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In Powder House Project, Parking Blurs Somerville’s ‘Vision Zero’

8:18 AM EDT on July 31, 2019

Powder House Boulevard at the southern edge of the Tufts University campus in Somerville, pictured in May 2019.

A community meeting tonight will discuss a recent repaving project on Somerville’s Powder House Boulevard, where a motorist killed a woman in a crosswalk in front of a neighborhood school this February. 

The project, which improves the boulevard from Alewife Brook Parkway to the southern edge of Tufts University in West Somerville, has pitted safety advocates against drivers who fear the loss of their on-street parking, and become a serious test of the city's commitments to resident safety and sustainable transportation.

Planning for safety improvements on Powder House Boulevard began in 2016 as the city prepared for a utility replacement project. At the time, "residents said to us, ‘we’ve got too many cars moving too fast,’" said Brad Rawson, Director of the Transportation and Infrastructure Division in the City of Somerville's Office of Strategic Planning & Community Development. "No surprise, we found that out of about 10,000 cars per day, about 70 percent were speeding... The mayor gave us the latitude to try and make the street safer, more humane and more equitable."

The new street design includes crosswalk improvements, new curb extensions and speed bumps to reduce motor vehicle speeds. But the city also acknowledged that Powder House Boulevard is an important link in the city's bicycle network, and that better bicycling facilities could also be an effective means to reduce traffic speeds.

The City of Somerville's "option B" proposal for Powder House Boulevard would provide a climbing bike lane in one direction and a shared lane where cars and bikes would mix in the downhill sections of the street. Courtesy of the City of Somerville.
The City of Somerville's "Option B" proposal for Powder House Boulevard would provide a climbing bike lane in one direction and a shared lane where cars and bikes would mix in the downhill sections of the street. Courtesy of the City of Somerville.

In 2018, as construction approached, the city seemed to be converging on a design (illustrated above) that provided an unprotected bicycle lane on the uphill sections of Powderhouse Boulevard, and shared lane markings, or "sharrows," painted on the downhill side of the street.

Then, in February, a motorist killed Allison Donovan, a longtime educator for Watertown Public Schools, in a crosswalk in front of West Somerville Neighborhood School.

“Allison’s death changed everything. The Mayor said we should come back out and look at this again,” said Rawson. “I live about 2 blocks from the boulevard. My kid’s going to start going to school right there about a year from now. So I carry a heavy emotional burden on the fact that this crash happened while we were planning this.”

Safety advocates began to organize neighborhood support for a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly project – one that would include protected bike lanes and remove more on-street parking for cars. George Schneeloch, a bike commuter who lives near Union Square, was involved in some of the organizing. "We put out a petition (for safety improvements citywide, not just on Powder House Boulevard) that got about 300 signatures, and we did a lot of door-knocking, a lot of work figuring out what kind of compromise could be made," says Schneeloch.

In May of this year, the city hosted another public meeting to discuss potential street layouts, this time with two options that included protected bike lanes.

But while plenty of safety advocates turned out to support those ideas, the meeting also attracted lots of car owners who were very upset about the prospect of losing free on-street parking.

Earlier this month, the city announced that it would keep the parking in place and move forward with the unprotected bike lane design for now. In a July 24 letter, Mayor Joe Curtatone stressed that this would be a temporary solution while staff worked out a better consensus between parking preservationists  and safety advocates.

That's small consolation to many safety advocates in West Somerville, who plan to turn out in force to another public meeting on the project tonight (details below).

In a July 26 op-ed in the Somerville Journal, Arah Shuur wrote that the decision to punt on more robust safety improvements casts doubt on the city's commitment to sustainability and Vision Zero.

"This option is being chosen because it is the one that preserves street parking, at the expense of the well-being of cyclists," wrote Schuur. "I encourage every Somerville resident who is sick of hearing about another dead pedestrian, another ghost bike ceremony, another road rage incident, to write to the mayor, the City Council, and the Transportation Department telling them that you expect more — you expect a city with streets that are safe."

Schneelock acknowledges that the May meeting was "very messy." But he points out that a more inclusive online survey on the subject, which attracted much more engagement than the evening meeting, registered much stronger support for the options that removed on-street parking to create more space for bikes and pedestrians.

“It shouldn’t be a popularity contest. But (protected bike lanes) actually won the popularity contest!" says Schneelock. “So how was this decision made? It’s not a decision that would be made by a city that’s progressive on safety issues.”

This story was updated at 4 p.m. Wednesday July 31 to clarify that the petition submitted to Somerville's City Hall this spring pertained to street safety citywide, not only on Powder House Boulevard.

Public meeting information:

Powder House Boulevard Community Meeting

When: Wednesday, July 31, 6:30pm

Where: West Somerville Neighborhood School at 177 Powder House Blvd., Somerville (about a 15 minute walk north of the Davis Square Red Line stop)

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