My comments on the North Washington Street Bridge project

The comments below were addressed to Patricia Leavenworth, Chief Engineer at MassDOT.

ATTN: Bridge Project Management, Project File No. 604173

Dear Ms. Leavenworth:

I attended the 75% design about the North Washington Street bridge project on October 19, and I am commenting on that project.

The quote below is on page 13 of the minutes of the December 28, 2015 25% Design public hearing,

PJ (Para Jayasinghe): That is a very important point- the future impact of traffic. The best way for me to address that type of concern, because it has been raised, is to tell you that today the bridge surface has two lanes coming in and two lanes out. The city has made a modal choice to allocate a certain amount of space to cyclists. That vision or objective is germane to the city to shift modality. That’s what we’re hoping for. If it turns out that no one is cycling, we could add an additional lane. Here’s what we have done- the bottom of the bridge is structured so that the top part of the bridge can be reprogrammed without much pain.

Mr. Jayasinghe, the City of Boston engineer on the project, reiterated this comment at the October 19 meeting, while indicating that the design now will have 5 travel lanes including a dedicated bus lane southbound.

The proposed bridge pier detail on page 24 of the presentation at the April 16 meeting shows that the bikeway is directly over the outer bridge piers and of the same construction as the roadway — able to carry the weight of heavy vehicles. Only the sidewalk is cantilevered out beyond the piers. That has not changed, and so the possibility of increasing the number of travel lanes by eliminating the bikeways definitely exists. The barrier, plantings and decorative structures would have to be removed to accomplish this.

There was much discussion at the meeting of the need for more travel lanes on the bridge. Though I am a bicycling advocate, I understand that concern, and I have others:

  • The proposed bikeways, 7 feet wide with a curb on one side and a fence on the other, are inadequate in the light of the wide range of bicyclists’ speeds, and will become more so due to the increasing popularity of electrically-assisted bicycles — with top speeds under electrical power up to 20 MPH, or 28 mph for the fastest class, not to speak of gasoline-powered mopeds. Overtaking is not safe in this confined space. Bicyclists must ride with the wheel track two feet from a curb and three feet from a fence to be safe. Then handlebars two feet long are touching each other.
  • To get to the overlooks on the bridge for sightseeing, bicyclists in a curbed bikeway will have to stop and lift their bicycles over the curb, blocking the way for other bicyclists, and will be tempted to stay on the sidewalk when continuing their trips, rather than jumping down over the curb.
  • These considerations suggest that the bikeway should be at the same level as the sidewalk, in which case the usable width also would be greater due to the absence of a curb. On the Harvard Bridge, much narrower sidewalks accommodate both bicycles and pedestrians, if awkwardly.
  • The fence adjacent to the bikeway shown on page 36 of the April 16 presentation does not conform to AASHTO Guidelines, as it does not have a handlebar-height rub strip. The vertical posts are likely to catch bicyclists’ handlebars and topple the bicyclists across the bikeway.
  • Mopeds and fast electrically-assisted bicycles do not belong on the bikeway adjacent to the sidewalk, but will use it if traffic backs up in the travel lanes and there are no bike lanes. Designated bike lanes on the roadway would seem possible, as there are already shoulder stripes, and would accommodate the faster bicycle, electric bicycle and moped traffic. These could be in addition to bikeways in sidewalk space, or if the roadway is widened to 6 lanes, then bike lanes become even more important, though some bicyclists will still travel in sidewalk space as they do on the Harvard Bridge.
  • The connection to the streets at City Square, Charlestown invites “right hook” collisions by forcing motorists to turn right from the left side of bicyclists. I don’t see any safe way for bicyclists to continue straight or to turn left without a separate signal phase, which will increase delay for everyone. Tourists and other casual bicyclists may put up with the delay which will be necessary if there is a separate traffic signal phase, but people who want to make time are better served by travel on the roadway. As there is an underpass under the north end of the bridge, I’d hope that the northbound bikeway had a direct connection to it to get to/from Paul Revere Park, and an option to merge into the flow of street traffic to continue on North Rutherford Avenue.
  • There is no direct connection between sidewalks and bikeways on the bridge and the bicycle-pedestrian underpass under the south end of the bridge: cyclists and pedestrians must travel on Causeway Street to make this connection. I recall discussion of an elevator but I’d like to see a route suitable for casual cyclists.
  • Merging distance for bicyclists turning left from the bridge onto Causeway Street in the left-turn lane is short, with two lanes to cross. The proposed two-stage turn queuing box involves waiting for an additional signal phase. Many bicyclists and moped riders will not have the patience for this. This is another reason for bike lanes on the bridge, which would allow merging earlier.
  • The bike lanes on North Washington Street are in the door zone of parked cars. Shared-lane markings and designation of alternate routes on parallel streets would be preferable, lacking the option to remove parking.
  • I might also ask why Endicott Street couldn’t be brought out to North Washington Street farther from Keany Square, as at present, or even farther back — to avoid the need for a separate traffic-signal phase to avoid conflicts with right-turning traffic from North Washington Street.
  • This is a transportation project but elements of it are being designed as an art project. I agree with presenters at the October meeting that the Zakim-Bunker Hill bridge is iconic, but to me the proposed decorative structures above the deck of the new North Washington Street Bridge do not echo it and are just silly: they look like a dinosaur skeleton. The expense of these totally nonfunctional decorative structures might better, in my opinion, go into features which improve the functionality of the bridge, particularly the connections I’ve proposed to Paul Revere Park and the underpass at the south end. Roofs over the proposed overlooks so tourists can enjoy them in wet weather would be functional as well as decorative.
  • I was assured at the October 19 meeting that plans are underway to construct a bicycle and pedestrian path crossing the Charles River on one side of the bridge at North Station, as well as an overpass over the tracks. I applaud these proposals, both of which hold promise to reduce demand for bicycle and pedestrian travel across the North Washington street Bridge, and make many trips shorter.

I list affiliations below [in my letter to Ms. Leavenworth], but the opinions I express are my own.

I thank you for your attention.

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