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Bikes on the McGrath Highway? The state’s preparing to redesign the urban artery

A cyclist headed toward Cambridge on the McGrath Highway.
A cyclist headed toward Cambridge on the McGrath Highway.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

By American standards, at least, the streets of Somerville and Cambridge are a cyclist’s paradise, with green paint, flex posts, and off-street paths lining many key thoroughfares.

But then, tearing through the cities’ eastern edges, stands the six-lane McGrath Highway, much of it elevated on a hefty overpass to carry a heavy load of commuter traffic along Route 28.

Built in the 1950s, and still lined in some areas by auto shops and gas stations, it’s an artifact of an era when the car was most definitely king of the road. And the McGrath is decidedly foreboding for bicyclists.

“Cars go so fast, and they’re not expecting bicyclists to be there,” said Corie Brabazon, a Somerville cyclist who lives near the McGrath but steers her bike well clear of it. “It just makes me nervous.”

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The current highway has no room dedicated to bikes. While some daring cyclists occasionally brave the sidewalks or a narrow shoulder before darting to a side street, most stay away.

State officials hope to change that, as they prepare to cut down the McGrath to four lanes of auto traffic by adding wide cycle lanes in both directions over a 1.5-mile stretch. The redesign will include an additional buffer space to ensure bikes have plenty of separation from cars and trucks.

A rendering of the McGrath Highway with bike lanes.
A rendering of the McGrath Highway with bike lanes.MassDOT

The $14 million project is part of a larger resurfacing of the highway between Broadway in Somerville and Third Street in Cambridge. It should amount to a preview of a much more substantial change looming in the longer-term future: eliminating the elevated portions of the highway and converting the McGrath into a surface “boulevard” that is better integrated with the city, a plan long supported by Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone.

That proposal, which state officials say will cost $100 million — and probably more, because of inflation — is still early in the design process. But the state has listed it in key long-range planning documents as one of several expected to be built by 2040, although Somerville officials hope it will be much sooner than that.

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In the meantime, however, the redesign could make the existing McGrath much more friendly to nondrivers.

“We can demonstrate the proof of concept for that broader McGrath Boulevard project,” said Brad Rawson, Somerville’s transportation director, describing it as a plan to “starting to heal the scars of the urban freeway era.”

Whether it will draw more cyclists is another question. Only about 100 bikers dare to test the McGrath on a typical day, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. But state officials say they are confident many more would ride it if conditions were better.

The changes will mirror others in this part of Greater Boston.

Sullivan Square, notorious for its chaotic traffic patterns, now has protected bike lanes. Rutherford Avenue, a similarly desolate corridor that has long served cut-through highway traffic in Charlestown, is expected to be transformed in the coming years with bike and pedestrian facilities, and similar changes will come to a rebuilt North Washington Street Bridge into downtown.

Meanwhile, sections of Route 28 south of the McGrath, past the Museum of Science toward Boston, already have new bike infrastructure, after a cyclist was killed in the area in 2018. Somerville has announced plans to squeeze bike lanes onto narrow Highland Avenue, almost certainly at the expense of many parking spaces. And the MBTA’s Green Line extension through Somerville includes a new bike path that feeds into Lechmere Station and other cycling paths on either end.

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“That’s an area where both cities have really been moving to a multimodal approach the last several years, so [the McGrath redesign] is really a reflection of that,” said the state’s highway administrator, Jonathan Gulliver.

On the McGrath, a painted buffer area will help separate car and bike lanes. MassDOT also agreed to a request by state Representative Mike Connolly to add some sort of physical barrier between them — possibly the usual flex posts, but maybe a different material; officials are still considering the options.

Bikes will at one point be diverted off a part of the elevated section of the McGrath that is only two lanes, onto an ancillary section that intersects with Washington Street in Somerville.

The redesign is going out to bid this summer, and it’s likely to take two years to complete because of all the other work involved, including bridge repairs and drainage work.

The state also expects to upgrade intersections to make it easier for pedestrians who find crossing the road something of an adventure.

“It feels like ‘Frogger’ sometimes,” in the video game, joked Ted Andrews, a Somerville resident who crosses the highway by foot to get to his gym.

But Andrews expressed some concern that with fewer lanes, the McGrath will have more traffic backups, noting that utility work and the Green Line extension have disrupted local roads for several years.

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The lane reduction will undoubtedly vex some motorists. More than 30,000 drivers used the road on any given day before the pandemic, according to state data. The change may add up to one minute to driving times during peak hours in this short section of road, according to the state.

That is partially by design, Gulliver said. While the McGrath has backups in some areas, vehicles tend to speed along the overpass, and the redesign may help slow them down or convince cut-through drivers to stay on Interstate 93.

“One of the goals when you do one of these types of projects is to improve safety,” Gulliver said. “These ‘road diet’ approaches are just a proven method of doing it. As a driver, as you approach a corridor like this and you go into it, your lanes start to feel a little tighter, and you instinctually start to slow down just by looking at what’s around you.”

And in a part of the region that has emphasized goals to reduce auto traffic, frustrated motorists may not find many sympathetic ears — either in City Hall or among other institutions. For example, the McGrath helps serve Kendall Square, where many major employers have spent years trying to cut down on driving, and the city has increasingly dedicated space for bikes.

“Having more bike connectivity plays directly into our strategy and is only a good thing,” said C.A. Webb, president of the Kendall Square Association, which represents more than 100 organizations in the neighborhood.

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