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New bus lanes coming to key stretch near Jackson Square, but cyclists feel shut out

An MBTA bus made its way on Columbus Avenue from Egleston Square to Jackson Square, a traffic-choked artery that will soon add center-running bus lanes.
An MBTA bus made its way on Columbus Avenue from Egleston Square to Jackson Square, a traffic-choked artery that will soon add center-running bus lanes.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File 2020

A new type of dedicated bus lane will soon come to the streets of Boston, along a half-mile stretch of Columbus Avenue between Jackson and Egleston squares.

Rather than running on the outside lanes along the curb, buses will instead have the center lanes of the streets to themselves, a design that transit experts have long championed as the best way to quickly move buses past cars, which have long held dominion over the roads.

But as the city and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority prepare to begin construction next month, it’s cyclists — not drivers — who are raising concerns about the $10 million project.

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The dispute comes as the T and municipal planners seek to increase the number of bus-only lanes across the Boston area, and the criticism by cyclists demonstrates the challenge they face to rework narrow, crowded streets to accommodate all modes of transportation.

The curbside bus lane layout that has grown increasingly familiar in the Boston area usually allows bikers to share the space, because it is easy for cyclists to get out of the way as buses approach. But in moving the bus lane to the center of the road, planners have also decided not to set aside any space on that portion of Columbus Avenue for bicycles, meaning they would have to share a busy stretch with car traffic, but with just one lane between them instead of two.

Jeffrey Ferris, owner of Ferris Wheels Bike Shop in Jamaica Plain, accused the city of being overly eager to try out the center-running bus lanes, without giving consideration to cyclists.

“There needs to be safe accommodations for bicycles on the street. ... This looks to me kind of like: ‘Oh, center-lane bus lanes, we should try that out somewhere. Let’s try it out here,’” he said. “What’s the rush on this project? I think it needs a delay and to go back to the drawing board.”

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A rendering of the planned new bus lanes for Columbus Avenue.
A rendering of the planned new bus lanes for Columbus Avenue.MBTA/City of Boston

At a public meeting on Thursday, Boston transportation planners said they decided on the center-lane approach that excludes bikes after determining that a shared lane would be unsafe for cyclists because of the hilly terrain on Columbus Avenue and because buses come too frequently.

“We wouldn’t have designated them as a shared bus-bike lane under any circumstances,” Boston transportation planner William Moose said at the meeting of the city’s public improvement commission, which approved the plan. “That’s when we started having these conversations about pushing for the highest and best order of bus priority that we could get.”

The city has also said it wants to move quickly on the new lanes because they will allow for more frequent service and cut down on crowding inside buses during the coronavirus pandemic.

The criticism from cyclists is striking, because bike and transit groups are usually closely allied in arguing for better conditions for non-auto transportation. And in this case, cycling advocates have been careful not to denounce the bus lanes themselves, but the planning process.

Becca Wolfson, director of the Boston Cyclists Union, stressed that she’s not calling for the city to abandon the center-running lane and agreed that the hilly portion of the road makes sharing it with buses unsafe. An alternative, she suggested, would be to eliminate parking for a bike lane.

But the bigger issue, Wolfson said, is that the city treated cycling as an afterthought, pledging to study the area’s bike infrastructure later instead of coming up with a solution as part of the project.

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“The city needs to see projects like this as mobility projects, not just a bus project or bike project, and they didn’t give bikes the consideration that really is called for,” Wolfson said.

Julia Wallerce, who leads the Boston division of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and has long pushed for center-running bus lanes, praised the transit improvement but agreed the city should have incorporated a plan for bikes.

“For the sake of expediency and moving quickly, we may have overlooked opportunities to also accommodate cyclists safely,” she said. “But the bus stuff is great. The center-running is great.”

This stretch of Columbus Avenue is different from the section on the north side of Jackson Square, where the road has six lanes for traffic and no parking for long stretches, and has a bike path built into the Southwest Corridor park along the side. With four lanes for traffic, the hilly part of Columbus is hemmed in by street parking and does not have any accommodation for cyclists.

The project will install “floating” bus stops along the route, which will look similar to above-ground portions of the Green Line. The stretch of Columbus Avenue carries popular bus lines, including the 22 from Dorchester and 29 from Mattapan.

The MBTA said the new lanes “will be one of the premier pieces of bus-priority infrastructure in our system and a major investment in transit equity,” adding that it wants to make similar improvements elsewhere. Boston officials have already suggested they plan to install center-running lanes on Summer Street in South Boston and Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan; officials in Everett and Lynn have also flirted with the concept.

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Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.