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The section of the Paul Dudley White bicycle paths in Cambridge described here is part of the original path system which dates from the 1960s. Most of it is a redesignated sidewalk. However, there is one newer section where an overbuilt riverfront roadway has been narrowed to make room for more parkland.

Most of this path is in a relatively narrow corridor between Memorial Drive and the Charles River -- unlike the path on the Boston side, which is in a wide riverfront park. Only just east just east of the Boston University boathouse, and along Land Boulevard from the Longfellow Bridge to the Lechmere Canal is there parkland between the path and the river. For the rest of its length, the path is built on top of the retaining wall which fronts the river, with a railing on one side, and Memorial Drive a few feet away on the other side. The path here serves as a through route for bicyclists, runners and other path users, and provides access to several boathouses but not to parkland.

Unlike the Esplanade park on the Boston side, (see Web page about the Esplanade paths), the path on the Cambridge side is accessed at street level, and only the Longfellow Bridge has an underpass for the path.

A project is in the planning stange to rebuild Memorial Drive and the riverfront, including the path. According to an e-mail message dated May 20, 2002 from Michael Halle, chair of the Cambridge Bicycle Committee,

If you're interested in being a part of the details of the next big MDC project, keep track of the "Historic Parkways Initiative Demonstration Project": a rework of Mem Drive from Longfellow to Magazine Beach based on the MDC's Charles River Basin master plan. This is a major funded project that will involve reconstruction and signalization of the Mass Ave/Mem Drive intersection, removal of a travel lane on the Mem Drive on the river side in front of MIT, a widening of the sidewalk on the river-side viaduct near the Longfellow Bridge, and several other opportunities. Planning and construction will be done in two stages and will begin essentially now, and be completed over the next few years. The MDC web site should have more information as it becomes available.

The following description of the path on the Cambridge illustrates conditions for part of this segment as they exist at present. We will start at the Boston University boathouse and proceeds eastward past the Longfellow Bridge to the end of the path at the Museum of Science Bridge.


There are five boathouses along the section of path between the BU Bridge and the Museum of Science Bridge. Four of them have doors that open directly onto the path.

The Boston University boathouse is the least trouble for path users, as the path in front of it is quite wide. The water fountain placed conveniently on the path is a nice amenity, as is the bike rack (left side of photo). Still, the opaque walls that open directly onto the path are unfortunate, and the location of the path adjacent to the roadway worsens the problem of path users' riding into the glare of car headlamps at night.

BU Boathouse. Scroll right to view the rest of the panoramic image.

020_17ABU Boathouse panorama small.jpg (52158 bytes)

Scroll left to read text

Next is MIT's Pierce Boathouse, whose entry stairs and ramp intrude into the width of the path.

Pierce Boathouse, November, 2001

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The pavement between the Pierce Boathouse and the Harvard Bridge has been heaved up in several places by the roots of trees planted close to the path. The example in the photo below is not the worst one.

Root barrier technology does exist for bicycle paths. It is needed here.

021_18Aroot damage.jpg (35959 bytes)

The intersection of the path with the end of the Harvard Bridge (carrying Massachusetts Avenue, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has always been highly unsatisfactory. It has only a narrow median, too narrow to accommodate a bicycle. In 1978, bicyclists had to go around the end of the median.

Bicycle path crossing of Harvard Bridge, 1978

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When the Harvard Bridge was reconstructed around 1990, following the catastrophic failure of a similar bridge on the Connecticut Turnpike, there was a struggle between advocates of historical preservation and traffic safety advocates. In the end, the preservationists got their historic street lamps and outside railings, but the bridge was widened somewhat. Its greater width included for narrow shoulders, allowing bicycle/motor vehicle lane sharing except at the Cambridge end, where the shoulders were tapered down so the traffic lanes could spread apart to accommodate the median.

Bicycle path crossing of Harvard Bridge, 1999

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A five-foot-wide cut was made through the median, so bicyclists no longer had to go around its end, and crosswalk lines were painted, but there are still no traffic signals, and the median is still too narrow to shelter a bicycle. The City of Cambridge would like to have traffic signals installed here, but the intersection is under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan District Commission, which has not yet moved forward with the project. In the photo below, the construction equipment is for work on Massachusetts Avenue, to the left. Only two years after the photo above was taken, the crosswalk lines have worn away in places.

Memorial Drive passes through an underpass here. Only an underpass or overpass for the path would avoid delays to path users while maintaining the level of service on Massachusetts Avenue. There is ample width in the Memorial Drive corridor for an underpass or overpass. Also, an underpass might be constructed over the river under the end of the Harvard Bridge, as has already been done at the Boston end of the Boston University bridge.

Bicycle path crossing of Harvard Bridge, 2001

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The entryway of the MIT sailing pavilion (photo below), east of the Harvard Bridge, is the only one intruding on the path that predates its designation as a bicycle path. The doors at least have windows. Note also the park bench immediately next to the path in the background. Path traffic in this 1978 photograph is typical for a warm day.  There is no way that a bicyclist can safely travel at normal speeds under these conditions. The problem today remains as it was then.

MIT Sailing Pavilion, park bench and path traffic, 1978

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The Harvard University boathouse in the photo below is just west of the Longfellow Bridge. Its entryway intrudes more effectively onto the path than any other, concealing path users and people leaving the boathouse from one another. It is hard to understand what the point of this structure is other than to support a door frame so unauthorized people do not step onto the walkway that leads to the boathouse -- though the opaque side walls are not needed to accomplish this purpose. A structure like this would be acceptable adjacent to a sidewalk, but is not acceptable when bicycle traffic passes in front of it.

Harvard University boathouse west of Longfellow Bridge, 2001

020_17A Harvard boathouse.jpg (36607 bytes)

Between the Harvard Bridge and the Longfellow Bridge, the median strip of Memorial Drive is extremely wide. If the eastbound travel lanes were moved farther from the river, a riverfront park would be created, comparable with the Esplanade on the Boston side. It would be possible to construct a path which would avoid the hazards at the doors of boathouses. East of the Longfellow Bridge, a similar redesign has already been brought to reality (see below).

Median between Harvard Bridge and Longfellow Bridge.
Scroll right to view the rest of the panoramic image.

023_20Apanorama small.jpg (75948 bytes)

Scroll left to read text

The path is reduced to a narrow strip where it passes under the Longfellow Bridge. It was clearly an afterthought, borrowed from the lane width of the original roadway underpass, which did not provide a pedestrian or bicycle crossing on the river side of Memorial Drive.

The path here is not even wide enough to meet AASHTO guidelines for a one-way path. The guardrail on the river side is so low that bicyclist can easily topple over it into the river. The raised curb between the path and the road is a safety feature as it applies to baby strollers, but can topple bicyclists into the road. And there are lampposts in the  path.

The travel lanes are wide, and bicyclists sometimes ride on the roadway here, rather than on the path, in the interest of their own safety. It is easy to get from the path to the roadway and back when traveling westbound, but not eastbound.

This situation would be expensive to correct. The path might be widened somewhat by borrowing more from the travel lanes, but more widening could be accomplished by cantilevering a structure over the river from the side of the causeway.

Causeway with path at Longfellow Bridge

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The path becomes even narrower at a lift bridge just east of the Longfellow Bridge. Nothing whatever has changed in the design of the path here since the photo below was taken in 1978.

Bicycle path at Longfellow Bridge underpass, 1978.

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East of the Longfellow Bridge, there was once a wide highway, the Cambridge Parkway, along the riverfront. Traffic has now been rerouted to another street one block inland, and without any significant loss in efficiency of travel. Most of the riverfront highway has been converted to parkland, and a new bicycle path (center of photo, next to the narrowed one-way roadway) has been constructed, separate from the riverfront walkway. These changes represent a real improvement, though the path's location directly adjacent to the roadway is less than ideal; it places westbound bicyclists in the wrong side of motor vehicle headlamp beams during hours of darkness. The path could also have been placed so it did not cross the U-shaped boathouse driveway in the foreground, though this driveway does get relatively light use. The curbs next to the path between the two walkway crossings are contrary to AASHTO guidelines, unnecessary, and undesirable, as bicyclists who stray into them will  topple over.

Runners, who prefer an unpaved surface, have trodden a path for themselves between the riverfront walkway and the bicycle path..

021_18ALand Blvd.jpg (32374 bytes)

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