Two Years Watching Paint Dry in Porter Square

Over two hundred people attended a rally in Porter Square two weeks ago to demand more from the city when redesigning the intersection. The ask was simple: In the wake of two tragic deaths in 2016 Cambridge must prioritize safety of people in Porter Square over moving cars efficiently through the intersection. In response, the City Council last Monday voted to ask city staff to prioritize protected bicycle lanes in its safety improvements. But this Tuesday, the city unveiled its latest response building on two years of process, and it essentially changes only signal timings and gives some extra green paint for people biking. If you wanted to know how long paint takes to dry on Cambridge streets, two years might be a good guess.

The principles of Vision Zero demand a much quicker and substantive response from cities in the wake of such tragedies. Taking two years to address such simple changes is not in alignment with the city’s Vision Zero commitment. So, while the current design gives pause to think why it takes two years–and not two months–to change signal timing, it was comforting to hear Joe Barr, Director of Traffic, Parking and Transportation, commit to beginning a process at latest fall 2018 to move beyond these “small changes” and address the fundamentally unsafe conditions in the square.

Here are some key design changes heard at the meeting from residents and attendees, which should be considered to make the square better:

Interim steps to implement immediately:

  1. Make the Somerville Ave buffered bike lane a protected bike lane. It is good that a few feet of buffer was added on the dangerous corner. But for protection we need vertical separation as well. The key issue appears to come down to trucks, which could make the movement just fine with room to spare without encroaching into the bike lane buffer if they used both lanes. But, the objection is that truck drivers won’t use both lanes and may drive over our posts. This is precisely why we need separation and protection: better posts than people.
  2. Buses and bikes can get along: consider temporary bus lanes or priority bus-only lanes in the right-hand car travel lane during commuting hours. The city claims that making protected infrastructure for people biking will lead to even worse conditions for bus riders. We all want the 77 to work better. If the city is concerned about massive delays for buses, then let’s give buses their own lane through Porter Square.
  3. Create designated pick up/drop off zones. Drop-offs to the T and taxi / ride-hailing often happen either in the bike lane or blocking the crosswalk and bicycle jughandle. These create multiple conflicts for people biking when they must enter and exit fast-moving traffic.

For the long-term vision of a Porter Square for people:

  1. Protected bike lanes and protected intersections on Somerville Ave and Massachusetts Ave from Arlington St to Beech St. Particularly around the plaza in the shopping mall, everything should be on the table, including a medium-level or sidewalk-level bike lane or cycletrack. For example, Boston added sidewalk-level lanes fairly quickly along Mass Ave going southbound from approximately Boylston Street to Symphony Hall.
  2. Shorter crosswalks and expanded civic space for people to gather and socialize. The crosswalk along Mass Ave is extremely long, and with changes to the curb lines, it could be a much shorter crossing. Wider stripes in the crosswalk, such as those used in Central Square, were also suggested. In redesigning its squares, the City should be prioritizing the creation of people-centered Squares that use road diets to create new spaces (as Somerville is proposing with Davis Square) rather than moving cars as efficiently as possible.
  3. Help bikes avoid dangerous conflicts by using White Street. If we can make routes that can easily avoid multiple areas of conflict, then prioritize these for people biking. White Street, if two-way for bikes, could help people avoid Mass Ave and the parking lot on the way to Davis Square. If left turns off of White Street are banned for cars but allowed for bikes, then people leaving the shopping center heading to Beacon Street can avoid making the currently only legal path of multiple dangerous turns off / on Mass Ave.
  4. Dedicated bus lanes along Massachusetts Ave throughout the length of the Square from Beech St to Arlington St. Streets can work for people biking and the thousands that ride or take the T through Porter. Reliability on key routes such as the 77 can be improved with some smart transit solutions, such as dedicated lanes, a “queue jump” bus lane or transit approach lane with bus priority signals on Mass Ave.