A number of changes are underway on Washington Street, primarily, the addition of a single, one-direction, protected bike lane. This is exciting and it’s about time, but there is a bit more to this story. 

Let’s go back to the Washington Street Vision Plan, in which it was suggested that we put the four-lane road on a diet. The consultants showed images of a reconfigured roadway with better sidewalks and protected bike lanes. This dream, they told us, could be tested for very little money. Put out some planters and some paint, try out a new configuration, and do the full design later once we see how it works in real-world conditions. 

The city agreed to this concept and allocated $400,000 to the road diet trial. But, then back in May, The DPW reallocated that money to pay for hot-in-place repaving for the area between Walnut St. and Chestnut St. The DPW claimed that if they didn’t do this repaving now, the road would need to have been reconstructed at great expense. The city had already put aside $350,000 through the paving budget for Washington Street, but the DPW said it needed to add the rest to ensure that the project got done. This $750,000 project was underway last I looked, but there’s a catch. The road work happened before anyone fixed the various gas leaks that have already been identified along the road, so it’s likely to be dug up and patched in the near future. 

So when might the road diet happen? Well, that’s a great question. So far the only answer I got was that it will happen at some unspecified time in the future when economic times are better. There is no budget, no benchmarks, no plan.

What is happening, however, is a protected bike lane on the westbound side of the road, pushed up against the highway (it’s replacing curbside parking) between West Newton and Lowell Street. This is part of the safe routes to school program, though with the changes happening to the city’s Covid education program, it’s anyone’s guess when students may use the lane for its intended purpose. I’ll say that a protected lane on this road is desperately needed. One student described her daily trip up this road to me as “emotionally exhausting,” and that’s no way for a kid to start the school day.  

This kind of accommodation was also called for in the vision plan, which states “Infrastructure for residents who bike also requires consideration. With no dedicated space for cyclists, conflict with drivers is frequent and those conflicts have the potential to be deadly.”

While these changes are wonderful and welcome, they’re not nearly enough. First, there is no westbound protected bike lane. A westbound bike lane would not only get the students home safely, but it would also provide cycling access to the commerce that only happens on one side of that road. Second, while other cities and towns around the state and the country are rethinking their infrastructure to open up to more uses; both Waltham and North Adams come to mind, we have managed very few transportation changes here. Instead of a true network to help people get around safely without a car, we have a single one-way protected lane pushed up against a six-lane highway and a railroad. Every day I see people moving around my neighborhood on foot, by bike, riding electric scooters, and even on those one-wheel balance boards. These aren’t just kids either! Just this morning a guy on an electric scooter, wearing a backpack looking like he was headed off to work, came by me and scooted down North Street toward Waltham. We need to give our neighbors a way to do more than just use these recreationally. 

A key problem remains that intersection between drivers who speed down the road and the cyclists and pedestrians who also occupy the same space. Despite a 35mph speed limit on Washington Street, the wide straightaway means people move much faster. Traffic studies show cars regularly traveling at 45 and 50 mph in both directions.  

We have an opportunity to make big, bold changes to our city that can have positive impacts on a number of different levels, including giving our children safe ways to move around. This isn’t just about Washington Street, but about all of Newton. Remember, even most high schoolers don’t drive to school; they’re either underaged, haven’t gotten their license, or don’t have a spare car at their disposal. Having pedestrian and bike access enables them to get to school without needing a parent to drive them. 

We can make these changes, but we need to look beyond the windshield. 

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