Central Square, Cyclists and Pedestrians, Beware!
Central Square, Cyclists and Pedestrians, Beware!
The Problems and Solutions
Central Square has a real problem…It was the only location in the State of Massachusetts to make the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s top 10 list for most dangerous area for bike accidents (ranked #2) and pedestrian accidents (ranked #3). This data represents the crash statistics compiled from 2002-2009. According to the report (pg.23), Central Square ranked #2 as worst area for biking accidents in Massachusetts, with a total of 79 bike crashes, 1 being fatal. This data does not include the accident that occurred at Vassar St. and Mass Ave. in 2011, which left one cyclist dead.
According to the same report, (pg.14) Central Square was also ranked #3 for worst area for pedestrian accidents in the State, a total of 94 pedestrian crashes, 2 being fatal. No other area in Massachusetts made both lists, which begs the question, “What is going wrong in Central Square, and why is it so dangerous for both pedestrians and cyclists?” And more importantly, “What is the City doing about it.”
More Bikes, More Accidents?
Some would argue Cambridge has more bikes than other towns, therefore more accidents. But, keeping that in mind, it is still startling that 7 out of the top 10 worst clusters for bike accidents were in Cambridge. Six of those locations are along Mass. Ave in Cambridge, despite having bike lanes. However, that does not explain why Central Square ranked #3 for most pedestrian accidents. Downtown Cambridge (Central Sq.) was the only Cambridge neighborhood on the top 10 list, even though Harvard Square has a busier MBTA station and more pedestrian traffic. Boston did not make the top ten either, despite having much more pedestrian laden intersections and squares, such as Copley Square, Downtown Crossing and the Faneuil Hall area.
These are embarrassing and tragic statistics for a city that prides itself on its environmental policies, public transportation, bike usage and walkability, while not even being able to manage its own downtown area. What’s even more tragic is the fact that many of the current problems could easily be fixed for relatively little money if the city government focused more attention and resources into addressing the multiple problems that plague Central Square. Central Square is downtown Cambridge and should be an example of everything Cambridge represents, which is certainly not the case at present.
Central Square at Mass. Ave. and Essex St.
Is Increased Density and More Development Possible in Central Square?
There has been much discussion about development and increasing population density in the Central Square area, and whether or not the area can support the increased density. Residents sight traffic congestion and parking as being some of the top concerns when it comes to worries of overdevelopment. As the above statistics bear out, Central Square is already dangerous for both pedestrians and cyclists, and with increased population density and traffic, those numbers are likely to get worse unless the city government starts getting serious about investing in improved infrastructure, traffic control and parking in downtown Cambridge.
Harvard Square managed these problems with infrastructure improvements such as underground bus terminals, relocation of surface bus stations to the periphery of the Square, improved crosswalks, traffic calming measures, underpasses and a number of parking garages. Isn’t it long past due to apply some of those successful techniques to Central?
It is a little frustrating, as a Central Square resident, to see the extraordinary effort put out by the City to accommodate Harvard Square, when Central Square residents have to wait weeks for the city to put out “yield to pedestrians signs” affixed to plastic barrels along Western. Ave. Do I need to remind the city of the above statistics?
Mistrust has been building on the side of residents for decades when it comes to the City being a good steward of Central Square. The Square’s residents, business owners and visitors have been suffering from traffic congestion, lack of parking, dirty sidewalks, unsafe streets for both cyclists and walkers, and general quality of life issues for years. So when the city put forth plans for large scale redevelopment and increased density, without addressing current problems, there was naturally a degree of healthy skepticism among its residents. It would have saved a lot of time and energy, both for the city and its residents, if the City had fixed existing problems, before introducing a plan that would only exacerbate the problems many residents are already experiencing.
The Ship has Sailed...
Development and increased population is inevitable, and Central Square will have more and more traffic, bikes and people. The question is: will Central Square residents band together and demand the City make the real changes needed to make Central Square a successful, safe and prosperous neighborhood, and one which can accommodate the increased demands of future development.
Below I have outlined some of the glaring problems in Central Square and quick fixes, as well as long term infrastructure improvements which would help to alleviate some of the traffic/pedestrian/biking hazards. While we cannot make Central completely safe, we can make improvements which would go a long way in making it a safer place for both pedestrians and cyclists. As an avid cyclist recently told me…there are two types of cyclists, those who have been hit and those who haven’t been hit, yet.
Get rid of the metered street parking on Mass. Ave. between City Hall and Sydney St. Cyclist Dana Laird was killed in a biking accident in 2002 on Mass Ave. in Central Square when a parked SUV opened its door into the bike lane, Laird swerved to avoid hitting the door and was crushed by an MBTA bus. There have been countless other door collisions along Mass Ave causing serious injuries due to “door collisions”. “Door collisions” in the Boston/Cambridge area is 5 times higher than the national average. The current bike lanes are clearly within the “door zone” of parked cars and cyclists are constantly being cut off in the bike lane due to cars trying to park and buses pulling up to bus stops.
I counted approximately 63 metered parking spaces between City Hall and Sydney St. on Mass. Ave. Why not have 3 clusters of 9 handicap parking spaces in appropriate areas along Mass. Ave. and the rest (54) can be absorbed into public parking garages at either end of the Square. I’m sure some businesses may have a problem with this, but the city could mitigate this by working out a parking validation deal between garages and area businesses, which would enable patrons to have free or discounted parking. It would also have an added benefit by reducing street noise along the sidewalk and enhancing the outdoor dining experience. 54 parking spaces are worth how many lives???
Photo, left:This bike lane, located in Boston on Commonwealth Ave. is clearly out of the "door zone, unlike the bike lanes along Mass. Ave. in Central Square".
Stop jaywalking by putting up sidewalk fences or installing planters along the outside of sidewalks. The jaywalking along Mass. Ave in Central is out of control. I once witnessed a man having his leg run over by a car as he ran out into the street in front of Libby’s Liquors, and mothers pushing baby strollers into oncoming traffic. Playing chicken with cars is constant throughout the Square and people darting out from between parked cars into the bike lane is a hazard for cyclists. Although you can be fined for jaywalking, the police rarely enforce it. Jaywalking, other than the obvious dangers, also has the added effect of desensitizing drivers to crosswalks and causing traffic jams.
Photos, above and left: Many European cities have solved this problem by putting in fences along the curb on busy streets and intersections with openings at crosswalks. Boston installed fences along the median in Kenmore Square which added both safety and beauty. Installing fences along Mass. Ave from Western to Brookline St., or maybe even to Lafayette Square, would almost eliminate jaywalking and add a beautiful architectural element to the Square. It would also act as a barrier between street traffic and outdoor dining.
Install a dedicated “right turn only” light, at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Prospect St. Why has the city not fixed this problem? This has been problematic since the reconfiguration of the intersection. Cars in the right hand lane either try to squeeze into the left lane in order to go straight down Prospect, or they dodge pedestrians while trying to make a right turn from River St. onto Mass. Ave. The City could install a dedicated right turn arrow light with a “no walk” sign and a red light with a “walk” sign, similar to the light at Lafayette Square. This is one of the busiest crosswalks in Central with one of the busiest right turn lanes in the City. During rush hour Western Ave. is backed up for blocks because no one can make the right hand turn onto Mass. Ave. because pedestrians are trying to cross on a concurrent “walk” sign. It’s a block from City Hall, has none of our city officials noticed this?
Photo, left:Pedestrians dodging traffic at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Prospect St.
Install raised crosswalks and “do not block intersection“ signs. The crosswalks at Norfolk and Mass. Ave, and Essex and Mass. Ave. need revamping. Installing granite, or raised crosswalks would go a long way in defining the crosswalk for pedestrians, drivers and cyclists.
The intersections at Western and Mass. Ave. and Brookline St. and Mass. Ave. are constantly blocked during rush hour. Painting grid lines in the intersections and enforcing the “do not block” law would provide greater safety to pedestrians using crosswalks and improve traffic flow.
Require cyclists to carry valid ID while biking in Cambridge. By law, cyclists must obey street traffic laws. How are the police expected to enforce laws and ticket cyclists if there is no proof of identification or address? According to City Ordinance, if a collision involves a cyclist and pedestrian, both parties must exchange name, address and location.
Relocate the bus stops.The bus stops, both western and eastern bound, are located in the busiest part of the Square, and take up a considerable amount of sidewalk space. The buses hold up traffic and block bike lanes. Why not move the westbound station further west nearer to 675 Mass. Ave., which would be adjacent to the Red Line exit by Leader Bank. The eastbound station, currently in front of Harvest Co-op, could be moved further west, nearer to 698 Mass Ave near Rodney’s Bookstore. This would put both stations west of the Mass. Ave and Prospect St. intersection, a considerably less busy block of Mass. Ave, yet still be near Red Line underground exits/entrances.
Paint the bike lanes. The bike lanes along Mass. Ave need a major overhauling. According to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, 6 out of the top 10 worst accident clusters for bike accidents in the state are in Cambridge along Mass Ave. The painted bike lanes on Vassar St. are painted a dark blue (see photo, right) and are barely visible at night. In contrast, Kenmore Square has brightly painted green bike lanes (see photo, far right) that are clearly visible both at night and during the day. None of the bike lanes are painted on Mass. Ave. It would be a good idea to paint the bike lanes not only in Central Square a bright green, but all bike lanes along Mass. Ave that have been identified as hazardous areas. Brightly painted bike lanes are a visual reminder to both driver’s and cyclists to respect the bike lane.
Require cyclists to have a blinking white light on the front of bike and a blinking red light on the back. By law, cyclists are required to have a white light on the front of the bike and red reflectors or a red light on the back, if riding at night. From a driver’s perspective, cyclists are almost invisible at night if they are wearing dark clothing. The required white light can sometimes mesh in with other city lights. If all bikes were required to have the same universal blinking white light in the front and blinking red light on the back, cyclists would be immediately identifiable to drivers and pedestrians. However, if the regulation is not enforced, it is meaningless.
Build a centralized underground parking garage in Central Square. The city officials and Community Development Department would have saved themselves a lot of time over the last few months, if they would have addressed the parking issues that already plague Central before talking of eradicating surface parking lots and granting variances on parking requirements to developers. We need the city to invest in a large city-owned, multi-level underground parking garage in Central Square. One with not only enough room to compensate for the loss of all surface parking spaces on Mass Ave. and city surface parking lots (which the city plans to develop), but also enough spaces to accommodate parking for the increased traffic future development will inevitably bring to Central.
Validated parking by Central Square businesses would enable people to either park for free or with a considerable discount if they are patronizing area businesses. The vehicle entrances and exits could be located on side streets such as Green St. and Bishop Allen or off of Mass Ave. at both ends of the Square. The customer entrance/exit could be installed directly in the Square, much like the parking entrances in the Boston Common.
H-Mart, along with several other large scale businesses, such as Manray and Valhalla will be opening soon in Central, not to mention all the new businesses that will hopefully be created over the next few decades. We are dreaming if we think all of these people will be biking to Central! A large underground parking facility would be the answer to many of the problems brought up by residents and commercial businesses, while making Mass. Ave. less congested with street parking, much safer for cyclists and pedestrians, and relieving some of the pressure on street parking in adjacent neighborhoods. A good percentage of the current traffic in Central, is due to cars roaming around side streets and Mass. Ave. trying to find parking at various surface parking lots or at meters.
Create an underground bus terminal and Red Line Station, similar to the Harvard Square Station. If the city is really serious about the revitalization of Central Square and pursuing more sustainable biking and public transportation, then why are we not talking about an underground comprehensive bus/Red Line station similar to the Harvard Square Station?
For far too long Central Square has been getting the short end of the stick, compared to other Cambridge neighborhoods, when it comes to city resources dedicated to infrastructure projects. When the idea of an underground station was brought up at a recent neighborhood meeting, people generally agreed it was a good idea, but no one thought the city would invest that amount of money into Central.
The bus stations in Central are spread out, confusing, and add a considerable amount of traffic congestion, noise and fumes to Central Square. Have you noticed how outdoor diners at Chipotle have bus exhaust blowing in their faces while eating their burrito? Imagine if the bus stations and terminals were underground with connecting tunnels to the Red Line, similar to the Harvard Square Station! This would eliminate buses blocking bike lanes at bus stops, decrease street traffic noise and free up a considerable amount of sidewalk space, not to mention providing riders with much needed shelter during winter.
It is time for the City to do something about the disastrous state of affairs in Central Square. Being labeled as the only location in Massachusetts to make the top 10 list for worse area for both pedestrian and cyclist accidents should have been a wakeup call to our local government when the report was released in August of 2011. It is unexplainable why the City still has not acted, given the statistics released by Mass. DOT and the ease to which many safety measures could be implemented.
Central Square could become a safe, beautiful, enjoyable area to live, work and play, if the local government will invest the resources, time and energy to prepare the Square for the future. The time for endless committee meetings and reading over reports is over, action needs to be taken. I urge you to call or e-mail your city councilors at firstname.lastname@example.org and the City Manager at email@example.com and ask when they plan to start addressing the serious traffic problems in Central Square. You can also contact the Public Safety Committee, chaired by Councilor Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org , the Neighborhood and Long Term Planning Committee, chaired by Councilor Cheung at LCheung@cambridgema.gov and the Transportation, Traffic and Parking Committee, chaired by Councilor van Beuzekom at email@example.com.