Clyde and Lee Street Proposal: Bicyclists’ Dreamroute?

Four students of Northeastern University professor Peter Furth have proposed a transformation of Lee and Clyde Streets in Brookline.

These streets in the southwest part of Brookline connect Route 9 at one end with Newton Street at the other, and are an important if not very heavily-traveled arterial route. The streets pass the Brookline Reservoir, residences and the Country Club Brookline golf course. Here is a Google map of the project location:


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A Look at the Project Plans

Plans for the project were posted on the Northeastern University Web site in April of 2009. Have they changed? I can’t tell you, because I can’t find any newer version online. If you know where I can find a newer version, please let me know.

There is to be a meeting about the project on March 14, 6:30 to 8:30 PM at at the Putterham Library in Brookline, and I encourage attendance at the meeting. The meeting announcement also mentions projects along Newton and Hammond Streets. All the information I have on these is in the brief summaries here and the descriptions indicate treatments much like those on Clyde and Lee Streets. For now, let’s go with the 2009 Clyde/Lee Street plans, which are public.

The project documents are here. In connection with the comments I am about to make, it will be most useful to keep the plan drawings open in a separate window on your computer screen so you can refer to them repeatedly. They are near the end of this document. It is a PDF document, and your browser should be able to open it with the free Adobe Acrobat Reader plug-in. Start with the last page of the document and work upward. You will need to rotate the pages counterclockwise to see them right-side-up. That option is in the View menu in the Acrobat Reader. Zoom in far enough so you can read the text on the pages. You will have to scroll around some unless your computer has a very large screen.

Page P-7, the last page. shows cross sections. There is a roadway with two 12-foot travel lanes, and 2-foot offsets (narrow, striped shoulders). Turn lanes are added in a few places. To the left (west side) there is a sidewalk, and on the other side, a landscaped median and then a 12-toot wide service road.

The project would, then, narrow the roadway from four lanes to two, narrowing the striped shoulders which now exist along most of its length, and placing a service road behind a median along one side –as on parts of Commonwealth Avenue in Newton.

There are major difference, though. The Commonwealth Avenue frontage road, a legacy item from when streetcars ran in the median, is 21 feet wide, and bordered on one side by a sidewalk. It has one travel lane, and in some parts, parking is allowed along the side next to the sidewalk. Motor traffic is light. Motorists can exit into the main roadway at any cross street. . Bicyclists and runners do use the frontage road for travel in both directions, though crossing the intersections places bicyclists out of view of turning motorists, a known hazard.

The Newton Street End

Now, let’s move up to Page P-6 and look at the Newton Street end of the project and see how this service road is different from the frontage road on Commonwealth Avenue.

Suppose you are coming in a car from Newton on Newton Street, and you want to turn left to get to a house on the east side of the first block of Clyde Street. You can’t. You have to go past Clyde Street, make a U turn somewhere and come back to enter the service road.

Suppose you are riding a bicycle and want to use the service road. You can cross two legs of the intersection in crosswalks — waiting through, on average, 3/4 of a signal cycle — to enter the service road. Or, you might make the left turn as a driver, using the roadway, so your average wait is only the usual 1/4 signal cycle, but then, the roadway is to be only marginally wide enough for a motorist to pass you without intruding into the oncoming lane. With the roadway between vertical curbs, the farthest right you can ride is on the white line two feet from the curb to avoid the risk of a pedal strike. To avoid the risk of close passes, you must block the lane entirely. Very likely, motorists will object to your riding on the main roadway, expecting you to ride on the service road. The roadway doesn’t lead to many destinations along the service road, and vice versa.

If you are coming down Clyde Street from the north in a car, and headed for a destination along the southernmost block of the service road, you must turn left on Newton Street and then make a U turn to enter the service road. For all of the blocks north of Larkin Road, it appears that you must make a U turn from Clyde Street at Larkin Road –all of the gaps in the median north of Larkin Road are designed to prevent U turns. So, you may have to travel a rather long distance on the service road.

If you are headed south to a destination on the service road on a bicycle, you could on the other hand just take the service road, being careful to avoid all the other users.

About those other users: from Newton Street all the way to Sears Road (on drawing P-3), the 12-foot-wide service road would accommodate one-way northbound motor traffic as well as two-way bicycle and pedestrian traffic.

The Minuteman path in Boston’s northwest suburbs is 12 feet wide, and there are repeated complaints of conflicts between bicyclists and pedestrians. Now, imagine the Minuteman path, but with local motor traffic including residents backing out of driveways, and the garbage truck, and the trash barrels put out onto the path because part of the plan is to eliminate the sidewalk and there is no grass strip either from Clyde Street to Larkin Road.

A bike lane on the 12-foot-wide service road is described with text in the drawings, though it is not illustrated in any of them. I assume that the bike lane is for southbound bicycle traffic. The standard width of a bike lane is at least 4 feet, and of travel lane next to a bike lane, at least 10 feet, with traffic traveling in the same direction. The garbage truck is going to be more than 8 feet wide and traveling north. When the garbage truck is blocking the service road, and someone wants to get out of the neighborhoods in a car, that could be interesting too.

Oh, and also, anyone in a car leaving a home on the east side of Clyde Street or a side street, and wanting to go south toward Newton Street would have to travel northbound first, and then make a U turn, because all of the gaps in the median south of Sears Road are designed to prevent entry from the side street. (Have a look at drawings P-5 and P-4.) At Sears Road, the main roadway is divided with a median, so motorists will have to continue further north on Lee Street before they can turn around and come back to the south.

Bicyclists would have it easier: they could head south in the Service Road and then turn right onto Newton Street with only a 1/4 signal cycle delay compared with turning right the usual way from the right side of the street, but if turning left onto Newton street, they would either be using the two crosswalks (3/4 signal cycle) , or to save time, they would cross Newton street on the left side of the intersection without the benefit of a traffic signal, turn lane or crosswalk. Many bicyclists do that kind of thing when they get impatient with indirect routes and long delays.

Comparison with Nonantum Road

As a brief aside, let me make a comparison with a recent road reconstruction which similarly has a multi-use path alongside the roadway: Nonantum Road between North Beacon Street and Watertown Square. Here is a description of that project. Nonantum Road also is being reduced from four lanes to two, but with a 3-foot shoulder on each side and a four-foot flush median in the middle. The median was specifically mentioned by the design team as reducing the risk of head-on collisions, and allows motorists safely to deviate slightly to the left to overtake bicyclists riding on the shoulders. The narrowing of the roadway made it possible to widen the path on the river side of Nonantum Road from 8 feet to 10 feet — a bit of a compromise, but on the other hand, the faster bicyclists have the option to use the roadway, which also is more convenient if making a left turn. Flexibility is maintained for changes in the traffic mix including a foreseeable increase in the use of motor scooters, which are not allowed on paths. The roadway of Nonantum Road will still be wide enough for traffic to pass in both directions if a vehicle breaks down. I am pleased to have participated in the public input on this project.

By narrowing the roadway to a minimum, the Clyde/Lee Street proposal does not afford any of these advantages. It will be awkward for motorists to overtake bicycles and mopeds. There will be an unnecessary risk of head-on collisions. Breakdowns will cause traffic jams. There is no provision for bus stops in the plan, either. If the bus stops, everyone stops.

The West Side

Now, let’s look at the west side of Clyde/Lee street. There are a number of residences along the west side. Bicyclists traveling to or from them will have to use the narrowed roadway, or else cross the grass median and the roadway to use the service road. Or, some will ride on the west sidewalk, and that is poor idea.

Left turns are to be blocked where Lee Street joins Clyde Street from the west, in drawing P-5, here in a Google Street View:


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This is an inconvenience for local residents and for bicyclists headed into the neighborhood to the west or to continue west on Warren Street and heath Street, a favored alternative to Route 9.

Now, let’s continue to look at drawing P-3. At Sears Road, motor traffic is required to exit the service road, which remains at the same 12-foot width and now carries only bicycle and pedestrian traffic — though several driveways cross it. Driveway crossings on paths are a known hazard.

The plans show no provision for bicyclists to cross from the path onto Warren Street westbound (drawing P-2). This is especially a problem because of the removal of the left turn at Clyde and Lee Streets.

North to Boylston Street

The path crosses Warren Street in a crosswalk on the east side of a roundabout, once again becoming a 12-foot wide service road, with no sidewalk. At Dudley Street, the service road becomes a path again.

Then the path proceeds to Boylston Street (Route 9), where it turns right and merges into the sidewalk along Boylston Street, making no provision for bicyclists or pedestrians to cross Boylston Street or turn left to enter or leave the path.

Conclusions

First of all, Lee/Clyde Street is presently one of the easiest arterials to ride in the Boston area for competent adult bicyclists. It is wide, relatively level, and traffic is relatively light. It is overbuilt, at the same time making it easy for motorists to overtake bicyclists, promoting speeding and creating an ungly expanse of pavement.

The Northeastern students’ proposal is supposed to create a facility that is attractive for children and novice cyclists. Let me propose that there are so many problems with this design that they seriously outweigh that potential advantage.

The students’ proposal will make Clyde and Lee streets slower and more inconvenient for adult cyclists without making it safe for children, and while causing serious inconvenience to motorists. Yes, all the greenery is nice, but we could have greenery while maintaining the flexibility and year-round usability of the street. Other options will work better, all in all.

I suggest that the street be reduced from four lanes as at present to two lanes with a flush center median which becomes a left-turn lane as needed, as on Nonantum Road. In this way, the width of the roadway could be reduced somewhat, allowing plantings alongside the street rather than in a median — where people get less enjoyment of them. There would still be width for bike lanes or shoulders, much wider than on Nonantum Road, and for sidewalks.

My proposal would avoid the hazards of mixing bicycle, pedestrian and motor traffic on a 12-foot wide service road. It would avoid the long detours and U turns for bicyclists and motorists alike. It would keep the main roadway wide enoiugh to accommodate changes in the traffic mix, bus stops, or breakdowns. Speeding on this street could be brought under control with moderate traffic calming measures such as speed tables and, dare I say it, enforcement.

Access in winter also is an issue. There has been little success in keeping mixed-use paths in the Boston area open in winter, either for bicycling or for walking. The Northeastern University students’ proposal offers no practical access for bicyclists in winter.

My proposal would not create a path separate from the main roadway, suitable for little children to ride. Neither would the Northeastern students’ proposal: it would create a path like the Minuteman path, only with motor vehicles traveling along it, entering it and crossing it at numerous locations. If there is to be a bicycle route in this corridor suitable for child cyclists, it will be away from roads — and/or make use of some of the very lightly traveled roads in the neighborhoods to the east or west.

There has been some rather pointed backlash against the students’ proposal. This letter to the Brookline Patch online news service accuses the proponents of secrecy about their plans while attempting to construct a bicyclists’ “Brookline hippieville dreamroute”. The letter is intemperate and unfair, but it’s how the proposal looks to some local residents. Can they, I hope, understand that some bicyclists have our own concerns about what is proposed, and would prefer something that would also appeal better to them?

I certainly don’t think that the Northeastern students’ proposal is a dreamroute. And also, I could add that there is reason for concern about the expense of the project: $3 million, in a time of tight municipal budgets. A project which is less ambitious, less expensive, better presented and friendlier to its neighbors has a much greater chance of acceptance and of success. I hope that my comments have helped to guide planning in that direction.

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