Change is never easy, but there is no question that Blue Hill Avenue is in desperate need of a redesign. One of Boston’s major thoroughfares, the roadway connects some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods to the rest of the city. But it has long been plagued by relentless congestion, unsafe sidewalks, and decades of underinvestment. Its current design introduces difficulty and danger into the lives of the residents who rely on it. Simply put, it has imposed longer-than-necessary commute times for bus riders, cyclists, and drivers alike.
If Blue Hill Avenue is one of Boston’s main arteries, the bad news is that it’s seriously clogged. The good news is that the city has plans for placing a stent.
For the past several years, the city has sought feedback from residents along the corridor on how to best redevelop the street, introducing proposals that include dedicated bus and bike lanes along with wider sidewalks. The idea is to improve residents’ mobility and safety by making the 3-mile stretch between Mattapan and Grove Hall more transit oriented and pedestrian friendly. And from an urban planning standpoint, it’s a no-brainer.
But as with any public-works project, the city’s proposals have prompted a considerable amount of resistance from constituents. Business owners, for example, have suggested that they might have a hard time maintaining patronage if they lose parking spaces. And some residents of the predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods surrounding Blue Hill Avenue are understandably worried that any major redevelopment of the landscape is a harbinger of gentrification and the poorest residents getting squeezed out of their communities — or the city altogether.
These concerns are certainly legitimate. But the reality is that the status quo is unsustainable. And it’s harming the most marginalized residents, who are less likely to be heard in community engagement processes. After all, the people who have time to show up to public meetings tend to be those with more resources, and they make the loudest noise as a result.
That’s why the city’s engagement process has been a welcome change from the way it’s usually done. Boston has actively consulted community organizations like the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council in order to have more representative feedback than what city planners would usually hear from relying solely on public meetings. Kirstie Hostetter, the city’s project manager, told the Globe editorial board that the city also plans to put together focus groups so it can ensure that all kinds of commuters are represented, be they drivers, bus riders, or cyclists. Hostetter mentioned that she has also stood at bus stops and solicited feedback from people using public transit — a great way for the city to meet people where they are and a method that ought to be replicated and documented by more planners on the project.
One of the most urgent needs for Blue Hill Avenue is making public transportation more accessible and reliable. The buses that run along the avenue, which have some of the highest ridership numbers of any bus lines in the MBTA system, regularly get stuck in traffic and are often overcrowded and late as a result. And that has to change.
That’s why the best proposals include dedicating the center lanes for buses. While some critics have taken issue with the idea of having to cross the street to get to a bus stop, center bus lanes are the most capable of insulating public-transit riders from disruptive car-traffic behavior. If a bus lane is adjacent to the sidewalk, for example, buses will often get held up by cars that are double parked or making right turns, while a center bus lane would ensure a smooth and reliable ride along the entire stretch.
Center bus lanes also have an added perk for future generations: They help lay out the infrastructure for a light-rail train should the city ever wish to bring electric streetcars back to the area. As the city pointed out in a recent public meeting, before Blue Hill Avenue was redesigned around cars, it used to have streetcars that promoted density and affordable housing.
While these plans are promising, this isn’t the first effort to redesign Blue Hill Avenue. Back in 2009, the state proposal for the “28X” busway ended up going nowhere. That’s why the city mustn’t let momentum stall. As it currently stands, the city aims to begin the bidding process for construction in mid-2024. While that’s a reasonable goal, the city’s absolute deadline for completing the redesign is not until late 2029. There is no reason that a project to revamp a 3-mile asphalt stretch should ever take that long.
As Mayor Michelle Wu previously told the Globe, “Some of what holds us back from implementing the [infrastructure] changes that we need is cynicism about whether this will actually work or help. To some extent there’s nothing you can do to disprove that except by doing it and showing it.” And now it’s time for the city to do just that.
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