Saturday, October 22, 2011

What's Wrong with Article 13?

Article 13 began life as a resolution calling for the installation of a pedestrian-actuated traffic control signal at the Green St. crosswalk in Coolidge Corner.  That's the crosswalk going from Friendly's to Upper Crust and the Coolidge Corner Theater at the corner of Green St. and Harvard St. in the heart of our beloved CC shopping district.  The Article has since been amended to call for a study of said light.

The petitioner claims that all will be right with the universe if we do this.  In this alternate universe, pedestrians will line up and press the button, then patiently wait a minute and a half, happy to cross when the whooshing vehicles are finally forced to stop by the red light, the pedestrians will scurry quickly across, then once again the vehicles will resume whooshing.  All this will occur because the traffic lights at the nearby intersections at Beacon and Babcock will be coordinated and perfectly synced to move the traffic in seamless flow.  Too bad none of this alternate reality scenario resembles reality.

I can appreciate the appeal and simple logic of this idea.  Unfortunately, the traffic and pedestrian flows along this stretch of Harvard are anything but simple and the addition of a traffic control signal at Green St. will wreak havoc to traffic flows along this stretch of Harvard.  Consider the following:  1) Traffic flows are two-way and these two-way flows are not equally balanced.  2) There are turning vehicles that enter the traffic stream on Harvard St., even when Harvard St. is red at Beacon.  Vehicles turn right, going north from westbound Beacon, vehicles turn left from westbound Babcock.  3) These folks, along with those at the tail end of the previous green light and other, non-synced flows (contrary to popular belief the lights cannot be perfectly synched due to reasons #1 and #2)  will be stopped for 20 seconds or more at the new light at the Green St. cross walk.  Hardly a recipe for whooshing.  4)  If you think slowing and occasionally stopping for pedestrians at the crosswalk is annoying for drivers now, imagine a light stopping all traffic for one-half of the available time (Beacon green), whenever anyone may have pushed the button, whether they are there now or not.  and 5) The travel lanes widen to two just before and through the Beacon St. intersection, then suddenly tapering down to one again, right before the cross walk.  This bulge and squeeze is the real reason there is a flow issue at Beacon and Harvard, not the cross walk.

The petitioner has told us that the pedestrian light is not a new idea, that its been studied and recommended before.  This is absolutely not true.  The 2005 study he cites had it wrong, (there existing conditions report stated that there was already a light there), and simply recommended the signals be coordinated.  Clearly, these folks had a keen power of observation.  The other 2009 study concluded that the Green St. crosswalk did not seem to be a dominant issue creating backups.  This was based on field observation and not a study of potential impacts.  The petitioner also stated that all other options for improvement had been tried.  Again, not true.  Professor Peter Furth, former Transportation Board member, professor of civil engineering at Northeastern University, PhD from MIT in Transportation Systems and recipient of the 2004, Best Paper award from the Transportation Research Board Committee on Traffic Signal Systems, strongly warns against signalizing the crosswalk.  Peter's advanced traffic signal control class looked at this stretch of Harvard St. as a case study.  They concluded that the core problem was that too many vehicles were passing through the Beacon St. intersection and that this problem could be corrected by shortening the length of the traffic signal cycle.  Professor Furth strongly warns against putting such a light here, and as a resident of Brookline he strongly objects, noting how well the crosswalk works now and understanding the benefits to maintaining a safe, pedestrian friendly shopping district.  Professor Furth's study, complete with traffic flow simulations is the most indepth study done to date, and yet the petitioner did not even bother to read it.   Brookline's Director of Engineering, Peter Ditto testified at the Selectmen's hearing on this Article that his Department did not feel a pedestrian-actuated light should be studied.

There is Town wide desire to improve travel conditions in Coolidge Corner, which is why the petitioner has succeeded in gathering some support for the article, but there is also a clear sense, expressed by many, that we should be looking more holistically at travel conditions near Beacon and Harvard and that we should not be entering into a study already having concluded what the source and solution to the problem is.   The petitioner has assured us that other ideas will be looked at.  Yet, this is not what the resolution says, and the resolution cannot be modified because it would become a fundamentally different Article.  I don't know about you but I am not comfortable giving my support to something based on the assurance that really, its not what it says it is.

The fact is the petitioner has decided what improvement is desirable and concluded that it would have a positive result, all without the benefit of professional knowledge, without supporting facts or analysis, without consultation with the Town staff or boards responsible for these decisions, who have been, by the way, working diligently observing, testing and working with consultants to solve the problem.  Doesn't their opinion matter? 

So, what’s wrong with passing the Article and studying the traffic signal?  Surely, the study will come to the same conclusions as Professor Furth and the idea of the traffic signal will be dropped.  For starters, such a study looks at the wrong thing, making it a waste of Town resources, we already have the advantage of a high-caliber free study showing us the way towards a promising alternative improvement.  Second,  directing the scope, focus and policy direction of a consultant’s work away from the fundamental problem and towards a single, ill conceived and predetermined result is bad science and bad policy and will prevent us from identifying better, more cost effective solutions that work for everyone, whether on foot, bike or in a car.  And third, let's pass a resolution that lets the professionals do their job, instead of telling them what the conclusion is before they start.