It’s hard not to get excited about the latest designs for Needham St. and Highland Ave. presented in a series of meetings a couple of weeks ago. What’s not to like about grade-separated bike lanes from Winchester St. practically to Rte. 95/128? Not only are the designs good, but they are much better than earlier, more car-centric versions. If what you’re hoping for, though, is a five-minute trip from Oak to Winchester during rush hour, as the Man in Black says, “Get used to disappointment.” The good folks at MassDOT are engineers, not magicians; they can’t address the structural factors driving demand in the corridor and limiting ultimate capacity.

What those good folks at MassDOT have done is taken the available capacity (plus some strategic, small-scale takings) and wrung out a design that meets a bunch of sometimes conflicting design goals: better automobile throughput, safer bike travel, safer pedestrian travel, better bus stops. All of that within a (basically) fixed width. Even if MassDOT, Newton, and Needham wanted a four-lane boulevard, there wasn’t going to be room.

Thinking about the section of the street, along Needham St., what we’ll get is three slightly narrower travel lanes, the middle of which is a two-way, left-turn lane (TWLTL), which is more effective in theory than it is in practice. With the takings, there’s room for grade-separated cycle tracks — bike lanes that are at sidewalk level, not street level. And, there’s room for nice sidewalks, which are separated from the vehicle lanes by the bike lanes. 

Thinking end-to-end, there are a few pockets of improvements that primarily address vehicle movements. The northeast end of end of Needham St. — where Needham St., Winchester St., Centre St., and Dedham St. join — will be totally redesigned … but not with a roundabout :(. At the other end, the historic bridge over the Charles River will get three travel lanes (two lanes from Needham, one lane from Newton) and sidewalks cantilevered over the river. Probably the most significant change will be the re-alignment of Oak St. and Christina St. (which is technically outside the scope of the big project and will be completed this year, IIRC). Along Needham St. there will be new, coordinated signals. 

(Wondering why no pictures in this post? Design documents are not publicly published in electronic form. If anybody took good pictures at the printed plans hung at the meetings, I’ll update the post.)

Those pockets of change will, undoubtedly, improve vehicular movements. At existing volumes, the driving life will be better. But, volumes are just going to get worse. For starters, there is the well-established phenomenon of induced demand. The current congestion on Needham St. acts to discourage some driving that would otherwise use the street: latent demand. Improving throughput will likely unlock some of the latent demand. Service will revert back to prior levels of congestion, albeit with slightly higher volumes.

But, it’s not just latent demand that’s going to eat up the new capacity, though. It’s the demand from the added lanes on 128. (MassDOT gives with one hand and takes away with the other.) It’s the demand from development in the Needham business park. It’s the demand from the retail development along Needham St. (The Nexus is not nearly occupied, yet.) And, it’s the demand from the coming Northland development at the southwest end of Needham St.

Good news is, it’s going to be a lot easier — and safer — to ride your bike past the traffic.

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