A better solution for Inman Square

By Becca Wolfson, Doug Johnson and Elena SaportaScreen Shot 2017-01-27 at 2.55.58 PM

Just imagine: instead of gritting your teeth as you attempt to navigate the vehicular minefield that is present-day Inman Square, you could soon be circulating pleasantly along the rim of a traffic-calmed motoring peanut, a point of genuine interest lending harmony to this key crossroads.

That is, if the “Peanut-about” is selected as the design for Inman Square.

This past Tuesday night, January 25th, the City of Cambridge held a public meeting to present the design options for a new Inman Square. Attendance at the meeting, which far exceeded the room’s capacity, illustrates how important this project is to so many people, and just how badly a redesign of Inman Square is needed. In fact, so many people showed up that many could not fit into the meeting room to hear the presentation, but the City has promised to schedule another meeting very soon, so stay tuned!

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There are four options currently being considered for Inman Square, which we will describe below. Before we do, full disclosure: the Bike Union commissioned the design of the “peanut-about” by Kittelson & Associates because we felt that the options being considered by the City had significant limitations, and after last night’s meeting, we’re even more convinced that the peanut-about is the best solution for Inman Square. That said, each design has its merits, and we look forward to a robust public process in which the merits and shortcomings of each design are fully vetted.

Option A: Bend Cambridge Street

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The first option for Inman Square presented by the City is to bend Cambridge Street so that it intersects Hampshire Street at right-angles. “T-ing” the intersections like this improves pedestrian crossings and makes traffic more predictable, which reduces the chances of conflicts between road users.

Bike traffic, which currently makes up 26% of all weekday-morning southbound traffic on Hampshire Street, would continue through the intersection as it currently does.

New public space would be created in front of the Urgent Care facility and the Cambridge Savings Bank.  However, the local businesses, restaurants and shops,  in the northeast corner of the square have been looking for ways to improve the public space adjacent to their buildings and improve the pedestrian experience. We believe the new public space would be more highly used  if located here, rather than by the Urgent Care facility and Bank.

One significant limitation of the Bend Cambridge plan is that all left turns are prohibited, from Cambridge or Hampshire Street in any direction, and an additional ban is made on right turns from Hampshire Street northbound onto Cambridge Street.  As someone pointed out in the meeting, though left-turns are currently not allowed from Hampshire onto Cambridge Street, compliance with the current ban on left turns has been poor. We also know that left turns are very dangerous for all road users.  Noncompliance with turning restrictions significantly threatens the safety of people biking through the intersection who are not expecting vehicles to turn across their path. 

While we have celebrated the current ban, it was always seen as an interim measure that needed to be taken until the intersection is redesigned.  We should not be creating a situation that will allow for noncompliance and therefore lack of safety — it is a vision zero principle to design your roadways the way you want drivers and road users to behave, and this plan would set people up for failure and diminished safety.  

Options B & C: Bend Hampshire Street & Bend North Side

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The second and third options, which are very similar, are to bend Hampshire Street north of Cambridge Street so that it intersects Cambridge Street at a right angle. The southern section of Hampshire Street would not be moved. The differences between the plans are in the details.

One plan converts Springfield Street into a one-way street, while the other plan leaves Springfield Street two-way.

Bus stop locations also differ between the plans, which impacts sidewalk widths and the configuration of the bike and pedestrian crossings.

Both plans would also create new public space in front of Punjabi Dhaba. In the Bend Hampshire Street option, the open space would include a shared-street that could be used by buses. In the Bend North Side option, there would not be a shared-street and the bus stop would be located further up Hampshire Street.

In both of these plans there would be no left turn allowed from Cambridge Street heading east onto Hampshire Street, northbound.  Bend North-side also restricts motor vehicles from turning right onto Cambridge Street from Hampshire Street, northbound.  Again, the risk of compromised safety due to noncompliance with turning restrictions sets this plan back in terms of safety for people biking.

These two plans also create a sweeping right turn from Cambridge Street, eastbound, onto Hampshire Street heading south, that can be taken at high speeds, posing a threat to vulnerable road users.  

All of the bend options also maintain large intersections, which cars can accelerate through upon a light change, causing unsafe conditions.  

Option D: The Peanut-about

The final option is to install a peanut shaped roundabout in Inman Square, and not bend any of the streets. This design is used in European countries like the Netherlands and the UK, but is just starting to be adopted more widely in the United States.

The biggest advantages of the peanut-about over the other options are the continuous, safe and steady flow of all forms of traffic. Motor vehicles and people on bikes no longer have to idle at traffic lights for long intervals and pedestrians no longer have to wait for walk lights to come on.

The plan also creates new public space in front of Punjabi Dhaba, and maintains existing bus stops.

The key elements of the plan are:

Yielding priority: In the peanut-about, yielding is prioritized according to the level of users’ vulnerability.  Upon entering any crossing, pedestrians are given the highest priority, followed by people on bicycles and finally motorized vehicles.  All motorized vehicles and bicyclists are expected to yield to pedestrians who enter a crosswalk, which is a significant improvement for the pedestrian experience, which we have heard loud and clear is desired by business and residents of Inman Square. Currently if you just miss a walk signal, you may have to wait over 120 seconds (more than two minutes!) to have a chance to cross.  In the bend plans, while that wait time is reduced to 90 seconds as a maximum, that is much longer than anyone wants to wait and much longer than you will have to wait as a pedestrian with the peanut-about — essentially not at all.  

Crosswalks are direct and at right angles to the sidewalks they connect, greatly improving the safety of all crossings and providing greater visibility of people biking and walking across to allow for better yielding.  All crossings of the peanut are also raised, which increases yielding compliance by motor vehicles — they will have to travel cautiously and slowly to mount the raised crossings, providing time to see and yield to people biking and walking, which also demonstrates the priority given to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Other key benefits:

The mid-peanut crosswalk also gives people a much shorter path to cut across the intersection, greatly improving accessibility to the businesses in the square.

This plan is also the only one that returns all turning movements.

Slower, but steady traffic: By removing traffic lights, roundabouts allow for a slow and continuous flow of traffic, that ultimately saves all users time while reducing the possibility of high-speed collisions.  Design elements of the roundabout will bring cars down to a speed of about 15mph while traveling through and around the peanut.

Unsignalized crossings are a key feature of peanut-abouts. They allow for a slow and steady flow of traffic, not possible at signalized intersections. An added bonus is that by eliminating traffic signals, emissions are greatly reduced.

Fire Department access is also easily accommodated with the peanut-about. The brown colored area of the peanut in front of the fire station is paved and bounded by a short, mountable curb – a curb that prevents automobiles from traversing, while being  easy to negotiate by fire trucks, buses and other large vehicles. The peanut provides the same level of access to fire trucks that exists today.  While concern was elicited at the January 24th meeting when it was stated that “the fire department would have to rely on the fire trucks’ sirens for them to exit the station and hold traffic,” the design could be adapted to have a signal that holds all vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians at which times fire trucks are being dispatched.

In conclusion, Inman Square is a very complex intersection, and the solutions to making it safer are all equally complex.  None of the plans are without drawbacks — evaluating the solutions gives us a chance to look at the benefits and challenges — but we feel an imperative to measure the drawbacks and challenges with the lens of the safety of vulnerable road users.  We strongly believe that the peanut-about option provides the safest environment for all road users, provides the most benefit to the pedestrian experience, and convenience is restored to all by allowing all right and left turn movements.  

The City of Cambridge wants to hear from as many users of Inman Square as possible what you think about the 4 design options.  You can make your voice and opinion heard by filling out this survey.  As we said above, due to the huge turnout for the meeting on Tuesday, the City will be scheduling another meeting for Inman Square in the coming week or two, so stay tuned!

 

7 comments to A better solution for Inman Square

  • Jeff

    These designs are based entirely on cyclists’ needs with no apparent concern for traffic. Of course this would be expected on bostoncyclistsunion.org

    Introduction of a second light would add to congestion. Removal of the recommended left turns, or making Springfield a way-way street, would be a commute nightmare.

    The redesign of Inman, should it happen, will need to be based on everybody’s needs.

  • Annette Klein

    I mostly use Inman Square via bike and car. I prefer the peanut-about option over the others.
    Thx!

  • Ruth Loetterle

    As a bike commuter passing through Inman Square daily, I strongly support Option D, the Peanut-about.

  • Allison Stieber

    I agree with Jeff that “making Springfield a way-way street would be a commute nightmare.” Add to that the increased traffic that this reconfiguration would inflict on secondary streets such as Wyatt, Marion, and Concord. Where are the projections of what effect the one-way would have on secondary streets? The impression is that there has been no such consideration given to these impacts and that people living on those streets are simply expected to suck it up in order to make Inman Square more biker-friendly. No one wants to see bikers injured or killed. But how does conversion of Springfield to a one-way street prevent this? Also, approximately two-thirds of Springfield Street are in Somerville, not Cambridge. What gives Cambridge the right to disrupt already-challenging traffic patterns in this Somerville neighborhood?

  • Mark Greene

    @Jeff – I generally agree with aspiring to achieve the needs of all users but that aspiration needs to yield to dramatically reducing the chances of death.

  • Allison Stieber

    @Mark Greene: Please explain how conversion of Springfield to a one-way street would significantly decrease “the chances of death.”

  • The Honey Locust trees in Vellucci Park may be irreplaceable within the timeframe that we have to prepare for climate change. Street trees provide dozens of climate change mitigation and adaptation benefits, including cooling, stormwater management and improvement of the urban environment. I believe there are plans to use the US Forest Service’s award-winning I-Tree tool to estimate the value of the six trees in Velluci Park in terms of their benefit to the community.

    As we make planning decisions that involve trees in 2017, we should apply the precautionary principle. Many species of trees in New England will suffer from the effects of climate change. Honey Locusts are one of the species that is less at risk.

    I hope that the community and planners will consider the effects of climate change when making planning decisions in Inman Square.

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