Skip to main content
Asked a question recently

Last week a pedestrian was struck and killed in Harvard Sq. Cambridge, MA (https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2019/09/17/harvard-square-pedestrian-crash). If you've ever been to the area you'll know that not only is it heavily trafficked by pedestrians, shoppers, students, and tourists but that its design is also a series of historical compromises that makes it both a bad route to drive through in order to get from place A to place B and, consequently a difficult place to bike and a dangerous place to walk and shop. While the most dangerous portions of the road were closed off today, despite what the officer in the article above said ^^, there were basically no substantial traffic problems. People still got where they needed to go, traffic wasn't backed up any more than usual (arguably less so than usual) -- and pedestrians were able to walk around safely. I want to convince Cambridge city council to experiment with temporary closure of portions of that street, with the eventual goal of pedestrianizing the whole square. How do you all recommend I go about making this case?

Where am I?

In Strong Towns you can ask and answer questions and share your experience with others!

I've done some tactical urbanism in the past. If you want to do it with the city's blessing, here is what I would say:
1. Come up with a semi-firm proposal first. Draw it out so people can envision it. Don't make them design it. Make it easy for them. Most city employees I've worked with will NEVER do anything that adds more work to their plate. Make it as CHEAP as possible and pay for it all yourself or with your friends if you can.

2. Don't make it political. Bring it to whoever is in charge of streets. Maybe planning or engineering; find that out. If they don't respond then maybe you can take it to a city council member but NOT at a public meeting. Just private one-on-one. Putting them in public in front of people with their peers is a quick way to make it political and get the idea shut down.

3. Make it clear that the city can back out at any time if something goes wrong. City staff are almost always scared of problems. Knowing that they can quickly and easily reverse the project brings them peace of mind.

And lastly, there's always the option to go without the city's blessing if you don't think they'll go with your idea. That is perfectly fine but don't do anything that would put you in jail. Be careful. 

Also if you need help with your design idea, check out this site: http://tacticalurbanismguide.com/ 6

also this one: http://urbanrepairs.blogspot.com/5

Jeremy, 

This is up my alley - thank you @Jacob Moses3 for bringing this to my attention!

Last year, I wrote a report on pedestrian collisions in Rockford, Illinois as part of my Master's Degree final project.  The report can be viewed here: www.tinyurl.com/walkablerockford7.  I'd be happy to chat with you via phone sometime about the report and consider what elements may be relevant to your efforts.   Some items to consider in the meantime:  

  1. Mapping pedestrian collisions, fatalities.  Your City and/or State DOT has this data; heck, it's probably in a shapefile for someone to GIS to drop in.  Your geographic focus notwithstanding, it may be helpful to see a concentration of collisions mapped out over time.  I could help you think about other variables and resultant map requests that may have contributed to collisions in your focus area, such as traffic volumes and road designations.  For example, the below image shows that 81% of all ped collisions in my city happen on arterial roadway designations. 
  2. Observing current ped-motorist activity.  I bought an inexpensive timelapse camera and obtained business owner consent to gather variables on user demographics, crossing activity, etc.  This is super helpful.  For example, I noticed that wheelchair users weren't crossing at the crosswalks because they were in poor, non-ADA compliant condition.  If you can show video of how people are using the street DESPITE public works intervention, that's powerful. 
  3. One more thing - roadway jurisdiction.  Who owns Brattle?  If it's the city, you may have a seat at the table.  If it's the DOT, good luck.  DOT's prioritize speed over safety, and I suspect I'm not the only one to say this.  

Anyways, happy to chat via phone and distill the report even further for your purposes!

 Last week a pedestrian was struck and killed in Harvard Sq. Cambridge, MA (https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2019/09/17/harvard-square-pedestrian-crash). If you've ever been to the area you'll know that not only is it heavily trafficked by pedestrians, shoppers, students, and tourists but that its design is also a series of historical compromises that makes it both a bad route to drive through in order to get from place A to place B and, consequently a difficult place to bike and a dangerous place to walk and shop.

While the most dangerous portions of the road were closed off today, despite what the officer in the article above said ^^, there were basically no substantial traffic problems. People still got where they needed to go, traffic wasn't backed up any more than usual (arguably less so than usual) -- and pedestrians were able to walk around safely.

I want to convince Cambridge city council to experiment with temporary closure of portions of that street, with the eventual goal of pedestrianizing the whole square.

How do you all recommend I go about making this case?

Perhaps you could survey the business owners to get their sales data from the same day the week before and after the closure compared to the days during the closure? For instance, if the closure was on Sept 22 and 23 (Sunday and Monday), compare same-day same-store sales data to Sept 15 & 16 or 8 & 9.

If you can show that closing the street did not reduce business activity, a pilot closure program may be easier to support for council members. If it shows an increase, then it would be harder to oppose.

Harvard Square is shockingly awful for pedestrians. I’d suspect that now is a good time to invite a team to lead a process to redesign the area. Surely there are locals who could organize a citizen led design charrette (maybe as volunteers). The outcome could be presented to council. In fact, I took the National Charrette Institute course at Harvard this summer. The design school should be able to connect you to people who are trained in the process and know how bad it is there. 
The NCI Charrette instructor's Bill Lennertz email is: blennertz@gmail.com3. He does not live in Cambridge but he teaches the Charrette course there in the summer. 

Harvard Design school contact Chris Raichle email is: craichle@gsd.harvard.edu2

Following the death of a teenager walking across the street in Provo, Utah, Strong Towns member Austin Taylor and his peers at BikeWalk Provo worked with Provo's government to create a temporary traffic calming intervention. You can read more about it here: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2019/8/8/low-cost-temporary-changes-make-for-a-safer-and-friendlier-street-in-provo-utah6

We also had Austin on the It's the Little Things3 podcast to share the story and how others can work with their elected officials to create similar projects. You can find the episode—tons of helpful insights: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2019/8/28/its-the-little-things-415