs when it comes to planning,” Kane said.

Another planning area is stormwater management, as increased rainfall resulting from climate change means a higher chance of untreated sewage overflowing into the Charles River and Alewife Brook. A decadeslong improvement project has left 40 miles of system, or roughly 45 percent, in which sewage and stormwater can still mingle.

The city hopes landscaping changes will let more water seep directly into the ground as opposed to going into storm sewers, helping avoiding the need for the city to recommend people avoid contact with the Charles and Alewife Brook after heavy storms.

The city invites comments and feedback on Massachusetts Avenue using a map tool toward a “15-year vision plan that will guide future development and support a thriving local business community.” The project page is here, with a next community meeting expected 6 to 7:30 p.m. March 27.