Center Medians Out, Double Bike Lanes in, On Tremont St. Redesign

Tremont Street will be whittled down to two lanes of traffic without a center median strip, Boston Transportation Department (BTD) officials said on Wednesday night, June 26, in the most recent meeting on the South End thoroughfare’s changes.

Stefanie Siskin, of the BTD, told the crowd assembled at the Blackstone School cafeteria that the highly-approved-of median strips could not be included in the design. That came mostly due to concerns from the Boston Fire Department, she said.

“There was not really enough space for the fire trucks to make the turns from a side street onto Tremont Street,” she said. “That was something everyone liked in concept number one, but they felt very strongly that will not work.”

So, that has been dispatched, and the design will now include two lanes of traffic (one in each direction), floating bus stops, two bike lanes (one in each direction), and parking along the corridor.

One key controversy with the current design – which is by no means the final product – is the reduction to two lanes of traffic, and the inclusion of two bicycle lanes and the floating bus stops. Floating bus stops would require the stops to be beyond the sidewalk and the bike lane. It would mean that the bus would have to stop traffic in order to allow riders to board.

Siskin broke the news that the bike lanes would be fully protected with concrete barriers, and that was cheered.

She said they are in the process of procuring pre-cast concrete barriers to protect the bike lanes on Tremont Street – a system that was inspired by snow-heavy Winnipeg.

“That system will hopefully test on Mass Ave this year,” she said. “It is in the design and will remain in the design unless something goes wrong in the pilot on Mass Ave…We were inspired by Winnipeg in Canada because they use these and also get a lot of snow.”

Each lane would be 7.5 feet long, she said. Some, however, thought that the combination of dual bicycle lanes and the floating bus stops would really cause safety and traffic issues.

“Notwithstanding the well-intentioned concern for pedestrian safety, it would seem that much of the motivation is to accommodate protected bike lanes in both directions,” said Jamie Fox in written comments. “The move to enhance bike safety is certainly worthwhile. However, there are other locations for bike lanes, such as on the less-traveled Shawmut and Warren Avenues, that would not create traffic headaches. Sure, that may inconvenience cyclists a bit, but cars and trucks must similarly work around the maze of one-way streets in the South End.”

Fox said he could only imagine the tie-ups that will develop when someone is boarding and doesn’t immediately have the fare.

Siskin said it is going to be much more difficult to turn onto side streets at unsignalized intersections, but that was a tradeoff they have made.

“Turning to and from the side streets, especially during busy times, is going to be more challenging,” she said. “You’ll have to wait for a gap. What we learned is the all-day benefit of the land reduction outweighed the headaches at these intersections.”

One intersection on everyone’s mind was Dartmouth/W. Dedham streets, which is one of the most challenging intersections in the city. However, it appeared that the re-design wasn’t going to be able to do much to help that situation due to the lack of space to include turning lanes.

“We can’t fix all the challenges at that intersection,” she said. “It’s heavily used by vehicles and it’s narrow and there isn’t a lot of space on that street. The two streets coming together are too narrow to introduce a turning lane.”

That might frustrate drivers, who can sometimes wait two or three light cycles to take a left turn or just get through the intersection, but there are measures that will be in place for pedestrians there and throughout the corridor.

At that intersection, pedestrians are now going to get an automatic four second head start before the lights turn green for drivers – in hopes that pedestrians will be more visible and largely across the street before cars are introduced.

The first crossing that will see improvements will be East Berkeley and Berkeley streets, where there will be a six-second head start for pedestrians who hit the crossing button. “The head start is giving you the opportunity to get into the crosswalk so turning drivers can see you there,” she said.

At Clarendon and Tremont streets, there will also be a six second head start.

At West Newton, they will make the signal cycle longer, going from 45 seconds to 80 seconds.

At Concord Square, crossings would be automatic and no head starts will be proposed.

Pedestrians will also get better crossings on the side streets, where raised crosswalks will be re-aligned to match the sidewalks. As it is now, those on foot have to walk out of alignment to get to the official crossing, and during snow and rain, this can become an obstacle. The raised crosswalks will be more visible, and less of an obstacle for crossing during inclement weather.

“We have done the full survey of the corridor and we’re pretty sure we can do that at every unsignalized intersection without much problem,” she said.

All of those things aside, the fate of the corridor will fair unless double parking and other obstacles in the driving lanes are displaced.

Several residents were concerned that delivery trucks could snarl Tremont Street, and Siskin said that they believe they can conquer that by adding more five minute drop-off/pick up spaces and more loading zones.

“If we don’t set aside more space for deliveries and pick-ups to happen, the project will be a failure,” said Siskin.

Some, such as South End Forum Moderator Steve Fox, said there has been a call from the community to add a third turning lane in the center, and perhaps combine the bike lanes into one side. That, he said, could help the problem of frustrated drivers moving into oncoming traffic to round a parked bus or delivery truck.

Ken Kruckemeyer suggested putting cobble in the center of the street instead of the islands, such as is done on Columbus Avenue.

“That cobble situation on Columbus Avenue hasn’t lasted 40 years, but it certainly has lasted at least 30, and I think it works pretty well,” he said.

The City plans to continue gathering input and evaluations from the public and City departments, and will come back to the community with more designs in the fall.

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