Somerville Plans New Bus, Bike Lanes on Washington Street

Washington Street in Somerville, looking east towards Union Square, in October 2020.
Washington Street in Somerville, looking east towards Union Square, in October 2020.

The City of Somerville hosted a virtual public meeting Wednesday evening for proposed new dedicated bus lanes for the MBTA’s Route 86 plus new bike lanes on Washington Street in Ward Two, a key connection between Union Square and Harvard Square in Cambridge.

The city describes the proposed new street layout as a “pilot,” and will use only quick-build materials for now.

Ward 2 City Councilor J.T. Scott, who convened neighborhood meetings to envision a protected bike lane design on Washington Street last summer, described the pilot as “a test run” at Wednesday’s online meeting. A complete reconstruction of the street is expected to happen in the next few years, which would be an opportunity for the city implement a more permanent design for new bus or bike lanes.

“It’s just paint on the street at this point, and it will get repaved. But we’ll see what works and what doesn’t, so that in 2022 or 2023, when we rebuild Washington Street, it can be the best possible street for everyone who uses it,” said Scott.

A sketch of proposed new bus lanes and bike lanes on Washington Street near Union Square in Somerville. Courtesy of the City of Somerville.
A sketch of proposed new bus lanes and bike lanes on Washington Street near Union Square in Somerville. Courtesy of the City of Somerville.

Washington Street is currently about 40 feet wide from one curb to the other, with two on-street parking lanes and two wide travel lanes with painted sharrows.

To make room for new dedicated bus lanes and bike lanes, the city estimates that up to 66 on-street parking spaces would be eliminated. City staff have surveyed actual parking utilization on Washington and adjacent streets, and found that even with 66 fewer parking spaces, there would still be plenty of room for the existing vehicles that use on-street parking nearby.

The Route 86 bus, which uses Washington Street on its route between Sullivan Square, Harvard Square, and Cleveland Circle, is the MBTA’s 18th-busiest bus route in terms of ridership, but has a poor on-time performance record, according to a route profile for the MBTA’s Better Bus Project. Buses can cover the route in about 30 minutes without traffic during early morning and late night trips, but during peak hours, the trip can take an entire hour.

Earlier this year, Somerville won a statewide “Shared Streets and Spaces” grant to implement bus lanes on another section of Washington Street near the McGrath Highway, east of Union Square.

The corridor is also a well-used bike route: the western end of Washington Street intersects with Somerville’s new protected bike lanes on Beacon Street, then crosses the city line and continues to Harvard Square as Kirkland Street in the City of Cambridge.

Cambridge is also planning protected bike lanes on parts of Kirkland Street near Harvard Square in its updated bike network plan.

The city plans to continue soliciting feedback in the next few weeks and tentatively plans to implement the new lane striping in mid-November.

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