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Bow Street In Somerville's Union Square: Safer Street for Everyone

The new Bow Street configuration in Somerville should be commended. The addition of back-in angle parking and a bike lane have made the street safer and more accommodating for everyone.

Welcome to my new blog on Patch. As Vice Chair of the Somerville Bicycle Committee, and Board Member and Advocacy Committee Chair at LivableStreets Alliance in Cambridge, I intend to share my perspective on local transportation issues in the Boston area. This is a subject in which I have a great passion for, particularly as it relates to creating equity between all modes of transportation and creating streets and public spaces that enhance our quality of life. There are certainly a wide variety of opinions about transportation since it’s something that affects all of us. As you read my posts, I welcome your thoughts and comments.

There has been some news coverage lately about the new configuration of Bow Street in Union Square, Somerville. Personally, I feel that this is one of the most worthwhile projects the City has done to improve a street. Change is not always easy, and for many people, they will need some time to adapt. But when the result is so positive for everyone, the short term pain is well worth it.

In late May 2012, the City of Somerville restriped Bow Street in Union Square in an effort to improve safety and access for all modes of transportation (walking, bicycling, cars, buses, trucks, etc.).

Prior to this, Bow Street was a wide mostly unmarked street, with the stretch between Union Square and Summer Street acting as either one wide lane or two narrow ones, and the stretch between Summer Street and Somerville Avenue acting as one wide lane. There were no accommodations for bicycles, and especially in the wide pseudo-two lane section, motorists would often drive too fast as well as illegally double park.

When Bow Street was repaved by NSTAR last year, the Somerville Bicycle Committee had recommended that a bike lane be striped along the entire length of street. The SBC noted to the City that since Bow Street was only fed by one travel lane at a time from Union Square, only one travel lane was needed on the street itself, despite it being wide enough for two lanes. The City took this suggestion seriously and realized that in the wider stretch they had room to not only add a bike lane but also add additional parking. So in the place of the wide stretch of unmarked pavement they installed a single travel lane, a bike lane, and back-in angle parking. This resulted in a 90% increase in parking spaces for visitors on Bow Street.

There are many benefits to this new configuration:

  • Single, narrower, marked travel lane encourages motorists to drive at slower speeds, resulting in a safer street for everyone (especially pedestrians)
  • Bike lane provides a dedicated space for cyclists and reduces the number of sidewalk cyclists
  • Additional car parking is good for local businesses
  • Back-in angle parking is easier and safer for motorists and bicyclists
  • Slower traffic results in reduced noise along the street

Some people quoted in the press coverage have criticized the new configuration, saying that the back-in angle parking is confusing and difficult to do, that the single travel lane is causing traffic back-ups, and that the right turn onto Summer Street is difficult and confusing with the new bike lane. These are legitimate concerns. However, as with most change, people are quick to adapt.

Back-in angle parking is not new to the United States or to Massachusetts, but it is new to the Boston area. The City did a very good job publicizing the addition of this parking with a brochure, press announcements, and videos instructing people how it works, by posting signs and variable electronic message boards in Union Square for two weeks prior to the change, as well as holding a community Open House a month prior to the changes. When the parking was first installed, some people were trying to pull head-in, but since then this seems to be less of a problem. And once people have tried back-in angle parking, they will realize that it’s actually much easier than parallel parking or head-in angle parking. (Parallel parking is obviously more complicated, and with head-in angle parking, backing out of a parking space is both difficult and dangerous -- especially for bicyclists -- since a driver’s visibility is quite poor.)

A Nelson Nygaard report [pdf] states the following about the safety advantages of back-in angle parking:

"Back-in/head-out diagonal parking is superior to conventional head-in/back-out diagonal parking. Both types of diagonal parking have common dimensions, but the back-in/head- out is superior for safety reasons due to better visibility when leaving. This is particularly important on busy streets or where drivers find their views blocked by large vehicles, tinted windows, etc., in adjacent vehicles in the case of head-in/back-out angled parking. In other words, drivers do not back blindly into an active traffic lane. The back-in maneuver is simpler than a parallel parking maneuver. Furthermore, with back-in/head-out parking, the open doors of the vehicle block pedestrian access to the travel lane and guide pedestrians to the sidewalk, which is a safety benefit, particularly for children. Further, back-in/head- out parking puts most cargo loading (into trunks, tailgates) on the curb, rather than in the street."

The City has been very responsive with concerns in general, getting feedback from people on Facebook, Twitter, and through 311. Regarding the right turn onto Summer Street, the City has already modified the bike lane to have a longer dashed segment. This encourages motorists to merge over the bike lane (yielding to bicyclists) prior to the turn onto Summer Street.

Regarding the single travel lane, there will be some pain as traffic has to wait for cars to pull into parking spaces (parallel and back-in angle), but this is not unreasonable. This is an issue on many roads throughout the City and is one that we all must deal with. The benefit of the additional parking and bike lane is well worth this little bit of pain in my opinion.

Overall, the City should be commended for its forward thinking and efforts to make a much safer and accessible street for everyone simply by adding paint and a few signs. It took advantage of regular roadway resurfacing as an opportunity to transform a street into something much better than it was before.

More information:

“Traffic & Parking Department to Pilot Back-In Angle Parking in Union Square” City of Somerville: Press Release [pdf], Informational Brochure [pdf], Video

“New angled parking to add 22 spaces on Bow Street in Somerville.” Somerville Journal 20 March 2012

“Union Square Gets More Parking, with a Twist.” 21 March 2012

“Open House for Head-Out Angled Parking Pilot.” The Somerville News 27 April 2012

“Head-Out Angled Parking pilot on Bow Street” The Somerville News 9 May 2012

“Angled parking coming to Somerville’s Bow Street.” Somerville Journal 17 May 2012

“Back in Angled Parking Experiment Now in Progress” Union Square Main Streets 29 May 2012

“Is Back-In Angled Parking Working in Union Square?” 1 June 2012

“Somerville residents paint ugly picture of new bicyclist-friendly parking spots.” Boston Herald 1 June 2012

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Jeff Miller June 06, 2012 at 04:53 PM
I commuted by bike from downtown for years, and every day I'd ride down Bow St. wondering if this would be the day that a pothole or a reckless driver would send me flying over the handlebars. I had MANY near misses – any change that acknowledges safety should be met with patience and an open mind. Union Sq is on the rise, we gotta embrace it folks.
Cynthia Conrod Finney June 06, 2012 at 04:56 PM
It's much calmer and safer there now!
Tom Walsh June 06, 2012 at 06:13 PM
"This resulted in a 90% increase in parking spaces for visitors of Union Square." This is hard to believe. 9% maybe?
Charlie Denison June 06, 2012 at 06:23 PM
Good catch Tom. I should have been clearer with this statement. I meant to say it has resulted in a 90% increase of parking spaces on Bow St.
Julia Prange Wallerce June 06, 2012 at 06:24 PM
No, more like 90%. Think about how many more cars fit when they are angled rather than parallel taking up all that curb space. On another note, I live on Bow St and have noticed an enormous decrease in noise! Also, my dog and I don't have to worry about being run over when we cross the street in front of our house (#51 by Stanhope Framers) where many drivers once whipped around the corner blindly from Summer St. Thank you Somerville, and consultants and advocates who made this happen!
Chris Orchard (Editor) June 06, 2012 at 07:52 PM
I just changed that statistic so it reads "Bow Street" and not Union Square.
Warren Dew June 07, 2012 at 12:12 AM
Wow - an issue on which drivers and bicyclists can agree! Bow street was never a thoroughfare for cars, and one lane is certainly sufficient. The extra parking spaces are a win for drivers, and the bicycle lane is a win for bicyclists. Nice.
Jonah Petri June 07, 2012 at 01:55 AM
Thanks, Charlie, for the nice writeup. I commute (via bike) through Union every day, and I'm very happy with the back-in angle parking. It is very comforting to have an easy view of every single driver-side window of the parked cars — that way, I can easily tell which cars even have drivers in them. I am also happy that the city decided to add bike lane striping to Bow St (and parts of Washington) but I'm a bit concerned with the striping at the Bow/Summer intersection. In particular, the striping offers no affordance for either drivers or bikers to continue straight onto Summer. There's a large hash-striped area (which, IIRC, you're not supposed to travel on) which pushes bikes and cars together suddenly and dangerously. What's the deal with that design?
Charlie Denison June 07, 2012 at 04:35 AM
Great question Jonah. The intent of the new striping was that continuing on Bow St would now be the "through" movement and traffic (bikes and cars) heading onto Summer St would make a right turn at the intersection (instead of just forking right as they used to). The problem in reality is that this is hard if not impossible to enforce with just paint. So the City modified the dashing on the bike lane to begin sooner in order to allow cars to merge over it. I'm not convinced it is the best solution, but I'm not sure what a better one is. I have found that having the bike lane guiding you (as a bicyclist) to continue on Bow St through this tricky intersection is helpful despite having to look for cars heading towards Summer St. This is especially true since with the prior configuration you had to merge over to the left to continue on Bow St. Oh and I think that is true that you are not supposed to drive over the hash-striping.
mplo June 07, 2012 at 11:37 AM
That sounds like a complicated situation to me. What is really the solution to this problem?
Jonah Petri June 07, 2012 at 12:19 PM
Thanks, Charlie. I guess if I were striping that area I would not have tried to make the continuation onto Summer street into a right-hand turn. From my observations during the first few days, drivers aren't treating it like a right turn. In my opinion, bikes wanting to continue to Somerville Ave should take the full lane to avoid being right-hooked.
Tom Walsh June 07, 2012 at 12:31 PM
Thanks Chris. I guess I should have picked that up from context, but I wasn't thinking...
Rob Buchanan June 07, 2012 at 07:50 PM
I think the Bow Street re-striping will go down as the non-event of the year. Two weeks into the pilot, and whatever confusion, gawking, and "the-sky-is-falling" worries there may have been at the start, appears to have dissipated. Traffic moves smoothly but at lower speeds. Drivers and bicyclists alike seem to "get it." I'm curious how much this cost, because it seems like a relatively cheap solution to me!
mplo June 09, 2012 at 01:33 PM
It sounds like a good solution to me. I, too am glad that the traffic has slowed down. I remember bicycling down Bow Street, and into Somerville Avenue or Summer Street, and, for a number of years, cars would just whiz by like nothing. Scary indeed.
Laura H. July 12, 2012 at 05:49 PM
I agree about the concern about the striping at the Bow/Summer intersection. I ride my bike there and drive my car there, and either way, I end up nervous about turning off when a bike or car is there. Also in that same area, the side street right there? Warren Ave, I believe? Still lots of jay-walking. I wish there could be a cross-walk there. It's really not convenient for pedestrians to walk to one of the cross-walks to get where they want to go. But I can understand why there isn't -- because the traffic is already a big problem there. I wish we could have a cross-walk and figure out how to fix the back-up in Union Sq. with the turn onto Bow St. It's really pretty horrendous during rush hour. Do we know if there are any talks about how to solve this problem -- with the people who want to go onto Summer, the people who want to be in the lane that goes straight onto Washington, the people who want to turn onto Stone Ave., the new (great!) bike lane taking up space (deservedly), and the busses at the bus stop? ...

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