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Old 02-10-2009, 09:19 AM   #34
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Re: Biking in Boston
BU bridge plans could spur road rage
Some fear closing lane will choke traffic

By Stephanie Ebbert, Globe Staff | February 10, 2009

On the Boston University Bridge during a recent weeknight rush hour, bicyclists winced in the frigid air, moving quickly past the long line of cars whose brake lights glowed all the way from the rotary in Cambridge to the traffic light on Commonwealth Avenue.

Disgruntled drivers blamed the traffic chokepoint on a sidewalk repair project that has temporarily squeezed two lanes of bridge traffic down to one. Now, some fear that gridlock will become standard if the state proceeds with plans to close a traffic lane on the bridge to create two bike lanes.

"There's going to be road rage," predicted Stanley Spiegel, who lives across the bridge in Brookline. "If you're going to spend public money to go for an improvement, you don't predictably make things worse. That's nuts."

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation - which manages the BU Bridge over the Charles River, linking Memorial Drive in Cambridge with Brighton, Brookline, and the Fenway - unveiled plans last fall for the BU Bridge and the two Craigie bridges near the Museum of Science.

But the plans didn't improve conditions for bicyclists, so bike advocates - whose ranks have swelled since steep gas prices persuaded many commuters to trade in their four wheels for two - turned out at DCR meetings in force.

"It was made very clear to the DCR that cyclists were very concerned about the direction that these projects were going," said David Watson, executive director of MassBike. Some 80 bike activists attended one of DCR's public meetings on bridges, he said. "That definitely got Commissioner Sullivan's attention."

But when the DCR unveiled new, bike-friendly plans for the BU Bridge late last month with plans to advertise for bids on the project in the coming weeks, some motorists reacted with dread.

"To me, the most straightforward thing to do is to add bike lanes - not subtract them from the capacity for cars and buses," said Fred Salvucci, the former state secretary of transportation who is now a senior research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Transportation & Logistics. "It backs up as is. So we know with certainty that that doesn't work."

DCR Commissioner Richard K. Sullivan Jr. said in an interview last week that a permanent BU Bridge lane drop would not limit traffic capacity on the bridge because the $27 million renovation project includes a reconfiguration of the Cambridge rotary.

He expects that to better channel vehicles - which now crowd together from Cambridgeport and Memorial Drive, sometimes four cars deep, vying to reach the bridge.

"It's really the entrance points that are the constraining points that are keeping traffic from flowing," said Sullivan.

The DCR is preparing to renovate many of the major bridges spanning the Charles River and is making interim repairs on two major commuter thoroughfares, Longfellow Bridge and the Storrow Drive tunnel, that need more extensive overhauls in the coming years.

Bicyclists prevailed upon the state to keep their needs in mind, and the DCR hired a traffic consultant with bike and pedestrian planning expertise, Toole Design Group of Maryland.

The department now plans to hire another contractor to study bike and pedestrian issues on all its property within the Charles River Basin, and the DCR convened a newly reconstituted Bicycle and Pedestrian Working Group on Friday.

"DCR does seem to be listening to people's comments - not just from the cycling community but from everybody who's interested. Hopefully what we're hearing will actually turn out to be a good solution," said Watson.

But some question whether all the bridges the DCR is trying to repair are bike-worthy. Some bridges leave little room for error. And the Craigie bridges lead bicyclists to the unfriendly road convergence of Leverett Circle.

"I'm not sure there's anything worse than Leverett Circle," said state Representative Martha M. Walz, a Back Bay Democrat. "Since it was just redesigned, we've lost an opportunity to make that more bike-friendly. We don't want to lose any opportunities for bike lanes whenever it's possible."

Some commuters who use the BU Bridge said they have mixed feelings about the bike lanes. Though they want to encourage biking, they don't want to sacrifice any space for cars.

"The environmentalist in me says, 'Add a bike lane,' " said Amy Lipman, 38, as she crossed the bridge from her job in the Longwood Medical Area to her home in Cambridgeport. But then she sees the traffic backed up.

Diana Spiegel, Stanley's wife, who works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said she is sympathetic to bicyclists' concerns; she used to commute by bike from Watertown.

"I do understand there are safety issues that they really have to fix. We don't want the bridge collapsing or somebody falling through a hole," she said. "But change that will reduce capacity and back up Comm. Ave. in both directions? That, I was concerned about."

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at
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