The Great Alewife Disconnect

Alewife Geometry Quiz

Given: the Quad and the Triangle are contiguous shapes.

Given: the Quad and the Triangle do not intersect.

Given: a straight line (or lines) could connect The Quad and the Triangle at various points.

Theorem: Connecting the Quad and the Triangle would dramatically improve circulation, enhance quality of life for residents and commuters, and increase property values in both areas.

Proof: The theorem is true Q.E.D., but planning vision and political will to act are sorely lacking.

Alewife study areas

Alewife study areas (note that New Street alls outside the study area)

For those not well versed in the geometric jargon of the The Concord Alewife Planning Study, the Quad and the Triangle are the names given to the 190 acres lying west of Alewife Brook Parkway and bounded to the north and south by Concord Avenue and Route 2. They are contiguous but not connected by virtue of the Metro North commuter rail tracks running east-west between them.

The Quad (130 acres) and the Triangle (60 acres) present both tremendous opportunities and immense challenges for future planning and development at the western frontier of Cambridge. In the past ten years, these two districts have added almost 2000 units of housing, and at least 1100 more are in the known pipeline. (Note that these numbers don’t include development immediately outside the study area, including large projects and proposals on Rindge Avenue, New Street, Bay State Road, and at the former Tokyo Restaurant site). Yet none of the new vehicle, pedestrian, or bike connections envisioned in the 2005 study has come to pass. A long talked-about pedestrian and bike bridge across the railroad tracks from (somewhere on) Fawcett Street in the Quad to (somewhere on) Cambridge Park Drive in the Triangle is finally being studied, but such a bridge is years — and several million dollars — from completion.

And no one is talking about new connections for cars and buses, even though traffic congestion along Fresh Pond Parkway through Alewife, the rotaries, and beyond is a perennial and growing source of frustration. To insist that traffic on the parkway is a regional problem that Cambridge cannot control ignores the impact that adding thousands of new residents to the Quad and Triangle is bound to have. Even if the majority of these new residents do commute by public transportation, as hoped, many of them will still use cars in their daily lives. And without new crossings, the already overburdened parkway remains the only road connecting the Quad, the Triangle, and all points beyond.

The surge in residential development in the Triangle (1000+ new units along the Cambridge Park Drive, plus hundreds more on Route 2,) is appropriately transit-centered, as the Alewife T is easily walkable from within the Triangle district. (To note, Cambridge Park Drive is a cul-de-sac and those buildings and Vox On Two share a single vehicle egress on and off Route 2.) But the massive development spree underway in the Quad cannot be justified until similar connections for pedestrians, cyclists, cars, and buses exist there, as well. Property values in both areas would most certainly increase with improved circulation, so why isn’t the City demanding that developers of these parcels help underwrite the cost of constructing new roads, multi-use paths, and railroad crossings within and between the Quad and the Triangle?

For that matter, with so much new development clustered on both sides of the commuter rail tracks, why isn’t Cambridge pushing Metro North to provide a new rail station at Alewife, similar to what is happening at Boston Landing in Brighton? Such a project would better serve both commuters transiting the Route 2 corridor and the many new local residents moving into the area.

In the end, the lack of connections reveals a failure of both vision and political will. It’s not a geometry or an engineering problem, or even a budgetary matter. No, it’s simply the Great Alewife Disconnect, and it’s a crying shame.

From the 2005 Concord Alewife planning study

From the 2005 Concord Alewife planning study

New connections were are "priority" a decade ago so why don't they exist today?

These new connections were are “priority” a decade ago so why don’t they exist today?

Additional infrastructure included in the planning study hasn't come to fruition.

Additional infrastructure included in the 2005 planning study hasn’t come to fruition.

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11 thoughts on “The Great Alewife Disconnect

  1. I’m not sure a car connector between the two areas will achieve what you want it to, unless you’re suggesting a large demand pattern of people in the quadrangle driving to the Alewife garage, and that those people will never switch over to walking once a new, faster pedestrian route is available.
    The issue with adding a road bridge is that any traffic originating from the quadrangle heading outbound on route two (the traffic that would use the new road bridge) is going to pass through the same Route 3 star intersection, whether it goes via the existing bridge or a new span Indeed, the faster times to the intersection could induce more people to take their car, increasing delay from Cambridge–>Rt2. Since cars would still have to wait somewhere before moving through the intersection, the traffic would simply shift to route two north of Alewife. It’s not clear that a compelling interest exists for spending millions on a bridge to move a backup from a rotary to an intersection down the street.
    As for bus lanes, there is a far simpler and better option: take a lane from route two on the bridge and dedicate it to buses. The queue of cars will be longer, yet it will contain the same number of cars (actually fewer once commuter switch modes), and will empty in the same amount of time. Meanwhile, buses will have a massive speed advantage, which they are better equipped to use with their comparatively larger capacity. For exactly zero dollars, you’ve solved bus backups to the second largest bus hub in Cambridge!

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  2. EDIT: In regards to the road connectors inside of the Quadrangle, I could not agree more. Why haven’t these cheap improvement been made?

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  3. Good comments. A few other points to make. It is said here and often repeated that there is only one way in and one way out of the Triangle. Actually there are two in and two out. In and out on Cambridge Park Drive, everybody knows. There is a second way in , the Surface connector from Rte. 2 by the bowling alley down to Cambridge Park Drive and the T. There is also a second way out . You can also drive behind the Alewife T on another road that takes you up to the intersection , at Rte. 16 and leads you to 16 West or across to Rte. 2 West. Still tough at rush hour am & pm , no doubt. But, truth is , the 4 roads , 2 in and 2 out , are there today.

    As the Developer of the 3 Projects in the Triangle , a word about the connecting roads there .. One is in place already and the remainder are totally my responsibility to build at my expense. The next 2 developments in fact cannot be opened without the connecting roadways constructed as part of the conditions.. They will be much nicer than was planned in the Concord / Alewife study because they are for residents and not just office buildings. I will have my architects post images for folks to see.

    I have also had luck, through my partners at Blackstone , getting the T to agree to another connector never foreseen. It will be a ped / bike path running through the edge of the Summer Shack lot back to my last development. The T is charging hundreds of thousands of dollar for the easement, but I think it is important and so we have agreed. . We will not privatize it , but will instead make it public and give it to Cambridge. It is also a direct path for the ped / bike bridge landing when that is selected in the Triangle. Each of my Projects gives public easements to Cambridge for different landing choices. And each Project gives $ for the study now being done..

    The ped / bike bridge is a story of its own . I feel good abut the progress finally being made and know that at least, landing in the Triangle is going to be fine. Again, I will get images of these to the author for the files. .

    As this most recent posting makes clear, things are not nearly so far along in the Quadrangle. But that is for others to speak to who have more direct knowledge than I . .

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  4. We must be careful with the glorification of connectedness, especially for roads. There can be situations where you don’t want connectedness. For example, Whittemore Avenue in North cambridge must post signs in the peak hour restricting traffic from making a right turn off the parkway. It is tough to enforce, but the Whittemore Avenue “connection” otherwise opens up the neighborhood to commuter traffic intrusion.

    There are ways to control this intrusion and still allow for connectedness. Roads can be made one-way, turns can be prohibited, speed bumps can be installed, and the street system can have multiple one-way arrangements that force through-traffic into a zig-zag pattern. All of these ideas prevent or deter through traffic.

    Route 2 in Belmont has a simple concept of “controlled access.” You can get on and off at special locations called Interchanges, such as Lake Street or Route 60. That means no driveways and no local streets can connect to the main highway. On Belmont Hill there are service roads that allow both, so controlled access simply means the driver must move through a series of road changes to go from high-speed travel to low-speed local street travel. Controlled access is a primitive idea, because this arrangement still has trouble getting drivers who have been cruising at 75 mph to slow down and travel on local streets at a safe 25 to 30 mph.

    As I have explained before, Route 2 itself becomes a barrier, with fences down the median and cars traveling much too fast. When the highway engineers talk about controlled access, they are automatically into fences and and limits on bicycles and pedestrians.

    The trouble I have with the main discussion so far is that it ignored the existence of Route 2 as a traffic firehose. Here we have an interstate highway coming down Belmont Hill, four lanes wide in each direction, People who want to avoid Alewife traffic congestion can get off at Lake Street and use Belmont local streets to get onto Blanchard Road in Cambridge. That traffic flow makes havoc of residential neighborhoods along the route. Blanchard Road and its traffic means difficult crosings by pedestrians and bikes. So Blanchard Road becomes one of the many barriers at Alewife. Ask Bob Simha. He lives on Blanchard Road and knows all about it.

    The Route 2 firehose drops down to three lanes as it goes past the old Faces site in Cambridge. A ramp built in 1985 peels off into the area of the MBTA Alewife station, but that same ramp connects to Cambridgepark Drive and all the development parcels in the Triangle area.

    Suppose we add in the idea of connecting an auto road from CambridgePark Drive over the rail tracks and into the Quadrangle. That automatically means connecting it to Concord Avenue.

    For some people, this new connectedness sounds wonderful. New circulation, new routes of travel. But imagine the return route. Go from Concord Avenue and anywhere in the Quadrangle over the railroad tracks and into the Triangle. Now there is only one road to travel : Cambridgepark Drive. All traffic bound for the Parkway north or Route 2 outbound must still go through the congestion soup area from Rindge Avenue to Mass Avenue. Thnk of what the traffic is like today in the afternoon peak, and you can see how a simple connection between the Triangle and Quadrangle actually helps us very little.

    Now do another thought experiment that says the road connection between the Triangle and the Quadrangle allows pedestrians, bikes, buses, trucks and even streetcars. But no cars allowed. Now connectivity is stable and beneficial. You may have thought that it is the railroad that makes barries and prevents connections ….. in reality it is the car. we do not know how to design for its problems and often end up doing nothing.

    By now every reader who is a car driver is feeling very uneasy. The freedom and anarchy of the automobile creates these situations of system overload. We are so dependent on cars, and there are simply too many cars and they want to go too fast.

    Time to stop and take a breather. This traffic business sounds like a tangled mess with no beginning and no end. Not quite. It is a bit like writing a novel. If you are a writer you must be prepared to write several chapters. For the Alewife and Fresh Pond area we will have traffic chapters that go from Route 2 and Mass Avenue …. to Rindge Avenue and Sherman Street …. to Concord Avenue and Blanchard Road …. to Fresh Pond Parkway, Huron Avenue and Mt. Auburn Street. Most of what I have done so far is to get you from Route 2 to Concord Avenue and return. And anyone who has driven through the Fabulous Merge at Route 2 and 16 knows that getting to Route 2 outbound is a special story into itself.

    But I hope we have made at least a start into understanding the subtleties of improving connections.

    Stephen H. Kaiser

    p.s. For readers looking for life-changing improvements to connectivity : think about this one which no one has considered yet. Put the Fitchburg commuter rail tracks into a tunnel (like the Red Line) mixed with sections of open cut, coming back to current grade at Porter Square. Look what that does to connectivity.

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    • I like Steve’s p.s. . A lot . Always read the p.s. from Steve / that is good advice. Also agree completely that connecting the Triangle and the Quad with a car connector is a very BAD idea. See Ted Pyne’s view on the same. Just keeps us leaning more and more on the car. At this moment, I have submitted to the City of Cambridge 8 different landing options in the Triangle for a pedestrian / bike bridge connector to the Quadrangle. Much better idea than a car connector. BUT …. there goes Steve again with another idea that has gotten little mention : a bus connector ( maybe the shuttle bus that I am trying to get organized ?? ) between the Triangle and the Quadrangle. . On the subject of buses having priority rights to get to the T Station, I do still like Ted Pyne’s idea of a dedicated bus lane.

      The difficulty of the challenges are spoken to clearly by Steve. It requires a lot of thought and work. We start from a tough place. Consolation : doing it better, much better , is well within reach.

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  5. All of the concern about more residents and more cars misses the fact that the existing congestion in the Alewife area is a constraint on more driving. The roads in the area are at capacity already. So more people and more cars necessarily cannot make congestion worse (borrowing from Jeff Speck here).

    Without road pricing, congestion is the only constraint we have on driving. The good news is that constraint is in place in the Alewife area. What we need is to implement all the excellent suggestions in this comment thread to enable non-auto mobility and connectedness in the area. That will allow the demand for movement to take place in a way that can’t happen on the existing roads (I especially like the dedicated bus lane idea).

    One other thought (apologies if I missed this in previous comments): The area needs a bridge over the Little River to connect any bike/ped bridge that cross the tracks with the office buildings on Cambridge Park drive, as well as Vox, the bowling alley and the motel. I have heard it’s in the next phase of development in the office park, but for now it’s an impediment to mobility.

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    • Is anyone, anywhere thinking about the environmental impact here?….just a thought…a bridge over the Little River….my stomach turns… I’m wondering about how we are going to breathe in the midst of such massive construction….. and what in the world do we think this multi-multi-billionaires have to offer this area that will improve the ***quality***** of human life while retaining enough pervious surface, barely sufficient clean air, and the non-human (plant and animal) creatures which I hope you know by now… we need to survive in the long term….. as we face the disappearance of the forest to the north and several more buildings nearby…… I can only wonder why I picked a neighborhood that is such an enormously good financial investment for the richest of the rich… it’s not for those of us who live here… face it….

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