A simple question: What is wrong with this picture?
The answer: the cars have a green light to go straight, but the pedestrians have to wait. This signal is optimized for vehicle movement, at the expense of the safety and convenience of pedestrians. Considering that this is an area with high pedestrian use—at the northern end of the BU Bridge along the Paul Dudley White bike path—it is nonsensical that such priority is given to vehicles rather than pedestrians. The only way to get a “walk” light is to push the “beg button” on either side of the crosswalk—otherwise the light stays at “don’t walk” encouraging drivers to make the turn without looking for pedestrians.
But it’s worse. Look to the right. There’s a second traffic light showing green. Cars driving a downgrade are encouraged to make the turn as fast as possible (the tapered corner doesn’t help), at the expense of the pedestrians. Want to cross? Wait until a red light. Although it’s not like that will even help that much: cars can still take a right on red (after “stopping”).
What could be changed to make this intersection safer?
- The once-you’ve-turned light should be removed or relocated. Right now it is too far around the curve. By the time a driver sees it in its green phase, they are already crossing the crosswalk. In its red phase, a driver who had missed the main signal would have already crossed the crosswalk. It could be replaced with a “yield to pedestrians in crosswalk” sign.
- The walk signal should be changed to display a “walk” sign with every green phase of the light. This will allow for safer pedestrian movement and will not relegate pedestrians to play second fiddle to automobiles at this intersection. It could be enhanced with conspicuous “yield to pedestrians in crosswalk” signage.
- At slightly more cost (the first two items would simply require reprogramming or removing the lights) the curb should be bumped out to create more of a right turn movement. This will require vehicles to slow down as they make the turn to cross the crosswalk, which will allow them to better look for pedestrians crossing from one side of the roadway to the other.
This is traffic calming at its simplest: traffic throughput will not likely be curtailed (the bottlenecks in this intersection are not due to this light, but are at other locations) and it would significantly enhance conditions for more vulnerable road users.
The City of Boston recently made somewhat dramatic improvements to the bicycle facilities along Commonwealth Avenue. The formerly orphaned bike lane has been restriped through the intersection, and the new paint is all bright green. In addition, there are reflectors in the road to the right of the lane which I can attest are very visible from a vehicle at night. It’s a good start.
Meanwhile, Brookline has installed contraflow bike lanes on Essex Street to allow cyclists to go from Essex to Ivy to Carlton and allow a low-traffic alternative to get from the BU Bridge to the Longwood area. (And for those of us headed to Coolidge Corner, another block before we take a right.) Going towards the bridge, the town has striped in a bike lane. And, more importantly, they’ve cut a “bicycle crosswalk” across the BU Bridge loop (Mountfort Street) to allow cyclists to get from the Brookline streets to the BU Bridge without having to cross medians, loop around through the intersection of death, or ride the sidewalk to the light. It also allows cyclists coming from Brookline to skip Commonwealth altogether, a great boon to cyclists who don’t want to ride one of Boston’s widest and busiest streets. So, what was once a death trap for cyclists—and is still rather cumbersome—is getting better. (The picture at right shows the bike lane in the foreground and the crossover in the background.) There is some background information in this document.
The next step, I think, is to better allow cyclists coming from the west on Commonwealth and headed towards Cambridge, would be a two-stage bike turn box. This is not a new concept—it even exists in Boston—and goes as follows:
- An eastbound cyclist on Commonwealth approaches the BU Bridge.
- The cyclists, upon a green light, goes through the light, then pulls in to a separate line to the right of the bike lane and turns their bike towards the bridge.
- Once the light changes, the cyclist pedals straight across and in to the bike lane on the bridge.
Here’s a picture of the current facility, with an idea of a two-stage bike box sketched in, as well as a bike box for cyclists coming from Mountfort:
I would hope this is on Boston Bikes’s radar screen (if it’s under their jurisdiction and not the state). It would be a great help to more novice cyclists who may not know it’s an option. The rest of us already do it.