About a month ago MassDot announced that the Casey Overpass in Forest Hills will be torn down and replaced by a network of surface roads. I wrote in favor of this plan back in November so I am pleased that MassDot will be taking this approach. I believe the removal of the elevated highway through our residential and commercial neighborhood will bring many benefits to the area. Without the infrastructure for high-speed automotive traffic, the volume and speed of motor vehicles through the neighborhood will be reduced and redesigned intersections will ease traffic backups. Facilities for pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit will be vastly improved. New open space will reconnect the Emerald Necklace between Arnold Arboretum and Franklin Park. Without the overpass hindering the aesthetics of the neighborhood, plans to redevelop the Arborway bus yard and Forest Hills MBTA station will be more likely to create a dense, transit-oriented residential/commercial area.
I hope that people in the Forest Hills area, once divided by the choice of a new overpass or at-grade plan, will unite together in the design process to ensure that the new streets plan is safe and equitable to all. I have a number of thoughts about the next steps in the process – some more well-formed than others - that I’ve gathered together for further pondering:
- Mike’s Casey provides a great map with an overlay of what the future street plan looks like over the current streets. One thing that I like about the plan is that it reduces the number of traffic lights a vehicle may have to stop at when crossing the Arborway on South Street or Washington Street from 2 to 1. A lot the traffic in the area today results from cars getting stuck between the two lights and backing up.
- Some opponents to the at-grade plan honestly feel that segregating the auto traffic will make things safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. One thing they note is that the new Arborway will be six-lanes wide at Forest Hills,wider than the current New Washington Street, which is a very valid point. I think that without the overpass the reorientation of the ground-level street will make the intersection less confusing with clear crosswalks and bike lanes. It will also take away the highway mentality as now all cars entering the neighborhood will be closer to speed limit of city streets rather than a high-speed highway. It should also be noted that the current orientation requires a pedestrian to cross at least 6 lanes in most places. Someone walking up Washington Street from Forest Hills/Woodbourne has to cross two wide access lanes (that have a gradual curve allowing cars to turn without slowing down) and then three lanes coming off the overpass. On South St, a pedestrian from the Asticou neighborhood has to cross two exit lanes, two access lanes, and then the two lanes of the “other” Arborway. Any of these pedestrians wanting to use the four-lane crosswalk on New Washington Street at the bike path will have to cross four lanes of South Street or Washington Street first, thus making an eight-lane transit if they chose that option. So the new road, even at six-lanes, with clearly marked crosswalks and moderated automotive traffic will be much safer than it is now.
- Despite that, even I think that six lanes is too “auto-friendly” and four lanes of through traffic with right-turn lanes at appropriate places would be a better plan and should be advocated during the design process. Regardless, even if they go through with building the street with six lanes, we may learn in the future that they’re not all needed and adapt some lanes to other uses. That flexibility is not possible with the construction of a new overpass.
- There are other places around Forest Hills that could benefit from a “lane diet.” I notice that a lot of congestion on Washington Street/Hyde Park Avenue is caused by cars coming in from the left trying to merge right and vice versa. I think Washington/Hyde Park and South Street/Washington Street would benefit from the removal of a lane. The new configuration on these roads would have just one lane for traffic in each direction with a third “buffer lane” between them that would be signaled as a left-turn lane in the appropriate places and could be used for passing in the instances when a lane is obstructed by a double-parked car or delivery truck. The space gained can be used to create cycle-tracks and more on-street parking. Arborway could also stand to lose some asphalt, especially the portion between Centre Street and Jamaica Pond where it inexplicably swells to eight lanes. I think a consistent configuration of four lanes would help prevent the inevitable congestion that arises when traffic merges from the wider portions to the narrower portions, not to mention making things safer for walkers and bikers. For more on how lane diets work, watch this Streetsfilm:
- This great post on the Small Streets blog illustrates that park and ride lots at rail stations in America are often large enough to hold the footprint of a dense European village of 1,000-1,500 people. There’s a great illogic to having so much space dedicated to people driving to public transit rather than developing that space around the public transit options. Imagine the little villages that could be built near Boston at Riverside Station in Newton, Route 128 Station in Westwood, or the Anderson Regional Transportation Center in Woburn. More relevant to Forest Hills is the sea of parking that dominates both sides of Washington St./Hyde Park Avenue near the T station. These parking lots and the Arborway bus yard, already slated for redevelopment, could be turned into a beautiful transit-oriented village where people live, shop, and eat.
- The new streets configuration will open public space the size of Copley Square at the end of the Southwest Corridor Park. There are obvious benefits to more park space including a greener connection between the existing parks on the Emerald Necklace. However, open space can create a void that can sometimes be as much of a barrier as a highway. So I’ve been trying to think of ways of using this space that would encourage activity in the area not just during the commuter hours but on evenings and weekends as well. Some ideas I’ve had include a community garden, an amphitheater, or a dog park. The first two would not see much use in the wintertime and only R.E.M. gardens at night, but there are a lot of people in JP who own dogs. Since dogs have to be exercised regularly I think a well-lit dog park would see activity all year round and well into the night. Another option that I can imagine would be unpopular would be to allow the development of this space by commercial interests. I can imagine walking or biking along the Southwest Corridor and at the end the path opens up into a plaza surrounded by restaurants, cafes, and bars with plentiful outdoor seating in warm weather. It could work.
- Do you have any ideas for the Future of Forest Hills? Any thoughts on my ponderings? Please note them in the comments below.
Related news on the Forest Hills At-Grade Plan: