The Cambridge Candle


Vol. 1, No. 1

November/December 1998


Dangerous Crossings

By Alexia Hayes

From August 1, 1996, to the end of August of this year, there were 189 accidents involving pedestrians in Cambridge. The police think this is a fairly good record, considering the size and density of the city and other factors. Some of those other factors, however, such as conflicting traffic signals, are inexcusable.

All through this city are intersections where traffic gets a green light for turning into a street at the same moment that pedestrians get a walk sign for crossing at that same place. The most flagrant example is the middle of Central Square. Citizens have made many complaints, but only at the corner of Inman St. and Mass. Ave., next to City Hall, has the situation been corrected, and only very recently.

Note that the Police Department has nothing to do with the placement or operation of traffic lights. This is the work of the Traffic Department.

Of our three major squares -- Porter, Harvard, and Central -- Porter has the most accidents of every type. Although few of them have involved pedestrians, the crossing from the shopping center to the T is notably dangerous. Somebody was injured there quite recently. At best it is very difficult to hurry to an island on one light, then wait there for the next -- as you watch your bus pulling away.

It is surprising, considering the age and complexity of Harvard Square, its many visitors, and the thousands of hurrying young people, that it does not claim the greatest number of pedestrian accidents, rather than Central Square. Harvard Square’s most serious trouble spot is at and near the intersection of Mass. Ave. and Garden St., where heavy traffic, including buses, exits the underpass in two directions and enters as well from two directions. The lights are insufficient for pedestrian safety, and accidents have occurred there.

Another trouble spot is at the beginning of Brattle St. Yet another is where Brattle intersects with Mt. Auburn. Still another is at JFK and Memorial Drive. Also, on Memorial Drive, both at Western Ave. and at River St., the lights do not stay on long enough for even a jogger to get to the other side.

At crosswalks without traffic signals, vehicles are supposed to yield to pedestrians, but they often don’t stop. One of the most egregious examples of this is at the approach to Harvard Square from the east at the junction of Mass. Ave. and Arrow, where traffic also comes in behind you from Quincy and Harvard Streets. To walk into the Square from this intersection you have to cope with at least two crosswalks.

In Davis Square in Somerville there are big black-on-yellow signs that say “YIELD for pedestrians in crosswalks.” We ought to have the same kind in Cambridge. Ours are too small and inconspicuous, and furthermore are only at a very few crosswalks. We also need signs at key crossings that say “Bicycles must stop on red.” But cyclists and the traffic laws are a subject in itself.

Some of the most hazardous crossings are at Inman Square. The complexity of the intersection is appalling. Each pedestrian signal for the six converging streets is in conflict with one or another of the vehicular signals. Moreover, the pedestrian signals do not come on frequently enough and do not last long enough for everyone to get across.

The main intersection with Mass. Ave. of River, Magazine, and Western on one side and Prospect on the other -- Central Square -- presents, as noted, the worst confrontation of vehicles and pedestrians. Before the recent changes in Central Square there was a separate right-turn lane onto Mass. Ave. from the direction of the river, with its own traffic light. One had to wait for two lights before crossing Mass. Ave., but it was much safer than the present arrangement. Three other crossings at the same intersection -- across River and Western, across Mass. Ave. on the left side, and across Prospect -- were hazardous before the changes and still are.

This photo, taken during a typical busy period at Mass. Ave. and Prospect St. in Central Square, illustrates pedestrians and automobiles trying to negotiate the same space -- and both doing it legally. (Photo by Lawrence Prift.)

I have stood on the corner with my back to the Holmes site during a weekday rush hour, as people poured out of the T station onto Mass. Ave., when the lead auto stopped before turning, in order to let the people cross. Traffic was held up on Green, River, and Magazine Streets as far as one could see, and horns blew constantly through two changes of the light. 

I have heard from residents, drivers, and police personnel that the narrowing of Mass. Ave. in Central Square and the consequent slowing of traffic have increased the traffic on Green, Franklin, and Howard Streets and even on Putnam Avenue, as well as on other “escape” routes such as Columbia Street.

The confluence of Green, Magazine, River, and Western has seen four accidents in the past year. Many residents of the Manning Apartments, between Green and Franklin, are extremely disturbed, as well they might be, not only by the greater density that is planned for the Holmes site, but also by the idea of a huge parking garage with two curb cuts on Green Street!

Another example of inadequate traffic control at the intersection of Mass. Ave. and Prospect Street. (Photo by Lawrence Prift.)

The only viable remedy for all these intersections, with their conflicting signals, is to stop traffic in all directions while pedestrians have crossing signals. There has been an obvious choice between slower traffic and more safety, and faster traffic and less safety.

Signal lights have not caused all the 26 accidents in the past two years in the Central Square area, but they have been a factor in some of them and can be easily corrected. At Essex St. the arrow for a left turn from Mass. Ave. into Essex is simultaneous with the walk light for crossing Essex. In the last year six injuries to pedestrians, the largest number in the area, have happened at this corner alone.

At Pearl St. and Mass. Ave. there is no light at all, and both buses and autos turn here from both directions. Someone was hurt at this corner just recently.

At Brookline and Mass. Ave. vehicles coming out of Brookline can turn left, right, or diagonally across the avenue to Douglass, with a green light. All these turns interfere with pedestrian crosswalks. Needless to say, there have been accidents at both corners.

Pedestrians do crazy things, apparently thinking, if they stop to think, that they still have the right of way everywhere.They do not; only at designated crosswalks may they cross. But if one gets hurt, it hardly matters who is at fault. Nevertheless, if the traffic signals are not corrected, and the other dangerous crossings are not policed, the City of Cambridge is at fault.

Many thanks to several police officers, especially public information officer Frank Pasquarello, who provided several yards of computer printout; Mel Burns, who is active in community-oriented policing; Bill Cavellini, honored “Taxi Driver of the Year” and an expert on traffic problems; and Hatch Sterrett, long-time activist with a particular concern for Central Square.

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