City moving forward with limited Porter Square updates

Cambridge Chronicle – May 9, 2018

The Cambridge Department of Traffic showed off changes to a plan to revamp the Porter Square intersection at a public meeting on Tuesday, but the updates still fall short of what cycling advocates have called for.

The scope of the improvements is narrow, covering only changes to traffic signaling and signage, repainting lines, and making minor modifications to traffic islands. The city hopes to begin construction early this summer, but many of the improvements that the rapidly growing number of cyclists wish to see will not be implemented at this time. The meeting addressed feedback given at the first public forum in January.

“We have made some fairly meaningful changes in response to the January meeting, actually taking into account some of the suggestions that were made,” said Joe Barr, Cambridge traffic director. “We have actually simplified the project and eliminated some of those concerns.”

What has stayed the same

A central part of the plan involves simplifying the traffic signal phases–the number of steps it take people at each junction through the intersection. A simple, perpendicular intersection would have two phases: first the east-west lanes go and then the north-south ones. Porter Square, a much more complex intersection, currently has five phases, but the new plan will shorten that to three. This would also shorten the time all users take to get through the intersection.

“The traffic cycles are longer than we typically see in Cambridge, so we want to shorten that so all users are not waiting as long,” said Barr. “We will also make some improvements to the coordination between the signals in the square.”

Cyclists will continue to be able to use the “jug handle” while turning left from Mass. Ave. onto Somerville Ave. However, instead of allowing cars to make the turn first and forcing cyclists to wait for another phase, both will turn at the same time.

What has changed

In January, the city proposed banning cars from turning left out of the Porter Square Shopping Center in order to simplify signal phasing. However, after pushback at the first public meeting this has been slashed from the plan and the signal phasing has been simplified without that change.

There was also talk of removing the traffic island in the middle of Somerville Avenue, which many worried would make the crosswalk too long. The updated plan will leave the island, but move it slightly, which will create additional space on Somerville Avenue to buffer the bike lane.

“We heard concern about the two narrow turn lanes that are right up against the bike lane…We get vehicles overlapping a bit into the bike lane and squeezing the bikes,” said Patrick Baxter, engineering manager with the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department. “We are moving that island over a little bit to create just a little more space between the bike lane and traffic.”

Calls for further action

Tuesday’s meeting was held only days after more than 200 cyclists held a rally in Porter Square, demanding safer infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians. They gathered in protest of Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan’s ruling that the intersection’s traffic design was not a factor in the 2016 death of a cyclist who was hit by a tractor trailer.

A frequent refrain throughout the evening were calls for bike lanes separated from the road by bollards, posts, or a curb of some kind, particularly around sharper turns where vehicles tend to drift into the bike lane.

“I see cars bleed into the bike lanes all the time, and trucks certainly will,” said Michael Davidson, a Cambridge resident and volunteer with Cambridge Bicycle Safety. “If trucks run over bollards and the bollards are substantial enough to cause damage, they would learn their lesson. If they are not, there should be some kind of penalty for violating traffic laws.”

Barr was unable to commit to a specific timeline to begin a discussion of more substantial biking infrastructure, but he estimated that it could begin in the fall.

“We have been getting a good amount of push to include additional improvements in this project, particularly separated bike lanes,” said Barr. “We are fully aware of that concern and that desire. Separated bike lanes in Porter Square are being considered in the future.”

Construction timeline

While some minor tweaks may be made to the plan based off of public comments, the city plans to get the project underway quickly.

“We are hoping to have the design completed within the next four to five weeks and then we will be able to go ahead and order the new signal equipment we need,” said Baxter. “The hope is to have constructions started by the summer.”

Cambridge residents at the meeting were eager for further change, but seemed to generally agree that the changes proposed in this plan would be good for Porter Square.

“I was at the January meeting and I have lived in this city for 26 years, so thank you for listening to what people have to say and changing the design,” said Judy Weiss, Cambridge resident. “I think you are doing a really good job within your limited scope, because it really is very limited.”

Barr was careful to reiterate that moving forward with this plan would not preclude further improvements, such as separated bike lanes.