BOSTON IS GROWING, and fast. Highways and arterial roadways are commonly clogged not just during “rush hour,” but at all times of day, including weekends. It used to be the practice at the Boston Redevelopment Authority to advise young planners that “traffic problems solve themselves,” because people will find another route when traffic on one becomes jammed. Though it may have worked for a time, we have now clearly reached the practical limit of that laissez-faire approach. I think we all agree that we cannot “pave our way” out of this problem.
The obvious lynchpin to solving our mobility problems is the T. But we ignore at our peril the fact that there will, irrespective of whether or when that occurs, inevitably be more people biking, and more people walking, in and across city streets, as an unavoidable consequence of a growing population. The combination of more cars, more bikes, and more pedestrians is creating conflict, and we aren’t doing a very good job of resolving it, or even communicating about it, aside from time-tested modes of street conversation: murderous glares, shouted epithets, and, of course, raised middle fingers. The city’s growth is diminishing the quality of life for all of us in this respect, regardless of our mode of transportation, and it’s leaving some of us injured, and others dead.
Yes, pedestrians are annoying. Subway riding tourists glide up the escalator to the street and stop dead right there to consult Google maps while harried commuters pile up behind them. European families, visiting their costly progeny at Harvard or BU, hold hands across the entire width of sidewalk, moving at a pace no Bostonian would classify as walking. And flakey millennials Snapchat while walking, oblivious to the presence of other people (who give them a wide berth), and of lampposts (which don’t).
Recently I was sitting behind the wheel, along with probably 30 or 40 other cars, waiting patiently for the light to change and cross under the Expressway from Southie to the South End. Just as it turned green, and as if on cue, Jen the Young Professional (typing intently on her iPhone, earbuds inserted firmly in her head) steps off the curb and begins crossing the street, oblivious to the danger we present, not to mention our right of way.
But even as getting anywhere around Boston by car has become more difficult, being a pedestrian is no picnic, either. I cross Harrison Avenue on foot almost daily, and there is about a 50/50 chance that vehicles will stop for me as I step into the mid-block crosswalk. The brief time allotted for pedestrians to make it across signalized intersections is further shortened by the apparently unwritten rule that only two more cars can go once the light turns red. I’ve never seen a motorist cited for any of these life-threatening infractions.
One thing you notice when traveling to other cities is that pedestrian signals are consistent across most intersections. In Boston, however, each intersection is a completely unique adventure. You can easily tell who’s a local because they quickly learn to ignore unreliable “Don’t Walk” signals that instruct you to stay put when the traffic signal permits no cars to legally cross your path. Tourists stand there like dopes, animatedly discussing whether to make a run for it, since they’ve just seen the guy who looks like he lives here confidently do just that.
Consider the intersection of Beacon and Arlington Streets. The main pedestrian connection between two Boston treasures – the Public Garden and the Esplanade – is a disgrace of confusing and unreliable signals. It is not unusual to see groups of baffled tourists trapped in the middle on the traffic island there, where they remind me of that infamous photo of polar bears hopelessly set adrift by climate change on a lonely iceberg. Just a few blocks away, pedestrians encounter a pedestrian signal by the Park Plaza hotel that urgently counts down the seconds they have left to safely cross Stuart Street and then, upon reaching zero, unpredictably get the all-clear “Walk” signal. Surprise! The city is rife with idiotic signalization like this and has been for at least the 25 years I’ve lived here. It’s no wonder we’re a city of jaywalkers.
If it is our goal to facilitate the efficient and safe flow of pedestrians and cyclists, as well as cars, though the city, these confusing, uncoordinated signals will have to be adjusted – intersection by intersection. It is unglamorous and painstaking work, and doesn’t culminate in a ribbon-cutting photo opportunity, but it will save lives and improve the quality of city life for everyone. (While we’re at it, let’s remove the pedestrian signal buttons that were recently revealed to do precisely nothing, by design, when pressed.)
At the same time as streets are more crowded and clogged with vehicular traffic, the city paints bike “sharrows” on some of the worst cases, like Mass Ave., and seems to expect cyclists and motorists to somehow work it out. Unprotected bike lanes are used for deliveries, double-parking, and taxi and Uber pick-ups and drop-offs. Except for a handful of double-parked delivery vehicles, I’ve almost never seen anyone cited for any of these blatant, and dangerous, offenses.
If there is little enforcement of traffic laws in unprotected bike lanes, all we have done is invite cyclists to ride in an unsafe environment, where they are expected to “share” space with motorists steering 4,000-pound vehicles distractedly, or with rage in their hearts. These bike “lanes” are often allowed to fade. This is a recipe for disaster.
Hardly anyone is blameless in this mess. We’ve all seen cyclists behaving badly, running red lights, and other reckless behavior. I’ve been hit by a cyclist – I was sore for a day or two, but I recovered. I’ve also witnessed a pedestrian being hit by a car (she was in the crosswalk, by the way), and it’s not something you can un-see. But to compare these things is false equivalency. In a conflict between a car and a bicycle or a pedestrian, the car always wins.
You can pass all the laws you want, but if you don’t enforce the existing laws against blocking bike lanes, yielding to pedestrians in cross walks, or texting while driving, we are no better off than if there was no law at all. The threat posed by the negligent and distracted operation of cars is real, quantifiable, and lethal. The threat posed by rule-flouting cyclists and flakey pedestrians is mainly to themselves, and amounts to extreme annoyance and irritating delay for motorists and other pedestrians. Momentary lapses of attention have very different consequences depending on your mode of travel. Our laws, and their enforcement, should reflect this.
In the long run, if we acknowledge the need to accommodate more people biking and walking, as a simple function of managing the growth and economic development of our city, we will need to construct the infrastructure for them. We are beginning to see the first examples of protected bike lanes and understand their effectiveness. Motorists, already squeezed on congested streets, won’t always take kindly to ceding part of the road to cyclists, nor will the person circling the block looking for on-street parking be thrilled to see their favorite spot now gone to accommodate a protected bike lane. But it’s like we’ve started across the road part way at this point – we can go forward, it’s probably too late to go back, and if we stand still we will get run over.
It will take time, money, and political will to build out protected bike infrastructure, but there are things we can do right now to protect vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists and to better facilitate the flow of all modes of travel: 1.) review and adjust pedestrian signals throughout the city; 2.) maintain painted bike lines so they are clearly visible; and 3.) step up enforcement of existing traffic laws.
Someone at the head of the line gives Jen the Young Professional a honk. She glances at the wall of waiting cars staring her down, picks up the pace and, a few moments later, alights safely on the other side of the street and continues on her way, seemingly unfazed by her near brush with death. Some of us make it through the green light on the first go. Others of us don’t – annoyed and inconvenienced, but unharmed. Surprisingly, I don’t notice anyone give her the finger.
Peter O’Connor has served as deputy secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and is currently a lawyer and economic development consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.