The Future of Forest Hills Looks Bright

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: [vimeo]
  • 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:


The Future of Forest Hills: The At-Grade City Street Option

I live in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Jamaica Plain in the city of Boston.  The neighborhood on the whole is a great place to live as it features diverse people of different backgrounds and social scale, a wide variety of attractive housing, interesting and successful local business, access to public transit and bike paths and lots of parks and green space.  One scar on this great neighborhood is the area immediately around the Forest Hills T Station.  In the shadow of a large highway overpass carrying cars on the Arborway there are large parking areas, derelict empty lots, and depressed-looking commercial and industrial places.  Plans are afoot to revitalize this area such as redeveloping the MBTA’s Arborway Yard and building new transit-oriented housing and commercial space directly around the T station.  While these plans seem to be on hold due to the current state of the economy, plans to remove the elevated highway known as the Casey Overpass appears to be going forward.

I heartily welcome the removal of this eyesore which is both overbuilt for the traffic it carries and a detriment to the neighborhood.  Unfortunately, there is a movement afoot to create an auto-centric solution by rebuilding the overpass which I believe would bode poorly for the future of the neighborhood as well as for anyone who wishes to navigate the area below the bridge on foot, by bike, on public transportation, and even by car.  Several organizations such as LivableStreet, WalkBostonThe Emerald Necklace ConservancyMassBike, the Boston Cyclists Union, and JP Bikes have come out in favor of an at-grade city street option to replace the current overpass.  Below is a copy of my letter to Thomas Broderick, acting chief engineer of MassDOT, explaining my reasons for supporting the at-grade option.  If you live in Jamaica Plain, Roslindale or elsewhere in Boston  and would like to help spur the economic development of Forest Hills by making it livable for all users – pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users as well as motorists – please consider writing a letter yourself (the BCU provides a good template) and attending future public meetings to support an at-grade city street.

Dear Mr. Broderick,

I am a resident of the Forest Hills neighborhood in Jamaica Plain and commute through the intersection below the Casey Overpass on a daily basis by foot, bicycle, public transportation and by automobile.  I welcome the news that the crumbling and overbuilt Casey Overpass must be demolished and could be replaced with an at-grade city street.  This approach would help reconnect the Emerald Necklace, create new public space, allow for better neighborhood development and provide safer connections for bicyclists and pedestrians as well as motorists.  Unfortunately, voices are mobilizing to encourage MassDOT to take a more expensive and auto-centric approach by reconstructing the highway overpass over Forest Hills.  I am writing to offer my support for an at-grade city street connecting the Arborway as the better option for the future of the neighborhood and its residents.

I am aware that traffic engineers in your department have determined that both a bridge and the at-grade option will handle the predicted traffic flow of 2035 in roughly the same way. In light of this I see no reason to build a bridge. In future projects, I believe that the recently consolidated MassDOT would serve Massachusetts better to find ways to hold traffic flow around our fair city to the levels of 2011 or less instead of planning for traffic increases. This could be accomplished in many areas by developing public transportation, a safe connective bikeways network and pedestrian-friendly streets that encourage active transportation and healthier lifestyles.

The current situation under the bridge is quite the harrowing experience for pedestrians and cyclists and even for motorists.  The bridge support structure creates blinds spots for turning vehicles and lack signaled left turn lanes making the intersection a frightening place to make a turn.  When I commute by bike passing under the Casey Overpass is the most unpleasant part of my ride although necessary to navigate this intersection to get from my home to the Southwest Corridor Bike Path.  An at-grade option would mean that the bike path would no longer have to dead end at New Washington St.

With the existing at grade New Washington Street and the access lanes to the highway overpass, pedestrians have to make as many as three crossings in a short distance when walking down Washington or South Streets.  The access ramps are particularly dangerous to cross since drivers using them have a “highway mentality” that causes them to exceed the speed limit and not pay attention to walkers and bikers.  I find that the overpass and the access lines also contribute to automotive congestion in the morning rush hour as the need to have multiple traffic signals close together causes the traffic flow to back up.  In fact, on one occasion I was stuck on a 39 bus for five minutes because a handful of cars snarled up South Street between the two traffic lights under the overpass.  An at-grade city street would mean that motorists, buses, bicyclists and pedestrians would only have to navigate one crossing making the street easier and more welcoming for everyone.

I am also concerned of the costs to taxpayers and neighborhood residents that come from constructing a new highway overpass through Forest Hills.  The overpass is obviously the more expensive option and would leave little money for improved facilities for bicycling, walking and public transportation that would be possible with the at-grade option.  Historically, the Casey Overpass was a decision made in the 1950s when high-speed auto transportation through the city was thought to be the wave the future.  This mentality caused considerable harm to Boston such as the Fitzgerald Expressway forced through the heart of the city and paving over James Jackson Storrow’s Embankment parks.  Here in Boston and in cities worldwide the idea of urban freeways has been discredited and when elevated highways are removed in cities from San Francisco to Seoul the cities have benefited from increased economic development and reduced automobile congestion.  It should also be noted that the Casey Overpasss was rebuilt in the 1980s just 30 years after it was constructed.  Now 30 years later it needs to be rebuilt again.  The cost of the new overpass would include greater maintenance costs and the very real possibility that in another 30 years we would be in the same situation of repairing and replacing that bridge. 

Finally, there are great opportunities to improve the Forest Hills neighborhood from the Arborway Yard to the parking lots and open space around the T station.  Examples of economic development in the shadow of a freeway overpass are few and far between and the current development in the immediate area of the overpass reflects the depressing effect of highway infrastructure in a neighborhood setting.  Permanently removing the Casey Overpass would be a good first step in encouraging the development of new transit-oriented housing and commercial space that would revitalize Forest Hills as a dynamic bikable, walkable and economically-flourishing neighborhood. With the construction of the new large Co-Op store and other small businesses to join them in the near future, the Forest Hills area is fast becoming a thriving business district, not merely an MBTA transit center located amidst several neighborhoods. It is imperative that traffic is slowed down and adequate long-term access solutions are created to accommodate the increasing numbers of pedestrians and bicyclists.

My approval and support of the at-grade option is contingent on the timely completion of bike paths that will travel up both sides of Washington St. toward Roslindale from the project area, and ending at Ukraine Way where they will be designed to connect to and complement the bike lanes on that street. The construction of these bike paths should be considered as part of the replacement project and completed within the same time frame as that project.

It is also contingent on there being no “slip lanes” at either Washington Street, Hyde Park Avenue or South Street. Slip lanes create dangerous situations for both pedestrians and cyclists due their wider radius turn that allows cars to travel through them at an increased speed. There is no need for speed in this area and in this community we value the safety of our residents over convenience for motor vehicles.

I also support converting Shea Circle into “Shea Square” by creating a normal intersection there. Traffic circles, particularly those handling more than one lane of traffic, have been proven to be particularly dangerous to bicyclists and pedestrians.  Further along the Arborway, MassDOT should consider redesigning the large rotary at the intersection with Centre Street.  Currently traffic coming from Forest Hills gets backed up by the traffic signal while traffic from all other directions is not signaled and enters directly into the circle with very little congestion.  Improved traffic flow for this intersection would help prevent auto traffic from backing up into Forest Hills.

I strongly believe that the at-grade option offers a better future for myself and for the neighborhood I love.  Please consider the needs and happiness of all people – residents, pedestrians, public transit users, and cyclists as well as motorists – when planning for the future of Forest Hills.