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Thoughts on the Davis Square Streetscape Improvements Project

The City is considering a variety of improvements to the Davis Square Streetscape. But will they get it right?

The City of Somerville is currently in the process of developing improvements to the Davis Square streetscape. There is potential to make truly meaningful improvements that will greatly enhance access, safety, and livability in the square, but only if they are done right.

So far, over the past 2 months, the Office of Strategic Development and Community Planning has had a public walkthrough of the district, a charette to get thoughts about specifically what the public sees are things that work well and that need improvement, and a community meeting to discuss preliminary ideas for improvements based on feedback from the prior two meetings. A final community meeting will be held on Tuesday August 7 at 6 pm at the TAB Building Atrium Room, 167 Holland St.

There is also an online survey that the public is encouraged to take in order to provide feedback and ideas: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/B3PY9SZ

The City has been attempting to tackle many issues with this project, including improving pedestrian and bicycle access, making traffic flow more smoothly, creating new public spaces, and creating better connections to the Community Path. There has also been discussion about materials, lighting, and general aesthetics of Davis Square.

Signal Timing

Two issues in particular stand out as key to making Davis Square work better. The first is the traffic signal timing, particularly as it relates to pedestrians. As anyone who walks through Davis Square knows, few people follow the pedestrian signals. This is mainly because they are set up to be so inconvenient that they are practically useless. In the main part of the square, a pedestrian must press a button and then may wait nearly 3 minutes only to receive a walk signal that is not even long enough to get fully across the square! (Davis Square is a classic case of .) The City is looking to retime the signals at all intersections around Davis Square, including the main intersection, at Highland Ave at Cutter Ave, and at Summer St and Elm St at Cutter Ave.

So far, the City has proposed a mix of automatic concurrent signals and pushbutton-actuated exclusive signals. While these improvements will create much more time for pedestrians to cross the square legally, the current plans do not fully solve the problem. The most important thing in my opinion is to eliminate all pedestrian pushbuttons and make the pedestrian signals automatic. In an area such as Davis Square with such high pedestrian activity, especially adjacent to the Red Line Station, there will nearly always be people wanting to cross the street. The signals need to be predictable and fair if there is any hope of pedestrians actually following them.

The City has also proposed reducing the cycle length of all the signals, which is good for everyone. The current long cycles often creates long traffic queues and a lot of waiting. Shorter cycle lengths will be more convenient for pedestrians waiting to cross the street as well as for bicyclists and motorists waiting for a green light.

Community Path Connections

The second issue that is key to making the Davis Square better is to create a direct, obvious connection between the two ends of the Community Path. Finding one’s way between the end of the path at Buena Vista Rd and the end at the Grove Street parking lot behind Rite Aid is confusing and challenging, particularly on bike. Recent improvements have created better pedestrian connections along the Grove Street parking lot and MBTA busway, but a lack of signage makes it unclear where bicyclists are supposed to ride. (It is technically illegal for bicyclists to ride in the busway itself, and the multi-use path along the busway feeds directly into the waiting area for bus passengers.) A new bicycle connection has been created by the MBTA behind the Holland St MBTA headhouse, but it ends at the Holland St sidewalk without a clear direction of where bicyclists are supposed to go next. In addition, an official on-road bicycle route was signed many years ago that uses Holland St, Elm St, Grove St, and Highland Ave, but it is also not obvious and not very friendly to families or more novice bicyclists.

The City has proposed creating a new on-street route for cyclists connecting between the two ends of the path by making the last block of Wallace St two-way for cars and bicycles and then using some of the neighborhood streets north of the square. While this would be an improvement over the current on-road route through the busiest streets of the square, this would neither be direct nor appealing to the wide range of cyclists using the Community Path. It could be easier to find than the current on-road route if better signage and roadway markings such as sharrows were used to indicate the route, but in my opinion it wouldn’t truly solve the problem.

The only true solution it seems is to create a dedicated bicycle-only connection through the heart of the square. This could be a two-way cycle track separated from traffic by bollards or a low curb. Bicyclists would cross Holland St and College Ave using crossbikes (crosswalks for bikes only) adjacent to existing crosswalks, and would follow a two-way cycle track along the outside edge of the main plaza. The only challenge would be that bicyclists and pedestrians getting on and off buses would have to contend with each other where the busway meets College Ave. This could possibly be solved with signage, clearly directing bicyclists to go slow and yield to pedestrians. As a last resort, bicyclists could be advised via signage that they must walk their bikes along that short stretch of path near the College Ave headhouse, although most bicyclists do not follow such signs since dismounting and remounting can be quite inconvenient.

Regardless of which option is eventually chosen to better connect the Community Path, signage is really key. A clear and obvious route for pedestrians as well as one for bicyclists should be signed in a way that anyone new to the square can easily find them.

Bicycle Facilities

Another important issue, but perhaps one that is not as critical as the prior two, is enhancing bicycle access along the major roadways in the square. An ideal solution would be to create dedicated bicycle lanes or cycle tracks on the major streets, including Holland St, Elm St, Highland Ave, and College Ave. (The City is putting northbound bike lanes on Cutter Ave and Grove St.) Unfortunately, putting bike lanes or cycle tracks on these streets would require removing a lane of on-street parking and/or a travel lane, and given the demand for parking and amount of traffic in the square, those are unfortunately not politically feasible options right now. (From a technical standpoint, I believe there are some solutions possible, but it would require the City to be much more drastic in their proposals.) These streets all do have sharrows currently, which have been a relatively recent improvement over the lack of any bicycle facilities at all just a few years ago.

On the main streets in the square, the City is proposing to install bicycle priority lanes, essentially an upgrade of the current standard sharrows. A lane is still used by both bicycles and cars, but these markings are a bolder way to guide cyclists in the lane. (One way to think of it is a bicycle lane within a travel lane.) Bicycle priority lanes can be marked in a variety of ways, including as a large sharrow centered in a travel lane with dashed lines on either side (as has been done in Brookline, MA), or as a sharrow on top of a green stripe in the center of a travel lane (as has been done in Long Beach, CA and Salt Lake City, UT). These treatments are of course not as good as a dedicated bike lane or cycle track, but help enhance the fact that bicyclists can and should use a full travel lane to ride safely away from parked cars. These facilities increase bicyclists’ confidence and communicate to motorists that bicyclists can and should ride there. I personally think the green lane is much more helpful than the white dashed solution, but either will certainly be an improvement over what we have today.

Other issues

There has also been much talk about other issues, including:

  • creating new crosswalks where there are desire lines for them
  • sidewalk materials, for example whether to keep using all brick or a combination of concrete and brick or concrete pavers (an accessibility vs aesthetics issue)
  • creating new plazas, for example by closing the slip lane from Highland Ave to Elm St, and by relocating the Elm St lane in front of Rosebud Diner to the other side of the traffic island/parking lot
  • how to enliven the privately-owned Davis Square Plaza (between Starbucks and Chipotle)
  • improved lighting, for example using LED bulbs to save energy and cast a more people-friendly white light

The ideas and solutions that the City has presented thus far, as well as the feedback from the public, have been very positive overall. The City is asking all the right questions and could truly make Davis Square even better than it already is. But it’s key that they tackle the biggest problems in a way that will truly solve them. To do them only part way could result in us going through another 20 years with new problems instead of fewer problems.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below. How would you improve Davis Square?

More information

How Would You Change Davis Square? ResiStat Blog 11 July 2012

You Say: How Should Somerville Improve Davis Square? 5 July 2012

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Scott July 21, 2012 at 12:41 AM
Car traffic might be reduced (opening up new possibilities for bikes and pedestrians) if there were clear ways for cars whose final destination is not Davis Square to avoid Davis Square altogether. Is there anyway to direct cars that just want to get through Davis Square toward side streets that will get them to their destination?
Lucas Rogers July 22, 2012 at 09:04 AM
Charlie, one of the biggest issues for me as a bicyclist in Davis Square, other than connecting the two halves of the community path, is trying to find a convenient route into the Square from points south and east (e.g., Porter, Harvard, and most of Cambridge and Boston). One-ways on Elm, Chester and Orchard all conspire to block the bicyclist. Dismounting and walking, or overshooting the Square and biking on Cutter and Highland, are legal, but inconvenient. What are your thoughts on this issue?
Charlie Denison July 22, 2012 at 07:19 PM
Scott, that's a great point. It's a tricky situation since the neighborhood streets were oriented specifically to discourage "cut-through" traffic. We probably would not want to change that too much, however one of the concepts the City is proposing would create a bit more connectivity. By making the last block of Wallace St two-way, motorists wishing to go north on College Ave from eastbound Holland St would be able to go left onto Wallace St and right on Park Ave instead of having to loop around Elm St, Grove St, and Highland Ave. One other possible solution to reducing the traffic through the center of Davis Square would be to post signage in advance of the square directing motorists along other main roads and routes that may not be obvious.
Charlie Denison July 22, 2012 at 07:33 PM
Lucas, one solution would be to add bicycle connectivity by creating contra flow bike lanes at key locations. For example, the last two blocks of Chester St that are one way could be marked and signed as two-way for bikes. This is an issue throughout the city where the orientation of certain streets (and rush-hour restrictions for residents only) to keep car traffic away ends up creating unnecessarily long routes for bicyclists.
Ron Newman July 23, 2012 at 01:53 PM
Chester and Orchard streets are wide enough to allow two-way biking, so I'd just do that.
Courtney O'Keefe July 23, 2012 at 05:56 PM
My suggestion would be to avoid using brick paver crosswalks.
Jonah Petri July 24, 2012 at 02:27 AM
Amen to that. They look pretty, but only until the plow trucks tear them up over the winter.
Lucas Rogers July 24, 2012 at 02:32 AM
I agree that a few judiciously chosen contra-flow bike lanes would do a world of good for bicycles. The one on Scott Street off Beacon is an excellent example - making biking vastly easier and not causing any traffic confusion at all, as far as I can tell.

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