by Daniel Wang, Staff Writer, April 2021
The Providence Highway-VFW Parkway Corridor, a two mile stretch of U.S. Route 1 known to most for harboring such iconic landmarks as the Dedham Chick-Fil-A, Taco Bell, and Chipotle, can usually be described as cortisol-inducing for drivers, nightmarish for bicyclists, and lethal for pedestrians. As a West Roxbury resident and fast food fanatic, I can confidently say that attempting to cross this four-lane asphalt monolith on foot ranks among the five most frightening things I have ever done. My personal experiences mirror the general views of wayfarers; in a recent survey conducted by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) , 78% of pedestrians reported either feeling unsafe or very unsafe when commuting by foot on the Providence Highway. To address these concerns, the Massachusetts State Legislature approved funding for the creation of a thorough action plan for redesigning the freeway last year. On March 11th, 2021, an initial forum was held to gather input from community members on the project. Here are some key takeaways from the meeting and one-on-one interviews with community planners.
1. Safety is a primary concern
As aforementioned, 78% of wayfarers reported feeling either unsafe or very unsafe when travelling along the Providence Highway/VFW Parkway (24% and 54% respectively). Moreover, 67% cyclists reported feeling very unsafe when commuting along the same stretch of road. During the meeting, Christian Brandt, planner and community engagement specialist at MAPC, said that the top two concerns for bikers and pedestrians were: “(1) Lack of bike infrastructure (12% of respondents) and (2) Disconnected sidewalk networks (12% of respondents).” Both the dilapidated condition of the roadway and its car-centric design stem from the age of the infrastructure. Jeremy Rosenberger, Dedham’s Planning Director, commented, “This is a road that was constructed in the 40s and 50s for automobiles and, when this road was developed, Dedham was definitely experiencing a boom in terms of shopping and retail. At the time, people wanted to drive and shop in retail centers and malls; that was the big “thing” then and especially during the 50s and 60s when shopping centers were expanding… What we have now is kind of a relic.”
The Providence Highway corridor is also unsafe for drivers. Over the five year period from 2015 to 2019, 227 vehicular crashes occurred along the two mile stretch of road. Almost half of the collisions transpired at the convoluted Marine Rotary at the intersection of Washington St. and U.S. Route 1. Potential additions to the redesign effort include the realignment of the roundabout into a more conventional four-way intersection. Respondents also noted that drivers along the roadway frequently travel above the speed limit, compounding the problem of vehicular safety.
2. Connecting the local community is paramount
According to Seth Asante, Chief Transportation Planner at Boston Region MPO’s Central Transportation Planning Staff (CTPS), “The goal for this action plan is to transform a car centric corridor into a route that connects people to places and meets the needs of local residents and businesses.” During the community forum, multiple participants mentioned the need for changes in land-use, which would lead to potential modifications to the roadway itself. For example, local businesses could exploit the increased pedestrian traffic resulting from new sidewalks by creating small retail spaces along the corridor. Rosenberger elaborated, “The road was designed for vehicles to go from [point] A to B and not much else. As you probably know, there are not really any amenities that meet today’s needs.”
3. Leisure opportunities are being explored
The creation of leisure spaces is an essential element of this year’s action plan. Rosenberger emphasized the exciting recreational possibilities of redeveloping the highway, particularly in regards to the frontage along the Charles River. He said, “The two mile long stretch of highway running parallel to the Charles could become a great stretch of waterfront pavement for joggers and runners.” Respondents during the meeting assented to this proposition, elaborating that a riverway bike path similar to the paved walkways along Memorial Drive in Cambridge or Soldier’s Field Road in Brighton/Allston could be constructed.
In conclusion, state and local officials have devoted extensive resources to redeveloping the Providence Highway corridor. This process, however, is far from over. Rosenberger said, “We are at the point where we need to come up with a preliminary vision/concept that will ultimately, hopefully as we persevere through, will get more funding and, hopefully, in five years, we will get enough money to construct this roadway.” The 2025-2026 school year may feel like the far-flung future – I, for one, will no longer be in high school – but, there are members of the community right now that will be on campus and enjoying the benefits of a modernized Providence Highway. I strongly urge students to take advantage of this rare opportunity to create meaningful change by actively participating in this development project. Consider spending several minutes looking into the following website:
As Rosenberger concluded, “If you get involved early in the [development] process, you will actually be able to use what is being planned for today. Ultimately, we are all planning for the future, for the next generation, so it’s never too early to get involved.”