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MassDOT is reducing the number of car lanes on the Harvard Bridge. Here’s why.

“People have been asking for this for years.”

Harvard bridge, also known as Mass Ave. bridge is one of the most heavily-used bike corridors in the region, but is also relied on by commuters in vehicles. David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Starting this week, commuters on the Harvard Bridge are being greeted by cones, new signage, and a change in the number of lanes for vehicles.  

On Monday, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation kicked off a pilot program that is temporarily widening bike lanes on the bridge and reducing the number of vehicle lanes from four to two. 

The program, which will run through the winter months, was endorsed by several Cambridge and Boston City Councilors, as well as various advocacy groups, to improve the safety of bicyclists riding over the bridge. 

“As we work to promote low-carbon travel options, our City needs to move urgently to protect the safety of our commuters and residents,” Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said in a press release

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The Harvard Bridge, also known as Mass Ave. Bridge, is one of the most heavily-used bike corridors in the region. But it is also relied on by commuters in vehicles. The MBTA’s 1 bus, which travels from Nubian Square to Harvard along Massachusetts Avenue, traverses the bridge, which also connects with the car-packed arteries of Storrow and Memorial drives.

The bridge, which is controlled by the state, usually includes four vehicle lanes in total and a bike lane on either side, which is separated from the car traffic only by a white line on the pavement. 

Advocates say the changes implemented in the pilot program to improve safety for bicyclists are a win-win for all parties involved. 

Reducing the bridge’s vehicle lanes in each direction from two to one will help prevent cars from speeding, Becca Wolfson, executive director of the Boston Cyclist Union, told Boston.com.

“The more lanes there are on a roadway, and the wider those lanes are, the easier it is to speed,” she said. “With two lanes in each direction and not enough cars that are filling up that space, it just makes it very comfortable and easy for people to speed in their cars.” 

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Ari Ofsevit, a Boston program senior associate for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, went out to the bridge over the summer with a radar gun and took speed measurements of cars. He said he found more vehicles were exceeding 50 mph than those that were following the 25 mph speed limit on the bridge. 

In fact, vehicles frequently exceed 50 to 60 mph on the bridge, he said. The highest speeds he recorded were 64 to 66 mph. 

Safer bike lanes on the bridge are not a new proposal. 

Cyclist unions in the area have been pushing for improved bike safety on the Harvard Bridge for many years, Wolfson said. Many of the people who worked on proposing the pilot program to the state were also among those who approached officials about implementing protected bike lanes on the nearby Longfellow Bridge in 2017. 

Changing the setup of the Harvard Bridge has been a popular one among Boston and Cambridge residents alike. When the Boston Cyclist Union launched a petition to bring protected bike lanes to the bridge, about 2,000 people signed it in less than a week, according to Wolfson. 

“People have been asking for this for years, and there’s always been reasons why leadership has said no,” she said. “With the administration changing, there’s just been a wholesale acceptance and willingness to make this happen.” 

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The updates on the bridge reflect the wider changes in Boston and Cambridge, which focus on making roads friendlier for cyclists, pedestrians, and public transportation. 

Wolfson said when lanes were reduced for bike safety on the Craigie Drawbridge and the Longfellow Bridge, which occurred under former Mayor Marty Walsh, there was a lot of concern for regional traffic and car access. 

Now, with Wu, an open advocate for public transportation and pedestrian-friendly roads, and a new state transportation secretary, Jamey Tesler, Wolfson said changing the Harvard Bridge has been more easily accepted. 

Ofsevit echoed Wolfson’s sentiments.

“MassDOT has been quite receptive and the current leadership has been quite receptive to hearing ideas like [the Harvard Bridge pilot program] and implementing them,” he said. 

Although both Boston and Cambridge have implemented protected bike lanes on Massachusetts Avenue, the state’s jurisdiction over the bridge prevented the two cities from being able to modify the bike lanes on the bridge itself.

While its ongoing, the pilot program will be assessed by agencies that will collect field data to determine the impact of the lane changes on safety and crash data, traffic volumes, bicycle volumes, and travel times for the 1 bus, according to MassDOT. 

Advocates hope the program will result in a permanent change on the bridge in the next year.

But they also want to see other permanent changes, including changing the traffic light cycles on both ends of the bridge to benefit transit riders, creating a potential bus lane, and establishing a safer entry and exit from the structure by reducing or eliminating the number of vehicles turning across the crosswalks and active bus and bicycle lanes.

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“Hopefully we’re in a place to take the infrastructure we have and put it in retrospect, working together with multiple agencies so we can make the infrastructure that we have more safe and efficient roads to move the greatest number of people,” Ofsevit said.

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