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As Kendall Square grows, so do the traffic jams

No one thinks the Kendall Square traffic woes are easy to solve.
No one thinks the Kendall Square traffic woes are easy to solve.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — The whiz kids of Kendall Square helped build the Internet and sequence the human genome. Now they’re turning their attention to what may be a more formidable challenge: figuring out how to get to work.

People commuting to their jobs in this innovation hub face some of the state’s worst traffic on a daily basis. Multiple bottlenecks — from the neighborhood’s construction projects to the long-running repair of the Longfellow Bridge to the backed-up exit ramps funneling cars off major highways — are choking the dynamic business center.

“It doesn’t matter which way you go,” said Christine Hickey, administrative assistant at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. “I live in Hyde Park and it takes me close to an hour each way to go 11 miles. There are three lanes going around the rotary to the BU Bridge and it’s gridlock. I want one of those futuristic cars that can lift you up and take you over.”

In a way, Kendall Square is a victim of its own success. Life sciences and technology companies move there to be close to the huge pool of talent and nearby universities, hospitals, and startup ventures. The bigger it gets, the more popular it becomes.

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Over the last five years, companies have occupied more than 1.6 million square feet of new office and lab space while adding more than 5,000 jobs, according to the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority and the Kendall Square Association.

No one thinks the Kendall Square traffic woes are easy to solve. But the problem has taken on a new urgency in recent months — especially during winter snowstorms that further aggravated traffic — as inventors and entrepreneurs worry that the logjams could undermine their cutting-edge work.

“We’re driving the Massachusetts economy,” said Alan Fein, president of the Kendall Square Association and chief strategy officer at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. “We’re creating growth that spills out in all kinds of ways. But you have to get people in and out.”

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Local business and civic leaders eager to lessen the traffic crunch recently signed on to a new state-sponsored Kendall Square Mobility Task Force. They will work with officials over the coming year to identify congestion-easing projects and policies “that are technically and financially achievable” in the short and long term, said Michael Verseckes, a spokesman for the state transportation department.

Pedestrians were herded through constuction lines in the Kendall Square area off Main Street.
Pedestrians were herded through constuction lines in the Kendall Square area off Main Street. David L Ryan/Globe Staff

None of the ideas under consideration — more buses, more reliance on bicycle commuting — appear to be magic bullets to solve the problem.

The headaches could be seen on a recent rush-hour ride in a private van leaving Brookline’s Coolidge Corner, carrying employees to the Broad Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The service was launched by Bridj, a year-old Boston startup, as an alternative to taking the MBTA’s Green Line to downtown Boston and switching to the Red Line.

The commute started out smoothly. The black van made it over the BU Bridge, snaked its way down Memorial Drive and Vassar Street, and was about to arrive at its destination in Kendall Square when it hit snags. First, the van was rerouted down Ames Street because of building construction near Broadway. Then the driver had to drop off his passengers at a traffic-clogged site across from roadwork on Main Street.

“I thought they were done with this,” said Bridj marketing manager Ryan Kelly, riding along in the van that morning. “This was going on months and months ago.”

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Grousing about gridlock is a common ritual at morning and evening business meetings in Kendall Square, but some high-tech and pharmaceutical executives have been reluctant to complain in public. They’re wary of calling attention to a trend that could make it harder to recruit employees and get building permits as they continue to expand.

But longtime Kendall Square figures who fondly remember a less-congested era are not shy about sharing their irritation with having to idle in traffic on their way to hatching lifesaving therapies and world-changing technology breakthroughs.

“There’s a bit of an ostrich-like mentality,” said MIT professor Robert A. Weinberg, who runs the Weinberg Laboratory of Cancer Biology at Whitehead Institute. “No one here confronts the grim reality that the arterial connections into this area have not changed since I was a freshman at MIT in 1960.”

Some small steps have been taken to reduce car traffic. Cambridge officials expanded the city’s network of bike lanes, for instance. And state officials narrowed the number of car lanes over the BU Bridge from four to three, but that has often antagonized drivers.

Biogen Inc., the largest Massachusetts biotech firm, has dispatched Wi-Fi-equipped luxury motor coaches to ferry suburban commuters to its Kendall Square headquarters and research campus; bus lines originate from Worcester, Plymouth, Londonderry, N.H., and Marlborough and pick up additional employees at stops on the way into Cambridge.

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And Bridj is running “pop-up” vans to meet rider demand from places like Coolidge Corner; the typical fare to Kendall runs from $3 to $5.

“Kendall Square is a massive opportunity for us,” Bridj chief executive Matt George said.

But such measures only partly offset traffic problems that have intensified with the ongoing repair of the Longfellow Bridge and its iconic “salt and pepper shaker” towers. Expected to be finished at the earliest late next year, the construction is only restoring the Longfellow to working order and not adding commuting capacity to Kendall.

Meanwhile, additional development coming to the area could worsen congestion as more global drug makers seek to plant their flags in the area. Nearly 6 million square feet of office and lab space are planned or under construction, including 1.7 million set to be occupied in the next two years.

Among the major projects in the planning stages are MIT’s ambitious Kendall Square Initiative, which includes a half- dozen new research, housing, and office buildings, and redevelopment of the Volpe transportation complex, a 14-acre federal property in the heart of the square.

“People locate in Kendall Square because they want that density and they want to be accessible to the people they do business with,” said Brian Dacey, chairman of the new mobility task force and president of the Cambridge Innovation Center, a shared workspace for high-tech and biotech entrepreneurs. “We’ve got to be sure that transportation issues don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”

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Bike and car commuter traffic on Broadway.
Bike and car commuter traffic on Broadway.Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Kendall Square leaders have brought the traffic issue to the attention of Governor Charlie Baker, who addressed it at the annual meeting of the Kendall Square Association in March, promising his administration would work with the neighborhood to reduce the tie-ups.

At a meeting with the state’s transportation secretary, Stephanie Pollack, and her lieutenants last month, Kendall Square representatives floated a number of ideas, but none are likely to be pursued any time soon. Most would require state assistance.

Among the Kendall Square proposals were new bus lines, more subway cars, and better switching technology to enable Red Line cars to arrive more frequently at the Kendall/MIT stop — all priorities shared with other stops throughout the strained MBTA system.

Other ideas included more housing so employees could live closer to work and development of a new commuter line running through Kendall Square to Boston’s Allston neighborhood on former CSX freight train tracks owned by the MBTA — a plan that has been stalled for five years.

“We think the problems of Kendall Square are solvable,” Fein said. “The technology exists to solve them. The solutions are not far-fetched.”

Pollack didn’t respond to requests to discuss the state’s role in combating Kendall Square traffic problems. But her spokesman, Verseckes, said public rail expansion wasn’t in any plans for the next five years.

In an e-mail, Verseckes cited “ready access to transportation connections” as a factor aiding Kendall Square’s dramatic growth. He cited data suggesting car trips as a portion of the growing total of commuters is getting smaller as more people walk and bike to work.

Many in Kendall Square, however, don’t believe it.

“Whoever’s saying that is either delusional or blind,” Weinberg said. “Look at Main Street at rush hour and you’ll be astounded by the gridlock.”

Commuters are honing new strategies for getting to work. Some dodge traffic on bicycles, while others arrive by 6 a.m. — before the ramps off of Interstate 93 and the Massachusetts Turnpike back up.

When he first began working at Entrega Bio in Kendall Square’s Lab Central complex, John Jantz of Arlington said he traveled by bus “for an hour trying to get 4 miles . . . Once I drove in early and parked, but it took me close to an hour and 15 minutes to drive home.”

Since then, the 23-year-old research engineer has developed a new routine by jogging three miles to a health club near Somerville’s Davis Square, showering, and then hopping on the T to Cambridge.

“You have to be creative about your commute,” Jantz said.


Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.