Happy New Year!
Alderman-at-Large Stephanie Hirsch and I wrote this column about traffic, transit, walking, driving, bicycling and parking in Somerville. It appeared in the Somerville Times Wednesday. Traffic and parking are some of the most challenging problems we face in Somerville. Please read this article and share your thoughts with me.
Moving forward on calming & reducing traffic January 9, 2019
By Alderman-At-Large Stephanie Hirsch and Ward 5 Alderman Mark Niedergang
Residents reach out to us constantly about their frustrations and fear regarding traffic. Different people are aggravated by different aspects of traffic. Here’s some of what we hear:
I can’t get out of my driveway and have started making doctors’ appointments only for the middle of the day…. It took me 20 minutes to get through Union Square…. It took me a half-hour to drive from Porter to Sullivan.
My kids can’t get to a class nearby because I think it’s too dangerous for them to walk through Union or Davis on their own.
The traffic light signaling changes are supposed to make things better… but my impression is they make things worse.
I’m afraid that people who drive are not paying attention… I’m afraid that people who bicycle are not paying attention… I’m afraid that pedestrians are not paying attention… When I’m driving, there are too many things to pay attention to on the streets.
The commuter traffic on my block backs up so far that the air gets hazy from exhaust.
I’d love to bicycle around, but I’m scared, it doesn’t feel safe.
Traffic tops the list of quality-of-life concerns in Somerville (except, perhaps, for frustration with rats in some neighborhoods). Traffic problems appear to be overwhelming. But changes are happening that make us optimistic that a lot more progress will be made in the next five years than in the past five.
What’s causing our traffic problems?
One cause is the sheer volume of cars on our streets. A majority of cars being driven on our streets come from and go to somewhere outside of Somerville. That includes about 20,000 cut-through vehicles that pass through Union Square, 130,000 on I-93, and approximately 80 percent of all drivers at busy times and locations. The volume has increased along with the increase in traffic in greater Boston. More drivers are trying to find a way through Somerville around the traffic jams on I-93. Somerville Police Traffic Officers report that, at least anecdotally, the non-local commuters are more distracted and more likely to speed or skirt laws.
Another issue that’s aggravating traffic is construction. This cause, we hope, will be temporary. Detours, road closures, dirt and gravel-covered streets… they are driving all types of travelers crazy. But at least they come with an eventual reward. (Note: If you have a construction-related issue or travel question you can email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
How can we make a dent in the traffic problems?
We have been meeting monthly since January 2018 with a group of residents who care deeply about making streets and sidewalks safer for all, and about relieving the traffic congestion that hurts our quality of life. We are so grateful for these residents who spend significant time working on traffic issues, including members of a group called Staying Put, who are trying to make sure that seniors and others with mobility issues can safely navigate our sidewalks and streets.
In addition to this effort, Mark chairs the Board of Aldermen (BOA) Traffic and Parking Committee. (Mark also represents the BOA on the City’s Traffic Commission, a little-known five-member Board that makes many of the important decisions about specific traffic and parking details in Somerville.) Mark has tried to focus on not just the very long laundry list of traffic problems, but on the big picture challenges, like staffing and infrastructure investment, that affect how much progress we can make.
The Administration and the BOA made a significant investment in 2018, almost doubling the traffic planning staff, thanks in large part to the advocacy and support of members of the public. The Mayor has also given the Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development transportation planning team both more resources and more responsibilities to tackle traffic planning issues. These extra resources have brought a much more flexible, creative, contemporary, and problem-solving approach to solving traffic issues.
We and the Administration share a focus on reducing traffic-related deaths, and the City’s new Vision Zero initiative addresses this objective. In particular, the planning process looks to increase the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists, who are most likely to experience traffic-related injuries and deaths in Somerville. However, we know that the entire system of streets and traffic requires study to improve life for people who travel by foot, bicycle, car, or bus/subway… and in most cases a mix of these methods.
We are working with the Administration on the following approaches:
A staffed Pedestrian and Transit Committee: Our top request, along with the residents we’ve been working with, is to have a resident advisory committee that focuses on traffic and transit issues. It should be modeled after the hugely effective Somerville Bicycle Committee that has helped the Administration make enormous progress on bike infrastructure.
Real-time traffic engineering with experimentation: In response to input from residents, a fully-staffed Traffic and Infrastructure Division can collect data, test out different traffic-calming strategies, monitor how those experiments worked, and report back to the community. This will be, we hope, a virtuous cycle.
More enforcement: In a recent East Somerville traffic enforcement effort, a Somerville Police Department traffic control officer said, “The officers reported that the area is literally ‘out of control’ with violations which occurred directly in front of them even though they were there with blue lights activated as a warning to motorists not to commit a violation.” This feedback shows how much more we could do in the enforcement of traffic laws. Key violations to enforce include speeding and distracted driving, which cause many fatal or serious accidents nationwide. The Administration should add more Police resources for enforcement, including enforcement of bicycle laws, in particular when they impact pedestrians.
More investment: To make a big impact on this big problem will require more staff which will take more funding.
Neighborhood advocacy: You understand your own neighborhood best. We want to empower neighbors to work with City traffic planners to implement effective solutions to calm traffic and/or reduce traffic flow through small residential side streets.
Coordination with the MBTA: Our public transportation system could be much more effective, but it is controlled by the MBTA, a state agency. For example, there is virtually no North-South public transportation route in the City. With five new Green Line stations opening in 2021 in Somerville, there will need to be some changes in bus routes. The City needs both to advocate for more and better MBTA bus service and also to be a good partner for the MBTA, such as by piloting bus-only lanes.
Last, but certainly not least – parking: With a growing population of residents, shrinking space on our streets, and outdated regulations, the Administration must begin a community discussion about major changes in our parking policies. Many parking regulations need to change to improve the parking experience for thousands of residents.
We look forward to working with the Administration and with all of you on these important public health and quality-of-life traffic challenges in 2019. With the tools that are available, the expertise of our growing City staff, additional investment, and your relentless advocacy, we can chip away at the mountain of issues and begin to see some relief.
Share your thoughts!
Please let us know what you think! You can see discussion about this topic on my facebook page, on Stephanie Hirsh’s facebook page and on the website of the Somerville Times. Or contact me by email or phone (see below)
Mark Niedergang, Ward 5 Alderman