Somerville Placates Parkers, But Emphasizes that Powder House is Still A Work in Progress

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

In a more conciliatory public meeting Wednesday night, city officials raised the possibility of installing a one-way protected bike lane on Powder House Boulevard in 2020, and emphasized the expected safety benefits of traffic-calming measures that are being installed on the street this summer.

While safety advocates and bicyclists in particular have been focused on the street’s bike facilities, this summer’s repaving project also includes a number of other elements that the city expects to slow down traffic and benefit the safety of all the street’s users, with or without protected bike lanes.

Three new radar speed feedback signs have been installed, and within the next few weeks, workers will also pave three speed tables along the 0.7 mile/1.1 kilometer length of the Boulevard.

A restriping plan for Powder House Circle is expected to be implemented in the fall of 2019. Courtesy of the City of Somerville.
A restriping plan for Powder House Circle is expected to be implemented in the fall of 2019. Courtesy of the City of Somerville.

This fall, the city expects to implement a new striping plan (pictured at left) for Powder House Circle, a congested, high-crash intersection where the Boulevard intersects with several other key cross-town bike routes.

Brad Rawson, Director of the Transportation and Infrastructure Division in the City of Somerville’s Office of Strategic Planning & Community Development, announced that the city was moving forward with painting an unprotected bike lane for now, but emphasized that the city was still analyzing other options.

“We worked through a community process for the last couple of years and this was the solution that we came up with… to preserve parking on both sides, skinny up the travel lanes to slow the motor vehicles down, and create some dedicated space for people on bikes, which you did not have last year,” said Rawson.

“We will use low-durability paints that will fade within a year and force us to continue to have this conversation as a community about a longer-term solution,” said Rawson.

One potential alternative under consideration, which many meeting attendees praised as a better compromise, would narrow the motor vehicle travel lanes even further to squeeze in a single protected bike lane on one side of Powder House Boulevard while also maintaining most of the on-street parking (a potential cross-section is pictured below).

The City of Somerville is considering a potential cross-section for Powder House Boulevard that would provide one protected bike lane while also preserving most on-street parking.
The City of Somerville is considering a potential cross-section for Powder House Boulevard that would provide one protected bike lane while also preserving most on-street parking.

Several parking advocates at the meeting thanked the city for listening to their vocal opposition to an earlier plan to eliminate one side of the street’s parking in order to make room for more robust protected bikeways.

Susan Berstler, the Director of the nonprofit Nave Gallery, said that she doesn’t own a car, but that it isn’t realistic for her gallery’s patrons to arrive by bike or public transit. “We’ll have to close if we lose 50 percent of the parking,” said Berstler.

But several car-owning neighbors spoke to tell the city that a safer street with protected bike lanes in both directions would be more important to them than the convenience of keeping the on-street parking they use.

Tanya Seamans, a resident of an apartment on Powder House Boulevard, said that, though she’s interested in using her bike to get around her neighborhood, “I haven’t ridden because I don’t want to die.”

“So I have a car, and I drive everywhere. We park on the street and we park in our driveway. And yet, I want safety more than I want the convenience of a parking spot,” continued Seamans. “We will adjust in time to whatever parking we have. I have a car, but I’ll get rid of it if I have to. I want to bike safely.”

Ken Carlson, a neighborhood resident with two young children, said that he drives to Powder House several times a week to deliver his kids to daycare at the corner of Curtis Street, next door to the neighborhood elementary school.

“I’ve been doing this for three years, and the worst it’s been – the furthest away I’ve ever had to park – is Packard (one block away). Once I had to park on Ossipee when there was snow. It’s really not that bad,” said Carlson.

“The thing that I really don’t want, is, I don’t want my daughter – she just on Saturday learned how to ride a bike, which I’m really happy about – I really don’t want her to get hit by a car. I’d rather have safe infrastructure on the road, and I can deal with the parking loss. It’s gonna suck but I’d prefer that to my daughter getting crushed.”

While residents had plenty of anecdotes to share about parking on Powder House, the city is currently undertaking a quantitative study on parking use on Powder House and nearby side streets in order to inform the next phase of design work. Preliminary results suggest that parking demand is highest in the overnight hours, with about half of the spaces vacant on the eastern end of the street near the Tufts campus, and about a third of spaces vacant on the more residential western end of the street. More parking surveys will be done in the fall, when Tufts is back in session.

The city expects to host another public meeting about that ongoing design work in the fall.

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