Frequently asked questions
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Why should we want to improve Memorial Drive?
The Charles River Basin was originally designed to provide river scenery and recreational opportunities to Cambridge residents. Today, cars roar by on the 4 lane highway while the adjacent shared sidewalks river are meager and poorly maintained. The highway cuts off access to the parkland, with few safe crossing points for residents and visitors.
Who uses the Memorial Drive path and park?
The Memorial Drive pathway and park is enjoyed by Cambridge residents and visitors from near and far. People of all ages come to the park, especially on weekends when the Riverbend Park end of Memorial Drive is closed to cars, for a range of recreational activities (e.g. walking, running, cycling, roller-skating, skateboarding, kayaking, picnicking). Additionally, as part of the Dr. Paul Dudley White Bike Path, the pathway that runs along the north side of the Charles River, Memorial Drive’s sidewalk bike path is part of a route that connects Cambridge with commuters and others from the nearby towns of Watertown, Newton, and Waltham.
Isn’t there already a path? Why should cyclists, runners, and pedestrians each have their own space?
Even if it were in good repair, the current path is too narrow to accommodate all the various ways that people use it, with some segments as narrow as 3 feet wide. Faster-moving users like cyclists want to use it as a travel corridor, while pedestrians are often looking for a leisurely stroll. Runners need space to exercise at a speed in between. Our goal is for DCR to redesign Memorial Drive in a way that provides space for all these users to travel safely and enjoyably.
How will this help pedestrians crossing Memorial Drive?
There have been 400 crashes on Memorial Drive since 2019, 78 of which have seriously injured people. In 2020, two pedestrians were killed. Even though the speed limit is 35mph, the road is designed with wide travel lanes, which encourages speeding. It should be noted that the City of Cambridge’s speed limits, at 25 MPH on arterial roads and 20 on neighborhood roads, are far lower than that on Memorial Drive. And the risk to pedestrians of severe injury rises exponentially as the speed increases, from “10% at an impact speed of 16 mph to 25% at 23 mph, 50% at 31 mph, 75% at 39 mph, and 90% at 46 mph”, according to AAA Foundation, and many other sources
Who controls Memorial Drive: DCR or the City of Cambridge?
Even though the DCR, a state agency, controls Memorial Drive, Cambridge citizens and other users do (or should!) have a say in what happens on our limited parklands.
But is Memorial Drive really a parkland roadway? It seems like a major commuting road.
The Charles River Basin was originally conceived and is still designated as a recreational parkland with Memorial Drive originally designed to provide access to the parklands. No trucks or heavy vehicles are allowed on Memorial Drive. The parklands are an increasingly valuable natural space to all of those who live near it and to visitors.
Doesn’t reducing car lanes increase traffic?
No. In many cases, reducing lanes (i.e. “road diet”) can maintain or even improve traffic flow, particularly with the addition of dedicated turn lanes. See Braess’s Paradox for some interesting examples. Several local reconstruction projects have closed a full lane of Memorial Drive for months, including the reconstruction of the MIT boathouse, a sewer project adjacent to Vassar St, re-grading and paving of the road surface between the Harvard and Longfellow bridges. These single lane closures were hardly noticed by drivers, and did not cause traffic backups.
What specific layouts do you envision for Memorial Drive?
We envision two of the four motor vehicle travel lanes on Memorial Drive being replaced with protected multi-use paths for active travel users (pedestrians, runners, cyclists, etc.) along the full length of Memorial Drive. The plan would include car turning lanes at key intersections, local car traffic traveling at lower - and quieter and safer - speeds, and through-traffic discouraged from traveling through adjacent neighborhoods such as Riverside and Cambridgeport.
The Memorial Drive Alliance is in the process of developing schematic plans to illustrate this approach and anticipates posting such designs on this website in the near future.
But the road is built for cars, for people to get to work
While some may think that cars are the only way to get to work and do errands, many more people in this region are recognizing the ability, need, and desire to commute to work, recreation, and other activities in car-free ways. For those who don’t do so already, the reason most often cited is the hazardous nature of biking and the lack of reliability and speed of transit, both of which are caused by the excessive numbers of cars on our roadways. It’s a vicious cycle that can be stopped by creating “road diets”, which DCR has done successfully in other similar locations.
How have similar road diets worked before? On other DCR roads? On Memorial Drive and adjacent roads?
When Greenough Blvd, the segment just to the west of Cambridge, was being redesigned, people were very concerned about reducing the roadway, etc., there were no traffic problems. Greenough Blvd was reduced from four lanes to two lanes in order to create more green space for active travel users, as well as an ADA-compliant pedestrian ramp to connect the parking lot on Greenough Blvd to the existing path. Additionally, stormwater management was greatly improved, and 165 shade trees and wildflowers were planted to enhance the native landscape. Today, the improved conditions of the path allow local schools to send their student cross-country teams to run along the Charles River, and people gather along the Greenough Greenway to view rowing races along the Charles.
DCR’s Nonantum Road, which runs through Boston, Newton and Watertown, underwent a similar lane reduction project in 2012. Nonantum Road was re-striped from a four-lane to a two-lane roadway, with left-turn lanes where appropriate at intersections and driveways. Much like Memorial Drive, one side of Nonantum Road is generally residential, and the other side is generally recreational (i.e. athletic complexes, yacht and rowing clubs. Analysis of pre- and post-construction data (p.21-24) has shown a decrease in crash occurrences and severity along the corridor, an increase in traffic volume, and 85% of vehicles traveling below but near the posted speed limit..
DCR’s FY22 Goals include road diets on Hammond Pond Parkway in Newton and the Arborway in Boston.
For more info:
Evaluation of Road Diets in Massachusetts in 2017 for MassDOT by Toole Design
Mass.gov: What are Road Diets?, including Common Configurations, Benefits, Proven Results in MA, and Resources, including “Debunking Myths about Road Diets"
How can these changes help the environment? How will they make the park greener?
Transportation is responsible for 40% of our area’s greenhouse gases. Creating this safer route for cyclists, scooterers, skaters, etc to commute via these modes to work, school, shopping, and recreation along the natural treasure that is the Charles River, will encourage more people to use this mode of transportation, rather than driving. Restoring the Sycamore Allee and planting more trees and other plants and reducing motor vehicle speeds will make the parklands safer to access, cooler in summer and a more enjoyable place to visit. Currently, even its neighbors avoid the parklands because they are not relaxing, quiet or restful.
Is anything happening on the south side of the river to also make it a quieter, more pacific place? Even if Memorial Drive were not so noisy, the Boston side would still be.
Reclaiming formerly industrialized, polluted, or neglected riverfronts is being done throughout this region and in communities across the US. The sooner Memorial Drive is upgraded to be more recreational and greener the greater the incentive will be to do so on Boston’s side of the river.
What about the I-90 project (Mass Pike and its redesign near Cambridge)?
The I-90 project currently being planned may take years before the plans are finalized, if it happens at all. There are alternatives to I-90 detours being considered and we don’t want all of that traffic to come from Boston, move through Cambridge, just to get back to the other side of the river again.
Many people use the paths adjacent to Storrow Drive to commute and for recreation. These paths would likely be closed throughout much of the I-90 reconstruction, and these users will also need detours and additional capacity through Cambridge.