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Comments by John Allen on
Request for a Proposal
for the Fresh Pond area,
October 1, 1995

Revised January 19, 1996 to reflect discussions at the Cambridge Bicycle Committee meeting of January 17, 1996

[Note: Only the section in red is new with the January 19, 1996 version, which I composed after attending my final meeting  of the Cambridge Bicycle Committee as a member, on January 17, 1996. I have not yet confirmed whether or not I distributed the January 19, 1996 version to the Committee. It does confirm that I discussed the Fresh Pond project as a Committee member. -- John S. Allen, October 17, 2002.]

The proposal is for a variety of improvements of different types. The uniting principle is that the project is shaped to be an attractive candidate for enhancement funding under the ISTEA (the Federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991). You didn't know about ISTEA? well, here's another reason to go to the Pro-Bike conference as I recommended in my parting comments to the Bicycle Committee. I'll fill you in on what enhancement funding is, for now.

Enhancement funding is conceived not as the hard core of the transportation project: it does not build highways or railroad stations, for example. Enhancement funding, essentially, is available for a wide range of purposes peripheral to but related to transportation projects, including historic preservation, parkland improvements along roads, and bicycle and pedestrian improvements in conjunction with the rebuilding of roads.

The Fresh Pond project falls into many of these categories. It was carefully and intelligently shaped ("scoped" to use government language) to push as many buttons as possible to make it eligible for enhancement funding, and to leave out anything that would reduce its eligibility.

The project includes parkland improvements in Fresh Pond Park, renovations to a historic waterworks building, and bicycle and pedestrian paths.

When this project was first discussed at a Bicycle Committee meeting, I described it, quite accurately, as a "grab-bag" project. Cara Seiderman was clearly somewhat offended at this description, though it is accurate. I meant not to offend but to express admiration for her and the City's cleverness in going for the funding. Cambridge has a better than usual success rate in obtaining funding from state and federal sources

The one hitch with the process is the strings attached to the funding the City gets. It may not pay for exactly the project the City would want if it could decide for itself. Government officials and advisory committees like the Cambridge Bicycle Committee have to decide to accept funding based on the best match they can find between their needs and the restrictions that go along with the funding source.

This proposal achieves a number of valid improvements but leaves out some of the most important potential ones for bicycle and pedestrian travel. Some of the proposed bicycle and pedestrian routes are circuitous and inconvenient. The following comments address this issue.

A general comment:

While the draft city's draft Bicycle Plan espouses accommodating bicycles on streets, the present project's approach is diametrically opposite. It groups bicyclists along with pedestrians almost everywhere -- the one exception being Huron Avenue with its proposed bike lanes.

I can understand not trying to accommodate bicyclists on Fresh Pond Parkway. It would be major project to widen the parkway with wide outside lanes or bicycle lanes. Fresh Pond Park, to its west, offers a convenient alternative. But is the preferred or only alternative a path in the park on its west side when a more direct alternate route is possible on streets to its east? Alewife Brook Parkway, on the other hand, will be very bicycle-friendly with its 5-foot paved shoulders, but the RFP does not mention them as a bicycle facility.

Perhaps some of the emphases of the RFP reflect the political need to push a lot of hot buttons for ISTEA funding . But on the other hand, the project's bicycling-related proposals do a poor job of providing for through travel in the corridor it claims to serve and so I feel that the City owes the Bicycle Committee an explanation.

Specific comments:

Page 1:

Demand lines for bicycle and pedestrian flow run largely at right angles to those for motor vehicle flow. Motor vehicle flow is constrained by Fresh Pond Parkway, a north-south arterial which forms a short segment of an east-west commuter corridor connecting Memorial Drive and Mount Auburn Street with Route 2. Bicycle and pedestrian traffic is more local, and one of the most serious gaps in the local network is that between West Cambridge residential neighborhoods and the adjoining Fresh Pond Park. The project does not address this. It is not on the list of important linkages at the bottom of the page.

Page 2:

The description of the project as a series of connected segments points out some important needs, but leaves too little room for study of alternative routings for bicyclists and pedestrians. In particular, the proposed route between West Cambridge and the Alewife area is extremely circuitous and slow: west on Huron Avenue, then northeast on a path adjacent to Fresh Pond Parkway. This route includes several pedestrian-type crossings, which impose serious delays on bicyclists. Note that the Kingsley Park bridge does not cross Fresh Pond Parkway: it crosses a disused rail line. Bicyclists have to travel down to the intersection of Huron Avenue and Fresh Pond Parkway, then cross as pedestrians before heading east. The bridge raises another question:

Since the abandoned rail line is a potential alternative location for a bicycle-pedestrian path, and since there is already a path along the edge of the pond, is an additional one needed? A handwritten note on my copy of the RFP states that the connection "may or may not use rail r.o.w." Couldn't the existing path next to the pond, with short, linking paths, serve until the rail line abandonment is completed? There are no destinations along the west side of Fresh Pond Parkway where the proposed improved sidewalk/path is to be located. A path here, adjacent to a busy arterial, would not be as attractive for its park experience as one farther from the Parkway.

Page 3:

Point 6 states that there is currently no safe way to cross Concord Avenue at or between the Fresh Pond Park Rotary and the Concord Avenue Rotary. There is also none between the Concord Avenue rotary and the intersection of Fresh Pond Parkway and Huron Avenue, a much greater length of roadway. This leads to the problems described in the comments to page 1, above.

In addition, there are important questions about how to accommodate bicyclists on Alewife Brook Parkway. The MDC, for reasons known to itself, has designed the east sidewalk of the Parkway as a 10-foot bicycle path, while the west sidewalk is to be only 6 feet wide. However, the Parkway is to have 5-foot shoulders as well. These will be preferable to the sidewalks in order for bicyclists to avoid conflicts with pedestrians, especially on the narrow west sidewalk. How are bicyclists entering and leaving Fresh Pond Park and other destinations to transition to and from any of these facilities? More experienced bicyclists will ride the rotary, as I do. Many may not wish to. So that they can make all movements through the intersection without going 2/3 of thee way around, pedestrians (and bicyclists operating as pedestrians) must cross Concord Avenue in both directions on both sides of the Alewife Brook Parkway rotary. The MDC has mentioned the idea of turning the rotary into a signalized intersection. In this case, if there were crosswalks across all entrances, they might meet the requirements I have described. If the rotary is to remain a rotary, it seems to me that the requirements could not be met by crosswalks without causing terrific traffic jams, and a 3-legged overpass would be the minimum solution.

Suggested changes:

  1. Consider alternatives to path along west side of Fresh Pond Parkway north of Kingsley Bridge. An alternative already exists in the path next to the pond, and another is potentially available in the railroad right-of-way.

  2. Develop a more direct bicycle route between West Cambridge and Fresh Pond Park. The most promising approach would seem to be construction of an overpass at the end of Vassal Lane. This would provide a direct connection both for local residents and for through bicycle and pedestrian traffic.

  3. Designate and improve a more direct and faster bicycle route east of Fresh Pond Parkway to connect Huron Avenue with Danehy Park and from there, via routes indicated in the existing proposal, to Alewife Station. This would avoid several pedestrian-type crossings of major roadways.

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