Trains, Bike Lanes and Automobiles: The Future of Transportation in the ‘Ville

transportationIllustration by Bikeyface

By Emily Cassel and Emily Hopkins

Issues of mobility have demanded a lot of our attention lately. This cruel winter especially illustrated the importance of safe streets and sidewalks. We’ve been trapped inside by snowbanks too high to scale, or we’ve been stranded by a network of trains that were at least partially shut down for nearly a month. Photos of packed MBTA platforms made the city’s overwhelmed transit system a national headline, and even if you could drive or take the bus, narrowed streets created bottlenecks and traffic remained at a near gridlock.

Bottom line: It’s been hard to get around.

But look beyond this winter, and you’ll see a Somerville that is changing the way it moves. More people than ever are biking and taking the T, and new infrastructure is on its way to get people who want to stay out of their cars off the road. There are a lot of changes on the horizon, so Scout asked the question: Where is Somerville going? 

transportation

A City on Two Wheels

Numbers aren’t as flashy as the racing bikes you see parked in the windows of local shops, but they’re just as important to Somerville’s cyclists. The latest annual report from the League of American Bicyclists—which used American Community Survey data collected through the US Census Bureau in 2013—found Somerville to be the top city for bike commuting in the Northeast. With 7.8 percent of commuters regularly cycling to work, the city is also tied for fourth nationally in commuter biking. And the overall number of city cyclists is also on the rise: The Somerville program ResiStat found that in 2013 (the most recent year for which there is data), there were 7,881 total cyclists in the city, a figure 16 percent higher than the previous year and 80 percent higher than in 2010, the first year that ResiStat tracked this information.

Not bad, when you consider that Somerville only installed its second-ever bike lane in 2008.

“That really starts at the top, with the mayor,” says Hayes Morrison, Director of Transportation and Infrastructure in the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development. “He has a saying, and it’s our overarching goal for the department, which is we want to be the most walkable, bikeable, transit-accessible city in the nation. When you make such a bold statement, everything else just kind of follows, and if you say it enough, everyone who lives here believes it too.”

Morrison, who talked to Scout at length about the city’s plans for all modes of transportation, calls the spike in cycling numbers “statistically extremely impressive.” She credits the rapid growth to a dual effort from the city to invest financially in infrastructural improvements and attempt to foster a culture that makes people feel safe getting on their bikes.

“We in Somerville take this very seriously,” Morrison says. “Bicycling is not a hobby, bikes are not children’s toys. This is a real mobility system.”

“The things that make a city bikeable are also things that make it a pleasant place to live: density, a variety of restaurants and shops and experiences,” adds Carice Reddien, owner of the bike shop Bicycle Belle (368 Beacon St.) “So those things that make it attractive—bicycling is just a part of that.” She adds that the changing culture is significant because more families are staying in the area, and they no longer feel that it’s unsafe or inconvenient for them to get around the city on two wheels. (She would know: A mother herself, Reddien responded to interview questions with one eye on her toddler, Erin, who was crawling around the shop. She frequently rides around the city with her daughter in tow.)

Somerville has systematically added to and improved upon its bike lanes in the past five years in an attempt to embrace the “8 to 80” idea—a belief that urban cycling should feel safe and comfortable for anyone between the ages of 8 and 80. The city has increased the visibility of cyclists by painting sharrows (the small white bike decals with what look like chevrons painted above them) in roadways to designate lanes shared by bikes and cars. The first green bike lanes were painted on area streets in 2014, and more are on the way. And the Beacon Street reconstruction project, which should wrap up this year, includes a designated cycle track on each side of the road. The Beacon Street track will be the first of its kind in the city, and it’s an important safety measure, as that stretch of road is one of the busiest and most dangerous cycling routes in Greater Boston.

Then, there’s Hubway, a system that is significant both infrastructurally and culturally. Somerville’s first Hubway stations—12 of them—opened last year, and four more are scheduled to open in 2015. “Sixteen stations in 4.1 square miles is a good number, but more importantly, it makes biking a legitimized mode [of transportation],” Morrison explains. “Hubway is a transit system. Just like the T, you have a membership, you use it, and people use it for their mobility and access.”

Still, the biggest forthcoming infrastructure change for the city’s cyclists could be the Community Path extension (CPX) that will accompany the coming Green Line tracks. By 2020, the CPX will connect Somerville with the rest of Greater Boston, allowing bikers, as well as pedestrians and joggers, to travel from Somerville through Cambridge and on into Boston proper—all on a route that’s entirely free from cars. The city is also taking cyclists into account in the design of the newest Green Line stops—the Washington Street station will have close to 300 designated bike parking spots inside a “bike cage” that commuters can access with their Charlie Cards. “Again, it goes back to culture,” Morrison notes. “You wouldn’t leave your car in an unsafe location, and you want to park as close as humanly possible to your destination.”

That’s not to say that everyone is in favor of these major infrastructural overhauls to the city. The Beacon Street cycle track means a loss of parking spaces along that road, and local business owners have expressed concerns that taking away those spots will affect sales. Even within the cycling community, there are those who voice their doubts about the cycle track and other expensive projects like it. “What have you been hearing it’s going to cost?” asks Ace Wheelworks’ Bruce Weber. (According to the city, the total for the entire Beacon Street reconstruction project—including road resurfacing and the repair of old water and sewer pipes—is a cool $8.9 million.) “It’s huge, compared to painting a stripe or paving a nice surface.”

“If the roads are a true boulevard size and you can make [a cycle track] work, that’s great,” his coworker, Jason Paige, adds. “When you try to do it with narrow roads there just seems to be too many people who have different interests in how to use the roads.” Rather than trying to fit parking, a route for cars, a designated right of way for cyclists and a sidewalk on Somerville’s narrow streets, Paige says he thinks it’s simpler and more cost effective to simply paint sharrows and take care of potholes. “If you can at least get a picture of a bike and an arrow on the ground, cars remember that they’re going to see cyclists … I think the little things make the biggest difference.”

As Somerville continues to build up its bike infrastructure, improving the safety and ease with which people can pedal to their destinations, the number of cyclists is likely to continue to climb. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to say that someday in the not-too-distant future the number of cyclists in Somerville will be much higher than 7,881, or that the percentage of people commuting by bike will be far greater than just 7.8 percent. The League of American Cyclists gets that—they awarded the city with a silver “Bicycle Friendly Community” rating last year.

“There are so many places that you can get to easily by bicycle, but they’re a little too far to walk, just a little bit too inconvenient to get to by T or bus,” says Bicycle Belle’s Reddien. “But they’re perfect for a bicycle.”

train Somerville’s Green Monster

The Boston area got a real taste of what it’s like to live without the T this winter, but for much of Somerville, this is a daily reality. Though bus lines run throughout the city, the T is what connects the Somervillian limb to the Greater Boston body. The Red and Orange lines have added stops in the past few decades, but that still leaves much of the city without direct access to the train. The promise of an extended Green Line seals the bright future for the city and will integrate these underserved residential pockets to a vast existing train network and, therefore, the Greater Boston Area. It’s a big change, and Somerville has been waiting—and waiting—for it to arrive.

“If I expressed any frustration it would be because this is such a complicated project and that no one seems to understand that in an engineering sense,” says Morrison of the long time it’s taken for the Green Line Extension (GLX) project to proceed. There’s a lot that is going into this infrastructure: not just new rails, but pedestrian and cycling rights of way that will run parallel to the track. If that wasn’t a design achievement in itself, the entire project must be completed around the commuter rail tracks that the Green Line will abut—all without interrupting commuter rail service.

“The whole project has to be designed so that rail never goes down. Amtrak is on that line as well as four different commuter lines,” says Morrison. Keeping those lines operating during construction “is a feat of engineering, and that gets lost in all of this. This is extremely complicated.”

It’s also expensive. Late last year, the Federal Transit Administration asked that the MBTA set aside an additional $300 million as a price contingency should the construction take longer than expected, increasing the total cost estimate for the project from $1.6 to $1.9 billion. That’s after a previous escalation from $1.3 to $1.6 billion. The added money is meant to go towards expenses like the extension of the Community Path from Lowell Street Station to Water Street in Cambridge. Somerville is a city with big visions for itself, and according to Morrison, that price tag reflects a commitment to doing it right so that they don’t have to do it again.

“For the majority of the community path … you will be in a right of way that has two commuter rail tracks, two Green Line tracks and a dedicated bike and pedestrian right of way,” says Morrison. “That’s a lot of mobility in one nice little package.”

Critics of the extension believe that expensive additions to an ailing, aging and underfunded system are the wrong targets for MBTA funds. Terrance Regan, a professor of city planning and urban affairs at Boston University transportation policy expert, spoke against the GLX in an interview in February. He likened it to “putting an expansion on your house when the roof leaks.” Regan wrote a report in 2007 that found the MBTA to be in $19 billion dollars of structural debt. Much of the system is too old to function consistently on a day to day basis, and unexpected events like the heavy snow we saw this winter can stop operation altogether.

On the MBTA, I think we have focused too much on expansion and not enough on what is called “state of good repair,” Regan told BU Today. “If you asked the guys who actually make the T run on a daily basis, they would probably put every penny they have in state of good repair.”

Others are worried about the increased housing costs associated with the expansion. Like the expansions of the Orange and Red Lines, the GLX is expected to drive commercial development. Rising housing costs are also a concern, though Morrison says that that isn’t necessarily a direct result of more T tracks coming to the city.

“There’s simply just not enough housing in Somerville to accommodate the people who want to live there; it drives rents up,” says Morrison, adding, “whether or not that is a direct result of the Green Line, I don’t know that data-wise, anyone could definitively say, but it does make the area more attractive.”

Affordable housing is a big part of Somerville’s redevelopment plans, just like transportation. The city has committed to building 6,000 housing units as part of its SomerVision master plan, 1,200 of which will be dedicated affordable housing units—a number that is being reviewed and may increase in coming months.

The rising cost of living, like transportation, tends to be a large-scale issue that is plagued too often by myopic consideration. Some view the impending GLX on a neighborhood to neighborhood basis—how is the Union Square stop going to affect that area, and so on. This is a frustration for city officials who are looking at the bigger picture, not just for Somerville as a whole, but for the region. Complaints about GLX construction delays, for example, might come from folks who don’t take the commuter rail—the continuous operation of which is one of the reasons the project has been so hard to plan.

“If you look at it geographically, we’re almost like a borough,” says Morrison. “So whatever we do also needs to be replicated in Cambridge and in Boston and in Chelsea and Revere as far as affordable housing and [transportation] access as well,” she says.

“The rising tide lifts all boats.

carCar Talk

Read between the lines of Mayor Curtatone’s plan to make Somerville the most walkable, bikeable, transit-accessible city in the nation, and you’ll notice that there’s no specific mention of making the city easier for drivers to navigate. That’s because getting people out of their cars is an expressed goal of this administration—one that’s already being achieved.

“There are more people parking in Somerville, but actually, statistically, Commonwealth-wide there are less vehicle miles traveled,” Morrison notes. “People are … making very intelligent and informed decisions about their trips. They may still own cars, but they’re driving less.”

Morrison explains that the city is encouraging a “mode shift” away from single-occupancy vehicles. In SomerVision, the city’s comprehensive plan for the future, one of the biggest transportation goals is for 50 percent of new trips to be taken by bike, transit or walking—in other words, not in a single-occupancy vehicle—by 2030.

But while cars may not be the most efficient way to travel around the city, it’s hard to argue against their convenience. Todd Whitelaw is the brand manager of the smart car dealership Smart Center Boston (259 McGrath Hwy.), and while he agrees that it’s “greener” to walk, pedal or take the T, he says those are not always the most advantageous options.

“What if your commute is an hour and a half on the MBTA but 20 minutes in a car?” he asks. “How valuable is your time?”

As brand manager of a smart car dealership, Whitelaw admits he has a vested interest in the sale of these vehicles. Still, his points ring true; this winter has been an especially brutal one for public transit commuters. Often, the MBTA was shut down entirely or operating on a limited schedule, and when the system was up and running it still frequently inconvenienced travelers with vicious delays and even breakdowns. And although Whitelaw acknowledges that the new Assembly Row Orange Line station and the coming Green Line extension will no doubt improve the ease with which citizens can travel around Somerville, there are the greater problems plaguing the aging transit system. The Massachusetts Senate just passed a proposal that cuts $14 million from the MBTA budget, continuing a long history of underinvestment in Massachusetts transportation. And despite the popularity of late night T service, it could be on the chopping block later this month as the pilot program comes to an end.

“In an ideal world where public transportation were always quick and efficient and easy and timely, I think people would go that route,” Whitelaw elaborates. “But that’s not our reality.”

The good news for car owners is that while Somerville doesn’t explicitly outline improvements for drivers as part of its long-term transportation goals, drivers can still expect changes that make the area a better place to drive. The city has introduced a comprehensive pavement management plan to ensure that streets are well-maintained. Pay by phone parking is now an option at every public meter in Somerville thanks to the Parkmobile app, and the city is working with another app, Downtime Parking, to bring the same convenience to privately owned spaces. “We do want to be at the forefront of parking management,” Morrison notes. “That’s extremely valuable to land use and allows us to develop in a smarter way that is aligned with our SomerVision goals.”

Morrison recognizes there are times when traveling by car is the best option, and that there are people for whom driving is the most convenient, if not the only, safe way to get around the city. “We are not anti-driving in Somerville … We do not have, you know, an agenda to try to get you to never drive again,” she says. Instead, city planners hope to encourage drivers to use other modes when appropriate. She points to national transportation statistics, which say that 18 percent of a person’s vehicle miles traveled by car are associated with their commute. The city isn’t coming for that 18 percent. Instead, they’re looking for ways to get at the other 82. By prioritizing the needs of walkers, bikers and MBTA riders, the city plans to chip away at their goal of reducing single occupancy vehicle travel by 50 percent.

“If you can come home and park your car and you never have to get back in it, and you can walk to the correct land use—and this is where zoning and planning comes in—then we can effectively shift your mode for you,” Morrison says.

walkingGet on Your Feet

Walking and driving are seemingly on opposite ends of the transportation spectrum, and yet they are the two modes most heavily linked to each other through infrastructure. Miles of sidewalks and roads are married to each other. The history of the pedestrian-driver relationship is an ebb and flow, at times a full-on power struggle. Today, our sidewalks serve to keep pedestrians out of the road, which is largely considered to be designated for motor vehicles. This wasn’t always the case: Before the advent of the car, streets used to be pedestrian malls, and except for the occasional horse-drawn cart, the streets were packed with people.

Since then, automobiles have placed themselves at the center of the country’s transportation ideals, and a lot of our infrastructure reflects that. But as our culture begins to move away from that paradigm, cities like Somerville are looking ahead to optimize roadways for all types of transportation.

“We’re going to look into the future and say, okay, what are the changes in how you physically access goods and services in the future?” Morrison says. As Somerville looks forward to huge changes and redevelopment via SomerVision and Somerville by Design, this issue of a safe and enjoyable pedestrian experience is at the top of the list of priorities.

It’s a cold clear day in January. Nobie, who is ten months old, meanders down the street, pulling dog walker Jessika DuBay. Nobie is a golden retriever. He’s most interested in the edges of the sidewalk and, when we reach the park, the underbelly of a large evergreen tree. He’s hunting for sticks.

“Sometimes he’ll pick his favorite one and carry it all the way home and deposit it in his backyard to save for later,” reports DuBay.

Walking has become an integral part of DuBay’s life since she started her dog walking and pet care service Thoughtful Paws in 2012. Between her business and taking recreational strolls, DuBay says she can rack up 10 to 12 miles on foot every day, which she says is a testament to Somerville’s walkability.

“When I lived on Highland, I didn’t have a car when I first moved,” says DuBay. “You know, I could walk to Davis, I could walk to Union, Porter, Harvard, and I did all the time.” The growth of DuBay’s business has prompted her to get a car, but she still admires the city’s pedestrian friendly streets. She’s spent most of her time in the Boston area in Somerville, but for a short time lived in Boston’s Hyde Park, whose walkability, she says, is night and day to that of this city.

There’s only one neighborhood that seems out of reach for DuBay: East Somerville, because she says it’s “separated from everything else.” Automobile-heavy roadways like Broadway and McGrath Highway make it difficult to perceive East Somerville as a walkable destination, even if the trek itself might not be that long.

How do you fix that? How do you create a safe space for pedestrians on a automobile-dominated road? These are the questions the city is trying to answer as it moves forward on redevelopment strategies. Take Winter Hill as an example. One of the most oft-heard complaints brought to the city during the research phase was the issue of pedestrian safety along the Broadway corridor, roughly between Medford Street and Temple Street. Community members complained about insufficient lighting and the high speed of traffic. These are the types of things that keep people from being able to get from one part of Somerville to another without a car, or at all, and means diminished foot traffic along those streets for existing or potential commercial centers.

These are all factors that are taken into account by city planners. They’re looking not only at how to make all streets accessible by foot, but also how to make these areas destinations for pedestrians. This is where the Complete Streets Ordinance, passed in June 2014 to promote the optimization of all 4.1 miles of Somerville streets for all modes of transportation, meets SomerVision and SomerVille by Design.

A different part of Broadway has already experienced this kind of facelift. Between 2012 and 2014, East Somerville Main Streets oversaw the reconstruction of Broadway from Sullivan Square to Route 28. More than just a redesign of the road itself, the redevelopment of this stretch of pavement was a reimagination of the sidewalks there. Walkways were widened, trees and benches were added and crosswalks were enhanced. This helped the street become a more pronounced business and cultural destination. Cars, bikes and pedestrians all share the same pavement safely. Quality sidewalks have helped with the success of events like Carnaval and the East Somerville Foodie Crawl. And all that makes for a better neighborhood.

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Moving Forward

According to 2014 national Walk Score ratings, Somerville is the seventh most walkable city and the ninth most transit-friendly city in the nation. We continue to earn high marks as a bike-friendly region. But with more and more people packing into Somerville’s already densely populated 4.1 miles, the city has some pretty serious infrastructural challenges in front of it.

“I’m not going to sugar coat it: I truly believe that Boston, Cambridge and Somerville have a daunting task,” Morrison says when asked about future plans to accommodate the needs of drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and public transit riders. “The way the city was designed—these are the oldest cities in America—the right of ways are very constrained, and it’s hard to fit everything in.”

Somerville isn’t doing this in a vacuum. The Greater Boston Area as a whole is experiencing a steep population increase. Each city is doing its best to solve the problems caused by so many people trying to access an already limited resource. As Somerville and the surrounding cities make decisions about their respective transportation futures, they’re also starting to communicate with each other to make decisions as a region. Just as it’s impossible to talk about the GLX without thinking about the CPX, or to add cycle tracks to a roadway without considering the implications for drivers, it’s impossible to talk about Somerville’s future without thinking about Cambridge and Boston and Medford and so on.

“It is only recently though, in the past four to five years as we have grown, that mayors and city managers have turned inward and joined together,” says Morrison. “It’s all about moving—quite literally, moving—the region forward.”

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