The upcoming reconstruction of Beacon Street in Somerville has a lot of people talking. It’s a project that has been in the works for many years, having been delayed by a lack of funding and then by the reconstruction of nearby Somerville Ave. While nearly everyone agrees that it needs to be fixed (particularly the pock-marked roadway surface), there are very strong opinions about what the reconstructed roadway will look like.
The current proposed design put forth by the City involves creating cycle tracks (exclusive bicycle facilities physically separated from car traffic) for about half of the length of the project by removing parking from one side of the street. While most agree that this would make the street more bicycle-friendly, some believe that the removal of parking in order to do so is an unacceptable tradeoff.
The good and the bad
Before getting into the parking/cycle track debate, I want to first comment on the good and the bad of the current project design from a complete streets perspective. While the current proposed design is an improvement over what we have today, it’s certainly not perfect, and could actually go much further to improve safety and accessibility, particularly for bicyclists.
- Newly built sidewalks, crosswalks, and pedestrian signals will improve safety for pedestrians, as will eliminating parking spaces that are too close to crosswalks
- New sidewalk by Academy of Arts and Sciences will eliminate the need for pedestrians to cross the street or walk in the roadway through that section
- Newly created cycle tracks along with repaved and restriped bike lanes will enhance safety and comfort for bicyclists. Cycle tracks will appeal to people who would consider bicycling but are not comfortable bicycling between moving and parked cars.
- Resurfaced roadway will be safer and far less damaging to people’s cars
- New parking regulations should make parking more readily available to people who live on Beacon St or visit Beacon St businesses, or in the worst case not make parking any more difficult to find than it is today
- Narrowed roadway in cycle track sections will reduce traffic speeds, increasing safety for everyone
- Cycle tracks are only planned for about half of the project rather than the entire length
- Cycle tracks do not meet minimum recommended NACTO dimensions, mainly because MassDOT is requiring travel lane widths wider than are necessary
- Some parking will have to be removed to make room for cycle tracks
The Beacon St project poses many challenges coming from a variety of sources. Thankfully, I do not think any of these challenges are insurmountable.
The first challenge is the physical limitations of the street and what the project can encompass from a cost perspective. One big limitation is that the curbs cannot be moved outward at all (narrowing the sidewalks) since there are utilities buried underneath them that the City does not have money to move. (The above-ground utility poles will also remain where they are, as there is not money to bury the electrical lines either.) Generally, narrowing the sidewalks should be a last resort when it comes to making space for other uses, but on Beacon St in general the sidewalks are more than wide enough for current and future pedestrian volumes. If the curbs were able to be moved outward, it would be possible to create a bit more space for bicyclists, although narrowing the sidewalks alone would not result in enough extra space to create cycle tracks.
The second big challenge is on-street parking. Certainly, no one wants to create a hardship for Beacon St residents or for business owners, customers, and delivery people. However, the only way to create enough space for cycle tracks is to remove parking on one side of the street. The question this poses is if this reduced amount of parking can be managed in a way to still meet everyone’s needs.
Another challenge is the requirements put onto the City by MassDOT that the City would otherwise not have to deal with if the project was being designed by them alone. This includes the desire to include wider travel lanes (12’ and 13’ against parking) in the cycle track sections rather than 10’ or 10.5’ travel lanes that the City would typically use. MassDOT claims that this extra space is needed to create space for snow to pile up in the winter and to accommodate larger vehicles. This constraint is causing the cycle tracks as currently designed to not meet the dimensions recommended by NACTO for cycle track designs that would allow for one bicyclist to pass another or for two to ride side by side (The NATCO recommendation is 6.5' clear width plus 3' buffer adjacent to parking or 1.5' buffer adjacent to a travel lane, while the current planned width of the cycle tracks in the City's plan is 7' including buffer). And given the high numbers of bicyclists using Beacon St, this requirement is essential to making the cycle tracks work. It should be noted that Vassar St in Cambridge, which also has cycle tracks, has two 10.5’ travel lanes along with a 7’ parking lane on one side (the same width as the parking lane proposed for Beacon St), along with buses, trucks, and the same snow as any other street in the Boston area, so it doesn’t seem reasonable that MassDOT is creating such wide lane requirements here.
In addition, MassDOT is designing Beacon St with a 30 mph design speed since it is considered a minor arterial and it considered a regional route. This limits the ability to switch the parking from one side of the road to the other at various locations and is part of their justification for wider travel lanes. It also encourages traffic to drive faster than is considered safe in a dense urban environment. Google traffic data shows that on average, traffic travels 22 mph on average at non-peak times and 12 mph during rush hours. So why design for 30 mph?
Solving the parking issue
Parking is an issue that most people have strong opinions about. Many residents who own cars have no choice but to park on the street. Businesses without off-street parking depend in part on the ability for their customers to have reasonable access to short-term parking and for delivery drivers to have space to unload their goods. The big question on Beacon St is whether parking on one side alone can meet those needs, particularly since the benefits from reclaiming that space are huge.
The City has the right idea by studying how the parking is currently being used. While it is nearly impossible to get perfect numbers that take into account all the different times of the year, times of day, and weather variations, some data is nearly always better than none at all. It’s easy to anecdotally claim one thing or another, but having numbers to refer to usually helps everyone to make a more informed decision.
The good news about Beacon St is that the on-street parking in general is underutilized. For the western part of the project (Zone 1, from Oxford St to Washington St), the overall occupancy rate is less than 50% (41% during weekdays, 35% during weekends). For the eastern part (Zone 2, from Washington St to the Cambridge City Line), the overall occupancy rate is 63%. The City has therefore concluded that for Zone 1 it should be possible to remove parking on one side of the street while still accommodating all of the cars that are there today. For the eastern part, the City has decided to preserve all the parking because the overall occupancy rate is above 50%.
Some people have claimed that these numbers are misleading because they are not granular enough. For example, the parking study states that the occupancy rate towards Oxford St is indeed higher (reaching a maximum of 80%) than closer to Museum St (reaching a minimum of 2%). However, the study also looks at the reasonable distance people should be expected to walk to their parked car. The City used ¼ mile, the distance often used when determining how far someone should be expected to walk to a bus stop. Using this as a guideline, it was determined that all residents in Zone 1 would be within ¼ mile of an open parking space on Beacon St if parking were to only be provided on one side of the street.
The issue of access to businesses has also been brought up. It is clear that some businesses are more dependent upon on-street parking than others. One solution that I have heard to this would be to alternate which side the parking is on from block to block in order to serve the maximum number of businesses (and residents) that do not have off-street parking available. Changing the parking regulations in front of businesses would also help to prioritize this parking for customers. Currently, the majority of spaces on Beacon St on signed “2 Hour Parking Except by Permit 8:00am to 2:30am, Permit Parking Only 2:30am to 8:00am”. This means that someone with a resident permit could occupy a space in front of a business for the entire day. By changing the regulations directly in front of businesses to 2 Hour Parking during the day and resident permits overnight only, these spaces would be more readily available to customers. In addition, for businesses that depend on high parking turnover, signing some of these spaces as 1-hour, 30-minute, or 15-minute parking could be useful, as could adding meters. For businesses that are not on the side of the on-street parking but do not have off-street parking available, a few spaces on adjacent side streets could be dedicated to loading zones and/or handicapped parking.
One big issue that the parking study finds is that a non-trivial number of people are driving and parking on Beacon St during the day from other parts of Somerville and leaving their cars there all day. This is most likely people who work in Cambridge (for example at Harvard or Lesley), or who are trying to get to Porter Station but don’t live close enough to walk there. It is estimated this makes up at least 15% of the vehicles on Beacon St during the day. The City has proposed one solution to this, which is creating a Beacon St residential parking zone. This would make resident on-street parking only available to Beacon St residents and should eliminate the problem of people from other parts of Somerville parking on Beacon St all day. (Those same people could still park there in the general 2-hour (or less) parking spaces if they wish to visit the local businesses.)
A big gap in the parking study, however, is that it does not provide any data about off-street parking. Beacon Street is fortunate in that compared to other parts of Somerville, there actually is a good deal of off-street parking available. Many of the houses have driveways or paved yards and many of the businesses have parking lots. The big question is whether they are being fully utilized. For at least some of these lots, the answer is not very much. The biggest opportunities are the Star Market, Dial-a-Pizza, Foodmaster, and Walgreens parking lots. The manager of Star Market has said that he has permission from corporate headquarters to rent out some of the unused spaces in his lot to nearby residents or businesses, but he would need permission from the City to do so (he already rents out spaces for ZipCars, but additional spaces need additional approval). Shared parking agreements are very common in situations like this. If the City could foster the creation of these types of agreements between the businesses with excess parking and those businesses (or residents) with little or no parking, the off-street spaces could be much better utilized, taking further pressure off of the on-street parking.
Because there is no comprehensive inventory of off-street parking and how it is being used, it’s difficult to tell exactly how much on-street parking is actually needed. The good news is that even if the off-street parking situation remains the same, the utilization in Zone 1 is low enough that removing parking from one side should be feasible by making the regulation changes that the City already has the authority to do. Zone 2 is obviously a bit more complicated, but since it is in the 60% range rather than the 80% or 90% range, I believe enough can be done to bring demand below 50%, allowing the cycle track to be continued through there as well.
It should also be noted that out of the 111 spaces that are proposed to be removed, approximately 49 of those spaces will be removed to create room for a sidewalk where there is currently none adjacent to the Academy of Arts and Sciences, regardless of whether any parking is removed to make room for cycle tracks. There are also spaces that will be removed throughout the project that are too close to crosswalks or intersections.
Good for business
A number of other cities such as New York, Portland, and Montreal have shown that creating a more complete street, one that is more appealing to walking and bicycling, is good for business, and that even when some parking is removed, businesses benefit. It’s understandable that some business owners on Beacon St are concerned that removing parking will hurt their business. But the data that’s been collected so far shows that this simply isn’t true. According to a recent survey in New York City, “Using data from the city’s Department of Finance, the DOT found an increase of as much as 49% in retail sales at “locally based businesses” on 9th Avenue from 23rd to 31st Streets since the bike protected lane [aka cycle track] was initiated in the fall of 2007. In that time, retail sales increased only 3% in the rest of Manhattan.”
It’s also likely that many Beacon St business owners are overestimating how many of their customers drive to their establishment. The Boston Cyclists Union in conjunction with LivableStreets Alliance recently did a survey of customers along Beacon St. They discovered that customers are overwhelmingly local, typically arriving by foot. 68% of customers arrived by walking, 11.4% by car, 10.1% by bike, and 7.9% by MBTA. When those 11.4% that were car customers were asked how they would respond to having to park across the street or if parking was harder to find, only 30% said they would go somewhere else instead. 32% of them said they would park farther instead, 12% said it had no impact, 10% would walk instead, 12% would use transit instead, and 2% would bike (assuming the street had bike lanes as it does today). When customers were asked if they would bike more on Beacon St if it had cycle tracks, 43% said that yes they would indeed.
There is even precedent for removing parking along a major street in the Boston area to create room for bicyclists. In January 2012, the City of Boston removed 71 parking spaces along the east side of Mass Ave through the Back Bay in order to make room for bike lanes. Some business owners there were concerned about this negatively affecting their businesses as well. To date, there have been no complaints by the local businesses, while the numbers of bicyclists along the corridor has gone up between 50% and 100% depending on the time of day.
A pilot program?
It is clear that a cycle track along the full length of the project is very desirable since this is the most heavily traveled street by bicyclists in the Boston area -- a third of all users of the street during rush hours are bicyclists (approximately 300 per hour) -- and that it would encourage even more people to bike on Beacon Street. It’s also clear that the only way to achieve this goal is to remove parking from one side of the street. Based on the parking data and the variety of ways to make better use of off-street and on-street parking, it should be possible to do so without creating unreasonable hardships for residents or businesses. But it’s also understandable that it’s impossible to predict what will happen when we make such a change. This leads me to a new proposal:
What if we created cycle tracks along the entire length of the street, but as a pilot program?
If street-level cycle tracks were used instead of raised cycle tracks, the configuration of the street could be changed much more inexpensively than with raised ones. As part of the reconstruction project, street level cycle tracks could be installed for the entire length, using plastic bollards to separate the cycle tracks from the parking and travel lanes. Parking regulations could be adjusted in ways that have been proposed to make maximum use of the remaining parking spaces. The parking situation would then be monitored for one year to see if the residents and businesses are being adequately served. Further tweaking could be done to the regulations as well as with off-street parking arrangements. At the end of the one year trial, the City could decide if and where to keep the cycle tracks. In locations where there simply was not enough parking, the cycle track could be removed, parking reintroduced to the no parking side, and bike lanes would be created in that section. In locations where the parking situation was working well, the cycle tracks would be made permanent by replacing the plastic bollards with planters or narrow medians.
The Beacon Street project has stirred up a lot of emotion both in favor and against what the City is proposing. It has also shown that we all care deeply about our streets and we want make sure they meet all of our needs. The most important thing to me is that we all keep an open mind, and think not only of our own needs and desires but those of everyone else who uses Beacon Street. We must also think about designing a Beacon Street that will last us another 50 years, and that responds to the fact that car use is going down, not up, as more people walk and bicycle on a regular basis. It is true that not everyone who has an interest in this project has known about it for as long as they should have, that the data from the parking study is not perfect, and of course that some people will always choose or need to drive a car, regardless of how appealing walking or bicycling is made. I have no doubt, though, that our City officials are trying to keep the best interests of everyone in mind. Designing a Beacon St that makes everyone happy is turning out to be no easy task.
What do you think is the best solution for Beacon Street? How can we make it work for as many people as possible?
Beacon Street Somerville Project City of Somerville
Beacon Street Reconstruction Would Eliminate Parking, Add Cycle Tracks Somerville Patch 14 Nov 2012
Somerville businesses object to proposed removal of parking spaces on Beacon St Boston Globe 14 Nov 2012
Somerville residents and businesses question parking study on Beacon St Somerville Journal 14 Nov 2012
Cycle Tracks NACTO
Report: Bike Lanes, Pedestrian Plazas Good for Business Wall Street Journal 24 Oct 2012
DOT: Local Retail Thrives After Projects Improved Transit, Walking, Biking Streetsblog 24 Oct 2012
Bicycle Infrastructure Is Good For Business The Urban Country 2 May 2011