Renata von Tscharner: A vision of barrier-free bicycling to Boston, Cambridge



Newton TAB

Newton bicycle commuters! You are a hardy lot, you who set out each morning, in spandex or suit, to make the trek into Boston or Cambridge. And you are proud: proud of your indifference to vagaries of weather and season, proud of your level breathing when colleagues arrive out of breath from navigating the parking lot, proud of all the carbon you didn’t emit on your way to work. Years of contending with automobiles may have also made you defiant, never more so, if you use the Charles River Bike path, than when you have to fight your way, twice a day, through the bridge intersections. River Street, Western Avenue, the Anderson Memorial—the names ring out like Civil War battles in your memory, the cars that cut you off as they seized your right of way, the clusters of students blocking the curb cut, the crossing signal that never was. But now, Newton bicycle commuters, take heart! The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has funding through its Accelerated Bridge Program to rebuild those bridges, and thus the opportunity presents itself—now and only now—to build underpasses that will let you roll under that traffic without missing a stroke. Over seven miles from the Arsenal Bridge to the Museum of Science, without a single automotive encounter.

Surely they’ll do the right thing, won’t they, the good people at MassDOT? Well, no. In fact the bridge design has reached the 25 percent stage without any inclusion of underpasses in the designs. At River Street and Western Avenue, MassDOT isn’t even planning to leave space for future underpasses. But there is still time. But not much.

The Charles River Conservancy, which began sponsoring underpass proposals several years ago, has built a coalition of 28 elected officials and 36 community groups, in an effort to persuade MassDOT to add underpasses to its designs. Senator Creem is on board, as are Representatives Balser and Khan. Green Decade/Newton has also voiced its approval. Congressman Capuano recently wrote a letter to MassDOT urging them to include underpasses on the Boston side, and Boston Traffic Commissioner Thomas Tinlin has done so as well. Environmental advocates at the Conservation Law Foundation and the Environmental League of Massachusetts have written letters of support.

After months of meetings and hearings, MassDOT has agreed at least to reserve space for an underpass at the Anderson Bridge, but at the March meeting for the 25 percent design of the River Street and Western Avenue bridges, MassDOT simply rejected underpasses for those bridges, making their addition at a later stage all but impossible.Why has MassDOT not included even the possibility of underpasses? Officials point to cost, though building underpasses during the planned construction would be much cheaper than adding them later. At its public meetings, MassDOT cited cost of around $4 million per underpass, but experts have calculated that an underpass alone could be done for under $1 million. MassDOT also cites the historic nature of the bridge architecture, but the 1920 design of the bridges can be respected, even with the addition of underpasses. In fact when underpasses for cars were added in the 1960s, the Anderson bridge was altered in a much more major way to accommodate turning cars.

With rising gas costs and T fares the time has come to encourage healthy, carbon-free bicycle commuting. And it’s not just long-haul bicycle commuters who would benefit from underpasses. Wheelchair users can approach the pathway from the parking area at Herter Park in Brighton, but their options are limited by hard-to-negotiate bridge intersections to the east and west. Likewise families with children are limited in their use of the bicycle paths because of safety concerns crossing traffic. At a time when obesity has grown to epidemic proportions, we have good reasons to encourage recreational use of the river paths for runners, walkers, wheelchair users, and skaters, as well as pleasure cyclists. And the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is in everyone’s interest.

MassDOT needs to hear right away from Newton residents who will benefit from this amenity. You can learn more about this underpass advocacy by visiting the Conservancy’s website at And you can make your voice heard by writing to Stephanie Boundy at MassDOT, send a copy to

Renata von Tscharner is president of the Charles River Conservancy.


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