Thursday, August 9, 2007

Alderman Fischman on Needham Street

In a TAB op-ed this week, Alderman Fischman has identified a number of traffic/pedestrian problems on Needham Street. It's not a tough challenge. Needham Street is a mess.

Here are my thoughts on four of them. I might address others later, but these are four I've thought a lot about.

Route 9
Strictly speaking, Alderman Fischman has identified a problem on Centre/Winchester streets and Route 9, not Needham Street and Route 9. (I'm not clear where Winchester starts and Centre ends.)

I've written about this problem on the NS&S wiki.

My recommendations are fairly simple:

  • Better define the area under the bridge to create a middle turning lane, as is on Needham Street. There's plenty of room for a third lane. Unlike Alderman Fishman, I think the two-way left-turn lanes (TWLTL) on Needham Street help.
  • Create islands at the intersection of the two ramps on the east side, to direct traffic better and to provide a pedestrian haven
  • Generally improve the quality of the sidewalks from Walnut Street to Needham Street

Dunkin' Donuts
Here's a land-use problem that has serious traffic implications. Dunkin' Donuts and the next-door Newbury Comics have complimentary usage patterns. Most notably, Newbury Comics is closed during Dunkin's morning rush. Together, the two stores have need for maybe three-quarters of the combined spots. Yet, antiquated zoning and thinking result in two side-by-side businesses each with its own parking lot and its own curb cut.

The Dunkin' Donuts building is on the east side of the lot, oriented to the west, with parking to the west. Any of an number of settings would have been preferable. Imagine if the Dunkin' Donuts building were on the front of the lot, oriented to the street, parking in the Newbury Comics lot and behind the Dunkin' Donuts building, with access to parking through the existing Newbury Comic curb cut. You'd have a much more usable lot and one fewer curb cut. Throw in a couple of tables in front, and you have the start of a nice pedestrian way.

The Draft Comprehensive Plan would discourage just the kind of building that was built and encourage the kind of set up I've laid out as an alternative.

But, the building's built. What can be done now? Two, relatively cheap steps:

  • Encourage Newbury Comics and Dunkin Donuts to work out an arrangement for shared parking in the two lots (Newbury Comics probably doesn't need the extra space in the Dunkin' lot)
  • Build a sidewalk along the two properties that more clearly defines a path between the Newbury Comics lot and Dunkin' Donuts entrance and prevents/discourages parking on the sidewalk

Starbucks/Marshall Mall
It's important to recognize that this is probably the least bad part of Needham Street. While set back a little too far, the Pizzapalooza and Starbucks stores are at least oriented to the street with a nice, usable patio in front. While attached to a very problematic strip mall, Fresh City has outdoor seating, too. (The continued existence of outdoor dining here is proof positive that, as with Route 9, we shouldn't turn our backs on Needham Street as a pedestrian boulevard.) It's appropriate that there is a pedestrian crossing here.

Side note: Neither Starbucks or Pizzapalooza have a bathroom. When Family NS&S dines at Pizzapalooza and one of the two kids (3-1/2 and 6) have to use the facilities, Fresh City is the closest option. We use that pedestrian crossing and are very familiar with the lack of motorist compliance.

Alderman Fischman proposes a signal. I don't. If we put up lights at a handful of special crossings, we dilute the effectiveness of standard crosswalk markings and signs. We need to make it clearer that pedestrians have the right of way.

This would be a perfect place for a raised crosswalk. A raised crosswalk would:

  • Alert motorists to expect pedestrians.
  • Slow motorists so that they can more easily stop for pedestrians
  • Undoubtedly create some breaks in traffic for cars exiting and entering Needham Street in the vicinity
  • Slow traffic generally
  • Be a much cheaper alternative to a signal

I wouldn't put in just one. I'd put two or three more down the length of Needham Street, including one near McDonalds and the Avalon entrance.

I should note that a raised crosswalk can be designed with a fairly shallow approach angle, so traffic doesn't need to slow to a crawl, but to a reasonable speed for this section.

While I rarely think enforcement is a long-term answer to traffic problems, this is one area where I think it could help. The City needs to ticket people who don't stop for pedestrians. This will help educate people that crosswalks are special places.

If we get to the happy situation of so much pedestrian crossing that traffic can't pass, then, and only then, we should rethink a light.

Christina/Oak Streets and Charles River Bridge
It helps to understand the problem. And, again, this is one with which I am more than passing familiar. For that last six years, I have passed through this section on a nearly daily basis to take the children of NS&S to day care and the summer camp bus stop.

As Alderman Fischman points out, this intersection has an awkward offset. The two streets -- Oak and Christina -- that join Needham are not directly opposite each other. When a four-way intersection has no offset, two left-turning cars going in opposite directions approach each other head on. This gives room to traffic passing through to pass to the right of the turning cars. Traffic flows around the left-turning cars until there's a gap to make the turn.

Because of the Oak/Christina offset, approaching left-turning cars can't stop facing head on. Instead, they have to go past each other. Waiting for a gap, they are tail-to-tail, not face-to-face. Having to go past each other makes it difficult for through traffic to get by, which further reduces opportunities for gaps. It's a mess.

A separate left-turn signal would only help the problem if there were room for a separate left-turn lanes on Christina and/or Oak. There isn't room. The room that's there is used to allow right-turning traffic to turn onto Needham, which is, after all, the major road. If you had a left-turn signal, left-turning traffic could get stuck behind traffic heading over Needham.

What's needed here is a roundabout, provided there's sufficient right-of-way. A roundabout would cure the problem caused by the offset. Regardless of you're eventual destination, everybody goes right to join the roundabout. And, everybody turns right to get out of the roundabout. Traffic in the intersection wouldn't compete as it does now.

A roundabout would also have two happy collateral benefits. It would slow traffic to a reasonable speed as motorists entered the commercial district. And, it would keep traffic flowing more efficiently than a traffic signal.

1 comment:

Marc said...

This is a great analysis, but leaves off one point that I've noticed: the fact that the two Newton/Needham bridges over the Charles (Needham St./Highland Ave. and Nahanton St./Kenrick St.) have one lane in each direction while the roads leading up to them, at least on the Needham side, have two. This creates a backup near the Oak St. intersection and, at least in my causes, part of the reason I take Christina St. in my commute is to avoid the backup on Kenrick St. I don't want to widen streets wantonly (not to mind the disruption widening a bridge) but maybe there's some change needed here.