Safer pedestrian crossings

In an apparent response to public comments, the latest (August 2010) plan for Mass. Ave. would make four unsignalized pedestrian crossings safer.

One item in the pedestrian-safety bag of tricks is extending the curb into the parking lane at pedestrian crossings. These bump-outs have the following benefits:

Proposed bump-outs

  • The crossing distance is shorter curb to curb
  • Pedestrians stand on a raised surface that is nearly even with the traffic-side edge of parked cars, where they are more visible to drivers
  • It’s really clear that a pedestrian standing on a bump-out is crossing the street, not just hanging out
  • Traffic responds by slowing down at crossings
  • Cars are physically prevented from blocking the cross walk (unless they double park at one) by parking illegally there.

These improvements are especially important at intersections where pedestrians are not protected by a crossing signal.

The latest drawings (as of August 12) add five “bumps” and take one away, to improve the safety of four of these unsignalized crossings — and make one more risky.

August June
Wyman St.
North Y N
South Y N
Harlow St.
North Y Y
South Y Y
North Y Y
South Y Y
Marathon St.
North Y Y
South Y N
Milton St. (new)
North Y Y
South Y N
Varnum St.
North N Y
South Y Y
Lafayette St.
North Y Y
South Y N

The August drawings have 13 bumps at unsignalized crossings where the plans presented in June had 9. Indeed with this change every unsignalized crossing has at least one bump on either the north or south side of the street; most have two.

Crossings affected by the change are (from north to south): Wyman St. (+2), Marathon St. (+1), Milton St. (+1), Varnum St. (-1), and Lafayette St (+1).

The August drawings are here and those for June are here.

At the June meeting, many people (including me) criticized the new plans for removing the safety-and-turning median without adding any compensatory safety to the pedestrian crossings. I’d still like to see that median restored, but it is clear to me that these plans respond to those criticisms.

I’m especially pleased to see full bump-outs at Marathon St., which has been very accident prone, and Lafayette, site of a 1996 fatality.

Note: So, what’s up with Varnum St.? The August plans would remove the north-side bump (and shift the crossing west).

My guess is that the purpose of this change is to allow three additional parking spots on the north side of Mass. Ave.



If this is the reason, it is the only place I know in this design where parking trumps safety.

The north side of the Varnum crossing, where the new parking would be, is in front of the Trinity Baptist Church. I won’t say that nobody parks there, but it is probably the least-used parking on the corridor today.

On the one hand, the lack of parked cars today means that pedestrians crossing from the north are generally safer than at other crossings where cars may hide them from drivers. On the other hand, the parking gained by removing the bump is not very important because of its location.

2 comments so far

  1. Mark K. on


    First, I suggest people visit Somerville Ave. between Porter and Union squares to better understand new road features being proposed for us.

    Second, the Varnum street change looks far more efficient, particularly the integration of bump out with intersection corner. Pedestrians at the south edge are much more visible now, no longer occluded by parked cars. On the north side, sight lines are maintained without the costs of a bump. Construction cost reduction may be the bigger concern than parking by planners. All in all, I think its a smart change.

    Third, I’m guessing that wider lanes and removal of texture-changed traversable median also cut construction costs. Maintenance is likely reduced too, as settling may occur and line paint less durable. Only raised islands really benefit pedestrians, with refuge.

    Fourth, I think what is safest for pedestrians is to remove bike lanes to make space for refuge islands in the median at crossings. Islands would still allow easy wrong-way emergency vehicle travel. Bump outs are an impediment to safety vehicles as they reduce opportunities to pull over for drivers – wider lanes help compensate.

    Additionally, on-demand crossing signals with count-downs would add safety (and cost). Somerville recently added one on Broadway, just over the Arlington line. It uses the much more visible, high-intensity, strobe flash lights. Despite infrequent use, motorists do take notice!

  2. ken lang on

    I am against ‘bump-outs’ of any kind. It’s just too costly. and I doubt the safety benefits. Some of these ‘improvements’ are finished in brick work esp. in Cambridge which very $$ since each brick is hand laid. It’s very distracting to drivers to suddenly see part of the sidewalk jutting out into the walkway especially when snow falls.

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