Bus Lanes Coming to Mount Auburn Could Improve Commute for Thousands

MBTA bus No. 71 stops at Mt. Auburn Street and Homer Avenue in Cambridge March 28. Photo by Jingyi Lin/BU News Service.

By Jingyi Lin
BU News Service

This article was originally published in the Cambridge Chronicle

West Cambridge, Watertown and Belmont commuters will soon have faster commutes to Harvard Square after the city designates one lane of the roadway to buses, according to city planners.

Tegin Teich, transportation planner for the city of Cambridge, discussed plans to implement the proposed Mount Auburn Street Bus Priority Pilot during the Strawberry Hill Neighborhood meeting March 27, hosted by the city’s Community Development Department (CDD).

The project includes designating bus-only lanes, signage, and re-timing traffic signals on Mount Auburn Street between Belmont Street and Fresh Pond Parkway. The decision aims to make bus travel more reliable and faster, and to enhance pedestrians’ and cyclists’ safety.

12,000 to see improved travel time

According to CDD, the project is expected to improve travel for more than 12,000 daily MBTA bus riders, as well as hospital shuttle travelers. It’s the first step in a more comprehensive plan for improving transportation along Mount Auburn Street.

Thirty-four people attended the March 27 meeting at Russell Youth Center, including city staff members. The session focused on concerns from Strawberry Hill residents. Staff members gave residents 15 minutes for discussion after presentations.

Based on the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR) Mount Auburn Street Corridor study, MBTA bus routes 71 and 73, connecting riders from Watertown to Harvard Square and the Red Line, have been responsible for snarling traffic by causing significant delays.

After implementing this pilot program, expected to begin in late May or early June 2018, the average person’s travel time on the bus during peak morning traffic on Mount Auburn Street is expected to decrease by about two-and-a-half minutes in the eastbound direction to Harvard and is supposed to be 44 seconds slower in the westbound direction.

Teich emphasized that the model’s results are only predictions.

“My hope is that we can find in reality that it doesn’t even have as much of an impact on the outbound direction,” Teich said in the meeting.

The focus of the pilot is to improve traveling in the eastbound direction, but not in the westbound direction, Teich added.

Half of street’s users take the bus

John Attanucci, a lecturer, research associate and manager of MIT Transit Research Program, rides MBTA bus routes 71, 72 and 73 four days a week to work. On many occasions, the buses will pass right by him due to dense traffic, so he is forced to wait for the next one. He believes this project will improve his commute.

“It’s an amazing accomplishment because [MBTA bus routes 71 and 73] are the two heaviest buses routes in Cambridge,” Attanucci commented during the meeting.

During peak morning traffic on Mount Auburn Street, 3 percent of vehicles are MBTA buses. However, those buses carry 56 percent of people on the roadway from Brattle Street to Coolidge Avenue, according to a DCR study.

But some motorists are concerned with the upcoming changes. Some of them sent letters to the city transportation group saying they are concerned that favoring buses will have adverse effects for those driving cars.

Teich explained during the meeting that the dedicated bus-only lanes will likely increase the use of mass transit, which in turn will decrease the number of people driving cars and thus help alleviate congestion.

“The expectation is that we’re not making the situation worse for general traffic by making these improvements for buses,” Teich said during her presentation.

Pilot to support Vision Zero

The other reason for the pilot is to support Vision Zero, which has a goal of reducing and ultimately eliminating transportation fatalities and serious injuries for people who travel in Cambridge. The city has implemented citywide policy with a 25 miles per hour speed limit. Narrowing lanes will help lower drivers’ speed, thus making the street safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

According to Teich’s slides, pedestrians hit by vehicles going 20 miles per hour have a 90 percent chance of survival, whereas those hit by vehicles going 30 miles per hour have a 50 percent chance. Those hit by cars traveling 40 miles per hour have only a 10 percent chance of survival.

“Speed makes a huge difference so that when there are crashes, [pedestrians] do not result in serious injuries or fatalities,” Teich said in the meeting.

Laurie Mangili-Gaines, a teacher of Haggerty School who mostly rides her bike to East Cambridge, feels the city needs to examine the traffic flow. However, she does not want Belmont Street and Mount Auburn Street to be narrower.

“We have plenty of money in the city of Cambridge,” Mangili-Gaines said after the meeting. “Having [sidewalks], bikes and buses in the same lane does not seem like it’s for traffic flow.”

On May 1, the city will have another, larger public meeting for both Cambridge and Watertown residents. According to Teich, the city will work to finalize the pilot from October to December.

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