Contributed by Linda Olson Pehlke, Precinct 2 Town Meeting Member.  Additional contributions and comments are welcome

Fall Town Meeting is considering Article 13, which would direct the Town to study putting 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, where Green St. meets Harvard St. in the heart of our beloved CC shopping district.

The petitioner for Article 13 claims that traffic flows will improve if we do this, because pedestrians can cross at the same time Beacon St. traffic has a green light, and, if the light is “synced” with adjacent lights, this will all work smoothly. Unfortunately, this is an overly simplistic conception of the traffic and pedestrian flows along this stretch of Harvard . In truth, the addition of a traffic control signal at Green St. will wreak havoc on Harvard St. traffic. Consider the following: 1) Traffic flows on Harvard 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, which is a mere 250 Ft. from Beacon St. Imagine, you are just through the green light at Beacon St, when you are forced once again immediately to wait at another traffic light. 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) Harvard St widens to two lanes just before and through the Beacon St. intersection, then suddenly tapers down to one lane 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 he cites concluded that the Green St. crosswalk did not seem to be a dominant issue creating backups. The 2009 study recommended changes, some of which have been implemented, such as re-timing the Babcock St. traffic light, and removing the on street parking along Harvard St. between Beacon and Green St. Problem is, the full benefit of this measure has not been achieved because of lax enforcement, (there are always trucks and double parkers in this lane) and only 15% of drivers take advantage of the extra lane). The 2009 study does note that if all other options have been tried, and the crosswalk seems to be having a greater negative impact than it is now, then we could consider looking at a light. The petitioner claims we have tried all other options. Again, not true. There is incomplete compliance with the initial changes recommended and all other options for improvement had not been tried. . 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. See the analysis here.

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. As a resident of Brookline, Professor Furth noted how well the crosswalk works now and he values the crosswalk’s role in maintaining the safe, pedestrian friendly shopping district we all enjoy. Professor Furth’s study, complete with traffic flow simulations is the most in-depth 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 there has been support for the article, but there is also a clear sense, expressed by the Advisory Sub-Committee, Board of Selectmen and Transportation Board, 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 it’s not what it says it is.

The Board of Selectmen and the Transportation Board have pledged to study the Harvard/Beacon St. problem, in a holistic way, without preconceived ideas, whether or not the resolution passes. Town Meeting should send the right message to the Selectmen and Transportation Board, by defeating Article 13. We would then be letting the professionals do their job and encouraging the Town to work towards better, more cost effective solutions, not wasting our Town resources going after a damaging, expensive, idea that will make things worse.

The author wishes to acknowledge and thank Professor Peter Furth and his students for their analysis and professional perspective.

By Linda Olson Pehlke, Precinct 2 Town Meeting Member